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The Black Hole

The solution: Hire scientists to do scientific research…

The PDF pool is growing because more are entering, fewer are exiting and the average length of stay is longer… is this a bad thing? In our current system I don’t think it is so bad, because there is demand for the research to get done and PDFs can do it… but, the way we handle/define/support this class of workers needs to change.


The solution: Hire scientists to do scientific research…
After being told: “The files are in the computer” the boys look at each other and say “It’s so simple… the files are in the computer…”

While sometimes we are accused of not being able to see outside the box, this clip makes us see that sometimes we can’t even realize how to access the simplest things inside the box. Hence the title of this entry…

I just finished listening to an excellent podcast where Canadian Association of Post Doctoral Scholars President Marianne Stanford spoke with CAGS president Carolyn Watters. Marianne speaks about the plight of PDFs in Canada (and internationally) and the topic du jour for the CAPS folks is the size of, and the length of average occupancy in, the academic parking lot.

This is a very specific example of the shift in human resources that I mentioned in an earlier blog entry. The PDF pool is growing because more are entering, fewer are exiting and the average length of stay is longer… is this a bad thing? In our current system I don’t think it is so bad, because there is demand for the research to get done and PDFs can do it… but, the way we handle/define/support this class of workers needs to change.

Some things that underpin the growth of the sector are:
1. More research is being conducted (and PDFs are first author of ~40% of Science papers)
2. Growth in PhD training is not being met by creation of new professor positions
3. PDF skill sets are an inconsistent and undefined quantity
4. There are very limited options outside of a PDF for those who wish to continue doing research at academic institutions

More research = need for PDFs
The biomedical field is one of the best funded and the public wants to have more treatments, cures, drugs, etc. The reason the post doc pool is growing so fast is that they are required in order to get the research produced. It really almost is as simple as the supply and demand comment made by Cora in the comments section of my  Say NO to the Second Post Doc entry .

(Interestingly, in the Humanities, the pressure appears to be a lack of undergraduate teacher supply (read exploited sessional instructors) whereas in medical science it’s a lack of hands/minds to do physical lab research (read exploitation of PDFs)).

++++PhDs, ++PDFs, but only +Professors

As I mentioned in the Say NO to the Second Post Doc entry , we can’t realistically expect a major increase in professor positions – so what are people supposed to do? It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to realize that labs with 11 post docs are not sustainable if all 11 PDFs want to become professors. This certainly increases the size of the PDF pool, and the careers that Beth has been putting forward need to be explored with great vigour.

Dean Carolyn Watters queried whether new PDFs that focus on areas outside of research would be effective to help move PhDs into new fields outside of academic science. While wearing my professional development hat my mind’s eye get bubbly with excitement as it envisions policy/science PDFs, science writing/communication PDFs, etc…. but, and this is a huge BUT, how do we continue to meet the lab research needs if we pull people out of the research stream?

The PDF skill set – I don’t even know what I’m capable of…

The reason I list it as a contributing factor is twofold: First, I don’t think that most non-academic employers have a good idea of what a PDF is and what types of skills they have and second, many PDFs feel that they are not qualified for many job postings. Beth’s last entry really hit home for some people and emphasizes the need for the standard skills of a PDF – Marianne also mentioned this is the podcast above . The National Post Doc Association in America has clearly outlined these skills as the core competencies of a post doctoral fellow and have a great resource page on the mentoring of a PDF.

I’m a scientist, can I please do science experiments?

Why does the academic enterprise force the vast majority of scientists to stop doing bench work? As a PDF, you’re not likely to move on to work as a lab technician nor are you likely to do many experiments as a professor… so how exactly could you imagine continuing as a scientist in academia (this of course excludes the very real, but not for everybody and sometimes hard to find, opportunities in industry, government labs, etc)…

The answer in my mind and the point of this blog entry is to have CORE FUNDING FOR RESEARCH SCIENTISTS – we seem to have created permanent (read “job-like”) positions for grant facilitators, project managers, human resources managers, accountants, etc as essential components of the research enterprise… why not scientists?

Create respectable, well-compensated positions for PhDs who love bench work, love exploring new ideas, love academic lab environments, but are simply not going to (nor do they want to) run their own lab. A true post doctoral fellow position should be occupied by someone who is explicitly involved in a purposeful temporary training experience: re-tooling, gaining research independence with the intention to move on to start their own group. If you want hands to drive projects that fall outside of a technician’s role – hire a scientist, pay them well, keep them happy, and watch the benefits roll in.

PS: As we speak, the person behind me in the lab is a 15 yr lab veteran (originally a PDF, now called a research scientist) – she gets paid well, knows everything in the lab, is extremely independent, and continues to publish well (and as first author)… where is this position in Canada???

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. Cathy / December 2, 2009 at 02:00

    These positions are available in Canada, at least in Vancouver. If you have been a PDF for 2 years or so (and been productive) and the lab has money, there is the opportunity to be a ‘research scientist’. I was in this position and several (at least 3) of my friends had this opportunity. However, 2 of the friends opted for another PDF in the hope that they would one day run their own lab.

  2. Dave / December 2, 2009 at 10:48

    Hi Cathy,
    Research scientist definitely sounds like the type of thing I’d be describing and advocating for…
    Is it possible to give us a sense of the following (you can email me if you’d rather not post it at [email protected]):
    1) Are they competitive wages (i.e.: is it a reasonable “career choice”)
    2) Are they transient or permanent? or at least how long is the typical contract for…?
    3) Do they get employee status (i.e.: you pay into CPP, EI, and get a health plan)
    I know these may end up being lab or institute specific but any information you could provide would be great. Your comment (and others from other people) is exactly what people need to know is out there and possible. Are these positions common across the country? I suspect some labs in Montreal, Vancouver, and Toronto have created these positions, but I have no idea of the frequency. Is it enough to start chipping away at the Academic Parking Lot or are people generally pushing full throttle (like your 2 friends) for professor positions and some make it and some don’t?
    Does everyone in a second PDF want to be a professor???

  3. Marianne / December 2, 2009 at 15:53

    Hi all,
    These ‘research scientist’ (aka research associate, research scientist, staff scientist etc) positions do exist in some form at nearly every Canadian Institution. The issue is that many PDFs aren’t offered the opportunity to enter into these positions, or they are simply not stable/competitive enough to foster the movement of PDFs from their postdoc (which they believe rightly or wrongly will lead to a better long term career) to these positions. I would require something better (read: better pay, benefits, and stability) than my current postdoc to move out of it to a research scientist position, even if it would allow me to keep doing science. I can do science in the private sector and be valued. Until Canadian Institutions VALUE those PhD’s who are not tenured professors, the academic parking lot will continue to grow.
    My two cents.

  4. SubC / December 2, 2009 at 20:33

    This is a great article and it correctly highlights the need for more semi-permanent research positions aka Research Associates. To provide an improved status/ benefits of RAs, these positions must be separately identified from postdoc positions. A PDf is a training positions which should NOT last beyond 5-6 yrs, the RA positions would on teh other hand, be a proper “job” for a more senior researcher with a PhD who has no desire to have a lab of his/ her own. Actually, in my current lab there is a postdoc (an excellent scientist) who is right now transitioning into a “Research Associate” position, which is what she had been aiming for.
    Also, there are now “Research Professor” positions being made available to senior research associates who would like to co-supervise grad students. The University of Calgary for one has recruited quite a few in the last few yrs. I am not sure whether these positions allow for being co-applicants on grants, but that would be a step in the right direction.

  5. Beth / December 3, 2009 at 04:14

    The first thing that comes to mind for me here is: where will the money for the Research Scientist/Research Associate salary come from? Currently, the major Canadian granting institutes do not allow anyone whose name is listed on a grant as (co-)investigator to take a salary from that grant – the assumption being that the university they work for is paying their salary. This was an issue we ran into when I worked for an independent research centre – the centre had very limited infrastructure money and grants could be used to pay support staff (such as research assistants, grants facilitator, etc.), but where to get the salary for the Research Associate who holds the grant was always a problem. Now, if these Research Associate positions were truly differentiated from PDFs, with the intent being that the Research Associate is a working scientist, but not one who seeks to have their own lab (and thus, doesn’t need to have their name on grants to get tenure), that would work… assuming the granting agencies agree to these higher paid (plus benefits) positions being a good use of the funds when you submit that budget.
    Just another piece of the puzzle to think about.

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