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The Black Hole

Novel ideas for the biomedical research workforce, anyone in Canada listening?


Earlier this summer, two major reports were released from the U.S. National Institutes of Health and the National Academy of Sciences. Beryl Lieff Benderly offers an excellent, though slightly pessimistic, summary of the reports and their potential implications on the Science Careers site and this is well worth a read if you’re not willing to wade through the over 400 pages combined. If you do read through the reports outside of your day job, it will likely take you as long as me to form some opinions on their contents and whether or not they can work in practice. The reports cover much more than what I will talk about below, but I’ve tried to pull out some ideas that I think Canadian universities and policy makers would do well to pay attention to.

On a side note, the Canadian Association of  Postdoctoral Scholars is looking to collate the opinions of its postdocs (all of those working in Canada and Canadians abroad) to help focus its advocacy efforts on the key issues for early career researchers in Canada. Please visit their website and Facebook page if you would like to share your thoughts (or leave them below).

The three items arising from these reports that I was particularly impressed with are:

  1. Reduce the time to complete a PhD
  2. More fellowships, less grant funded PDFs
  3. Two streams: Scientist and Academic

1. Reduce the time to complete a PhD

My PhD took 5 1/2 years to complete and, as someone who is at least curious about the prospect of running my own lab, I see enormous benefit from the extra time in training over a 3-4 year PhD.  My final two years were easily my most productive and I was able to build networks of scientists through a lengthy stay at a single institution. Was it necessary for this time to be spent entirely as a graduate student though? The ability to assess information critically and design good experiments can surely be taught in the first  three to four years — if people need the time for finishing PhD research projects for publications, let them take on a year or two of postdoctoral work in their PhD lab. It is simply unfair to expect someone who is getting a PhD for a purpose other than becoming an academic to spend five to seven years (the 2006 median in the U.S. was actually 7.9 years) of their twenties in graduate school. If we beat the drum about the need for PhD quality scientists in law, journalism and public policy, then we must come up with ways to train them more efficiently.

Graduate programs at Canadian universities should be substantially shorter and broadly inclusive of all types of graduate students — from those driven to become professors to those looking to acquire the skills of a doctorate for another profession.

2. More fellowships, less grant-funded PDFs

An interesting table is presented in the NIH report that shows the relative future success of NIH fellowship funded vs. grant-funded postdoctoral fellows. Both the average time to obtaining a first operating grant (RO1) and the average success rate is substantially higher for those on fellowships (5.3 years, 48.3%) compared to those funded from grants (6.5 years, 32.5%).  The cynic would say that these numbers simply represent being on the gravy train where each award breeds the next, just as papers from well-known labs are purported to get an easier ride in big journals. However, I would argue that this makes an even stronger case for making more fellowships available in lieu of grant-funded posts where more “chances” can be taken by award committee members. Furthermore, the NIH report makes an excellent point that few, if any, mechanisms exist to judge the quality of training given to a grant-funded researcher. More fellowships would allow better tracking and quality control of training environments.

Will Canada’s granting agencies do the same? It sure as hell makes for better press than NSERC’s 9% success rate in PDF fellowships…

3. Two streams: Scientist and Academic

Though the timing can be quite varied, many of those who hold a PhD realize that they have a preference for bench work compared to running their own group. It seems to me that professors can recognize who the most valuable members of their research team are, but it also seems that the careers that get best supported are the ones that shoot for independent investigator. If a postdoctoral fellow is highly skilled and does not want to run their own group, wouldn’t it make sense to put them in permanent positions that have good salaries and benefits? We’ve written about this before in a previous entry, The solution: Hire scientists to do scientific research… On this note I have to share the pessimistic view of Ms. Lieff Benderly on the kitten-strength recommendation from the NIH:

“The working group encourages NIH study sections to be receptive to grant applications that include staff  scientists and urges institutions to create position categories that reflect the value and stature of these researchers.”

Will universities and research institutes step up to the plate and hire departmental research scientists, or will research scientists be forced to depend on their supervisors’ grant wrangling skills? My bet is on the latter if there is no obvious benefit for research institutions.

In conclusion, I hope that all of those who work for a granting agency, university or research institute will read these reports. Understand that there has been a dramatic change in the biomedical research workforce over the last decade and try to address the changes. Shorten the PhD, reward researchers on merit, and let scientists do scientific research for a career.

David Kent
Dr. David Kent is a principal investigator at the York Biomedical Research Institute at the University of York, York, UK. He trained at Western University and the University of British Columbia before spending 10 years at the University of Cambridge, UK where he ran his research group until 2019. His laboratory's research focuses on the fundamental biology of blood stem cells and how changes in their regulation lead to cancers. David has a long history of public engagement and outreach including the creation of The Black Hole in 2009.
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  1. Dave K / July 25, 2012 at 04:22

    Update: I thought it would be worth sharing some comments that came through on reddit. Please feel free to join the discussion:

    I agree with the staff scientist suggestion. Strongly. More funding for long-term contracted staff scientist positions and less emphasis on getting that labor out of short term student labor is key to improving the current race to the bottom that is a lot of academic science.

    shorter PhDs…you mean like the rest of the world has been doing forever?
    Also, though I agree with the notion of shorter school-time, one can not always guarantee completion of sufficient work within a short time…sometimes experiments/avenues just don’t pan out.

    There is nothing inherently wrong with longer PhDs so long as PhD studentships are treated as a professional position rather than a studentship. PhDs can and should be longer if that will help students attain a quality publishing record and get good research experience. Unfortunately, in many cases the longer PhD is more about keeping cheap exploitable labor around a lab, and that’s bullshit.

  2. S C / August 15, 2012 at 12:35

    Great post and I would like to reiterate a couple of points:

    1. More staff scientists and less PDFs would be a great idea. People need more stability in their lives and not everyone would/could/should be a PI.

    2. In a similar vein, having more Research Assistant Professor positions would give many postdocs a foot in the door. The University of Calgary is already going in this direction. After 5-10 yrs, the better performers could be offered tenure instead of recruiting a fresh person in the tenure-track to begin with. Just an idea…. what do others think?

    3. Not sure if shortening PhD is the way to go. Canadian PhDs in biomedical sciences do not seem to be too long- 4.5-5.5 yrs is quite standard. I would rather stay an extra year if it gives me acouple more papers than be in a hurry to get out. Not sure if I totally buy the ‘exploitation’ angle though- if you are getting paid, getting a degree in the end, getting your name in papers and abstracts……then it’s not such a bad deal.

    Just my C$ 0.02