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The Black Hole

The importance of leaving academic science on good terms


Over the years, our site has had many articles on two major themes: the education and training of scientists, and the effective transfer of knowledge between academic science and other sectors (e.g., industry, policy, science outreach).

Last week, Nature published a short interview with NIH Director Francis Collins concerning the policies being adopted to improve the training situation in biomedical sciences. Briefly, postdoc stipends will be increased along with the number of grants that encourage early career independence, and funding will be made available for training programs that prepare students for a broader set of career options. These are all welcome changes, of course, but I fear the problem of communication between sectors will remain unsolved unless trainees and educators fundamentally shift the way they view “non-academic” careers.

After admitting to not exposing his own trainees to multiple career options, Collins highlights the problem that I will spend the remainder of the article speaking to:

I worry that a number of them (postdocs) are receiving the message that if they don’t get a tenure-track position, they have failed. The good news is that nearly all postdocs are likely to be employed in interesting positions, but many will not travel a narrow academic path.

This is where the human element comes into play. Postdoctoral fellows are generally clever and successful people; they’ve finished at or near the top of their classes in high school and university and clearly like asking questions about things that have yet to be answered. The difficult disconnect comes when, for the first time in many of these people’s lives, they are being told, “No, sorry, you’re not good enough to go down that path, just go figure something else out.”

Many people will counter with arguments about huge swathes of postdocs who actually do not want to have a tenure track position. While data are being collected on this, the relationship that these postdocs have with academic science remains problematic. Observing and competing with the ambitious few who make it, it is reinforced over and over that these young scholars are not good enough to be at the top. This is completely and utterly appalling – it is a damaging cycle and it is sapping the motivation of our best and brightest.

The real problem comes when the majority (Collins quotes greater than 75%) of these people obtain non-tenure track jobs. Just like all the nasty emotions that flare up when you are rejected in a relationship, science leaves the bitter taste of failure and the defensive walls get built up. Is it possible that such walls are still intact when it comes to dealing with academics in future positions? I have visions of disgruntled former academic postdocs (getting more disgruntled as the human resource crisis escalates) being in science policy and industry positions and making the gap between governments, industry and academia grow even larger. We need to find ways to support the choices of trainees earlier and resist the demonization of non-academic career choices.

Research labs at universities should be places of training, not small businesses. Having a skilled worker move on to something else is potentially bad for business, but should be seen as an excellent end product for a university.

I am certainly not advocating for the pampering of graduate students and postdoctoral fellows, but there are several approaches that I will propose in my next post to take better advantage of the huge investment that we make in the training of these young scholars. Career training programs like those the NIH will support are a good step, but until postdoctoral fellows stop flying under the radar of their supervisor when they partake in such programs, we’ll still be constructing walls that will need to be torn down later.

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. Kevin Mc. / January 21, 2013 at 15:55

    I’m currently in this transitional situation. Job offers in academia are non-existent, but my passion for science remains. As I finish up my postdoc work (unpaid) because I need the publications, and think about my next step, I can honestly say that I would be ecstatic to be a research assistant in a junior to mid-career faculty member’s lab. I think this is a role that many PhD level scientists could fill very well and would help the field overall. I can work very independently and think critically. Optimize protocols, help with writing and statistics, etc… The role of the PI is going to be to leave the lab to concentrate on writing and administration. I want to stay in the lab and can help with much of that. And because my family is trying to be a two income house, I don’t even need to be paid that much. I’d gladly take a position that would allow me to use my passions and skills.

  2. SB / January 22, 2013 at 00:11

    One thing that has got to change, soon, is how the scientific community regards the attainment of an PI position; currently, most people seem to view it as summiting a mountain, and ending up in a different career is like you’ve made it only to base camp, or you’ve tried and failed at the ascent and had to turn back. I think it might be more productive to see becoming a prof as one of many possible and fun ski runs one can take once one has made it to the top of a mountain (i.e. got a PhD). Certainly, there are interesting differences between the routes, and some will wind up being more popular than others, but at the end of the day, most people would be reasonably happy skiing most routes on a given mountain, so it would be silly to try to arrange them into some kind of hierarchy, especially if the hierarchy is binary, and if the “desirable” set contains only one member.

    I also think it is sometimes helpful to view rejections in terms of a lack of a good fit, rather than through the stark lens of negative value judgements, but this is of course infinitely easier to visualize as a third party observer than as a rejectee.

  3. Beth / January 22, 2013 at 00:35

    It would interesting to see some research on how PhDs who traveled down a non-academic career path view academic scientists (i.e., your disgruntled former academics hypothesis). As a PhD who entered a non-academic career (n=1), I don’t have animosity towards academic scientists – in fact, I see part of my role as providing a link between the world of academics and the world of healthcare, with a goal of promoting the translation of knowledge into practice. I even have a few collaborations going on with academics – I’m just on the “knowledger user” side now instead of being on the “academic.”

    Also, I like SB’s metaphor of the many paths we can ski down the mountain! Far more positive (and constructive) way to view things than thinking that only those who get a PI position reach the summit!

  4. MAB / January 23, 2013 at 13:47

    Rather than the all-or-nothing image of scaling the summit of one’s education, I offer a career-path metaphor that I learned from a wise and brilliant career counsellor. She found that students frequently viewed their education path as a long hallway, with a single door looming at the end marked “My career.” She encouraged her students to re-imagine that hallway so that there were many doors down both sides, all of them potentially leading to fascinating, rewarding careers. Perhaps that’s a more realistic, and encouraging, metaphor for postdocs as well.

  5. Reuben Kaufman / January 23, 2013 at 14:29

    Another great post, David!

    And excellent comments too!