I had a great chat with someone last night who put me onto two great examples of cutting edge peer review:
First, as of 2009 the European Molecular Biology Organization Journal publishes a review process file which details the correspondence between authors, editors, and reviewers – still anonymous, but WOW what an improvement… some light is finally getting into the black box
Second, I mentioned the PLoS group in an earlier post and their journal PLoS Medicine have encouraged optional open peer review, a great start, but I think that in order for this to work, you need everyone to play nice…
Say NO to the Second PDF
I’ll warn you in advance, this blog entry is pretty controversial… it poses some difficult questions that we don’t often want to ask ourselves, and I was further encouraged to take this matter head on by a recent comment responding to one of Beth’s earlier entries on Why PhDs leave Academia .
The United States numbers say that the vast majority (>80%) of PhDs in Science and Engineering will NOT become tenure track university professors. In Canada from the CAPS November 2009 report: “In 1986, 34% of Canada’s PhDs were university professors whereas it was 24% in 2001, a decline of 10 percentage points in 15 years. Further decreases are predicted given that enrolment in doctoral programs is far outpacing the increase in full time university professors. In 2007/2008, enrolment at the doctorate level was 40,400, an increase of 62% from 2001/2002.”
I, like others in the PhD and PDF stage, cringe at such numbers. Two major questions that I always have are:
- Why are 100% of people being trained to become a PI when only ~20% “make it”, with a niggling follow-up of if we don’t “make it”, why do we feel like failures?
- How many inside of this statistic actively make the choice and how many feel forced out?
The first has plagued policy makers and university administrators for years. There are a couple of really interesting tensions that contribute:
- Universities want more PhD students – they make more money. And I don’t mean your tuition fees… I mean the nice subsidy that comes from governments to have you enrolled
- Graduate programs that provide business training (or even full fledged MBAs) to science based MSc and/or PhD students have been criticized for using public monies to fund industry training
- Many professors want their students in the lab not out exploring alternative careers like journalism, law, or industry
The second is an even tougher one, because little of this data is ever collected and it’s extremely tough to analyze even if it is collected. It does, however, bring us to a critical point in a PhD/PDFs career – do I make the push for an tenure track faculty spot or am I off to explore something else? We all have to make the choice… this blog entry argues to make it sooner rather than later.
If I was to get full answers to my questions, the trend would not change, it would simply be easier to understand and eventually manage. If I imagine the possible answers though, I can’t help but continually arrive at a significant issue that causes big trouble… I believe that the “second Post Doc” is a major source of long term parking charges (both professionally and personally) collected in the Academic Parking Lot .
1. There is no degree at the end, no metric to be judged on… once you have acquired “post doctoral experience”, the difference between 3 years and 7 years is incremental at best when it comes to looking at your CV. Yes, you’re actually more experienced and more qualified and yes, there are always exceptions (i.e.: chasing a HUGE story that made you move to a different lab that could answer the question), but the difference on paper (unless it’s accompanied by a long series of papers), is minimal.
2. It takes at least 6 months (and sometimes longer) to get established in the new location – this is on top of the time block that you already lost in your first PDF and creates another gap in your record – remember… there’s even another gap waiting if you do land the professor job.
3. Most major granting councils are funding at a rate somewhere in between 15 and 20%. If you’ve been a PDF for 3-5 years and aren’t yet competitive for an academic job – is it reasonable to expect that you’ll be competitive for research grants later on in your career?
4. The second PDF is an extension of the problem that plagues far too many people in our generation – the apathetic I-can-choose-anything-but-I-don’t-know-what generation. It seems that for many of us, you go through high school, do well in science and math because that’s what the “smart kids” are good at (don’t even get me started on how wrong this type of thinking is), you go to a university that has a good chance of getting you into law school, dentistry, or medicine because those are the only careers you’ve ever heard of (really… did you just “know” you wanted to be a grad student/PDF/professor?), you land in a science faculty, realize you don’t like idea of medical school and this “research thing” might be a good route (seems flexible enough, not closing any doors), get convinced/bullied into doing a PhD right away because no big labs want to waste their time with a 2-3 year Masters student, finish that PhD ( 30-40% admittedly do jump ship ), go do a post doc, because you certainly can’t get a tenure track job yet and you’re not ready to “leave science”, and then… you’re here… in the first post doc, why not do a second (seems flexible enough, not closing any doors… right… right?). Yes, you detected some sarcasm in there.
Of course there are exceptions… because post docs are a heterogeneous bunch – some have families that keep them tied to a particular city and others get unlucky with the first post doc and need to extract themselves. The alternatives to a second PDF are plentiful and Beth will be expanding on many of the career options in her blog entries. Another great resource that might help is the National Post Doc Association’s Career Planning Resources page .
The position that I would lobby for that doesn’t exist in many institutes in Canada but is becoming increasingly popular around here in Cambridge is the staff scientist position (though it goes by many different names). In essence, this is the home for the person that loves benchwork, science, and occasionally dwelling on the bigger picture but is not into teaching at the university or supervising students and…they hate the idea of grant writing. It pays well, has as much job security as “normal” jobs, has great benefits, and doesn’t (usually!) require weekends and evenings. I don’t quite have a grasp on where the money comes from or how this is all organized (I’m looking!), but I suspect it goes back to what you can actually have covered in your grant and what sort of core operating funds are available. Check out the Sanger Job Opportunities page for an example.
Personally, I’m tickled by the idea of possibly becoming a tenure track prof, I think I’d love it and I’m setting my sights for it… but… if I’m in the lab of my first PDF and after 3-5 years I don’t even really get considered for faculty jobs, I will definitely re-evaluate and move against the poisonous trend that we are collectively undertaking…
I will say NO to the second post doc and I encourage you all to do the same.