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The Black Hole

Tough love and a plan for the future – CSPC panel recap


As our readers know, we ran a panel discussion last month in Toronto at the 5th Annual Canadian Science Policy Conference. It was a packed room and the panel featured heated exchanges at some points (even between panellists!). Many diverse opinions were shared, pointing to a clear need for academic-training reform.

Chris Corkery began by representing the Canadian Association of Postdoctoral Scholars and their recent survey findings from ~20% of Canadian postdoctoral scholars. This launched the panel discussion by showing that early career researchers in the postdoctoral stage were a growing cohort of young bright minds in their mid-30s who aspired to becoming career researchers, but found themselves in a temporary holding zone when it came to career options.

A major policy issue for Canadian universities, governments and industry is how to avoid wasting such talented individuals that represent a major national investment. We set up three perspectives to engage this issue: Rob Annan from Mitacs delivered a talk on Mitacs’ suite of programs to facilitate the transition of trainees into industrial placements, Mawana Pongo spoke of the need for governments to invest in young trainees and the creation of 2,000 fellow positions and 1,000 professor positions, and Ben Neel spoke about the view from research-focused academic institutes and “tough love” for trainees

Dr. Neel’s was perhaps the most provocative presentation, arguing that graduate students and postdoctoral fellows needed to be given a “tough love” message more often than they appeared to be receiving currently. He argued that trainees needed to become masters of their own destiny and that things “aren’t that different” to when he trained (despite admitting that the numbers of scientists being trained has far outstripped new faculty positions). Dr. Neel made some solid arguments – PhD students and postdoctoral fellows have never been particularly well compensated for their educational standing and academic jobs have never been what the majority of people end up doing, and that the real disaster is the reduction in science funding.

Where does this leave us in the policy world? Three main questions need answers:

  1. Should there be multiple career streams for publicly funded researchers?
  2. Should the time to complete a PhD be reduced? (And if so, how can this be achieved?)
  3. Should PhD researchers be treated like medical residents and junior accountants despite unclear career outcomes?

After our panel, CSPC President Mehrdad Hariri asked if we would consider continuing the conversation through CSPC. If this takes place, we’ll certainly let readers know. In the interim, start the conversation below and we’ll collate the responses in our next quarterly summary. As I’ve said many times before, there is little obvious incentive for anyone else to fix academic training, so it’s up to researchers to fix their own system.

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. Karissa / December 4, 2013 at 12:56

    Dr. Neel is right in pointing out that this is hardly a new issue, but the tragedy is in the numbers. It’s no secret that overwhelmingly, MSc and PhD graduates are leaving academia to find better job prospects. As the proportion of these academic emigrants rises, why do so many MSc and PhD programs continue to train them as if they will stay? And then wonder why their trainees feel as if they’ve wasted their time?

    Programs like those offered by Mitacs are great, but we are right to also expect our university programs to adapt accordingly. It’s easy to throw it on the students and say “toughen up and deal with it”, but the hole we jump in is one dug for us by our training. We can discuss the length of these degrees all we want, but until they become more flexible and accommodating to the students who won’t continue in academia, we will continue to funnel far too many people in the direction of far too few jobs.

    • Comrade / December 4, 2013 at 14:42

      “why do so many MSc and PhD programs continue to train them as if they will stay?”

      Because R&D in academia is dependent on cheap labour. A PhD student costs the university ~10k per year (stipend minus tuition), and a postdoc ~35k if paid from PI grants or nothing if they are on fellowship. Both are typically working 50-60 hours per week without benefits.

      As long as there is a sufficient supply of qualified people willing to do the work at these levels of pay, there is no economic reason to change the status quo.

  2. David K / December 6, 2013 at 03:45

    Thanks for your comments Karissa and Comrade.

    Q: Should academic training be viewed as a labour supply/demand problem? Is research the only output to be measured? What about the value of training good people for all sectors of society….?

    Karissa – your comment re: training length when it comes to non-academic careers is spot-on… it saddens me to see people spending 7-8 years on a PhD that does not result in an academic job.

    For me (on the academic job track), I found the longish PhD (just under 6 yrs) a benefit (riskier projects, more time to publish, etc) – but if I wanted to move into a different career (e.g., science writing) I might feel differently about the amount of my 20s spent in the lab.

  3. BS / December 7, 2013 at 10:44

    Very good article and its nice to hear about discussions happening in a more public forum. Makes this issue harder to ignore. I think we do have a supply/demand problem on our hands and that can only be helped by Universities limiting enrollment, or the funding agencies providing more money to accommodate more researchers. I don’t disagree with the “tough love” approach once the supply/demand issue is dealt with. Being a scientist is difficult at the best of times, but at this point the shear volume of trainees makes staying in academia is nearly impossible.

  4. Peter / December 10, 2013 at 10:34

    Good to have this discussion. PhD programs should be broadened to train for more than just the academic track. For postdocs, I feel like it is also your own responsibility to keep other options open. And what if everybody would pay PhD students as postdocs and postdocs as technicians? There would be less trainees (because PIs can’t afford them), relatively more technical support, and the ones that do get through it all will not feel as underappreciated.

  5. Corinne / December 16, 2013 at 10:10

    I think there’s definitely an issue regarding the time frame to completing graduate studies unless one stays in academia. I’ve seen many PhDs take 7-8 years with little added benefit other than cheap labour for the supervisors. Personally, I did benefit from the 6 years spent on my PhD, but I may have reaped even more benefit from a 4 year PhD + 2 year postdoc at the same institution. At my graduate university, it seemed very easy to obtain extension after extension to a PhD. If this were not possible, supervisors would have an incentive to bring students to graduation in a reasonable time frame as I’ve seen at universities in Québec (4 years, max 5) or French universities (3 years). I believe university administrations and the faculty of graduate studies could play a critical role in solving this issue. Perhaps this could be seen as “tough love” (for both the student and the supervisor) – graduate in 4-5 years or you’re out. What do you think?