Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Post Docs: A Career Choice?

In the current issue of Nature there is a superb discussion of the post-doc phenomenon. Simply stated, there has been an explosion in post-docs, even in such applied fields as engineering. Frankly give the Silicon Valley world etc one wonders why there is even a post doc in an engineering school, they should be out earning a living doing engineering. Engineers with PhDs are trained to do engineering, that ultimately means doing something to make something, not research for the sake of research.

How did this come about? Simple, the Government and its funding mandates. Now we see the big name labs. Got to any campus and you will not see say the "Antibody Lab" or the "Electromagnetic Lab". You now see the "Joe Smith Lab" in the "Sally Jones Center" of the "Fred Brown School" of the XYZ University. Everything has a name of some person; researcher of funder. Strange, imaging the MIT Rad Lab being the "Harry Hopkins Lab" for example.

The Government now funds well funded labs which are few but they get bigger by getting more low cost researchers. The researchers in question are post-docs, paid less than most of the cleaning help, and working three times as hard. They somehow "believe" that they are doing productive research and as a result will eventually get their own chance. My comment is; read whose name is on the Lab Door, the Building Entry etc.

Secondly the Government now also wants both multidisciplinary and multi-institutional funded research. Thus we have papers with fifty authors. That means that tenure opportunities get muddled, one may ask what "you" really did.

As Nature states:

These highly skilled scientists are a major engine driving scientific research, yet they are often poorly rewarded and have no way to progress in academia. The number of postdocs in science has ballooned: in the United States alone, it jumped by 150% between 2000 and 2012. But the number of tenured and other full-time faculty positions has plateaued and, in some places, it is even shrinking . Many postdocs move on to fulfilling careers elsewhere, but those who want to continue in research can find themselves thwarted. They end up trapped as ‘permadocs’: doing multiple postdoc terms, staying in these positions for many years and, in a small but significant proportion, never leaving them. Of the more than 40,000 US postdocs in 2013, almost 4,000 had been so for more than 6 years

 Is there a solution to such a problem? I believe there is. One saw it after WW 2 with such Labs as Lincoln, Hopkins, JPL, and the like. They were non-departmental laboratories doing research and were off campus. One was an employee of the Lab and one could advance. One had the dignity of being employed, compensated on industry par and yet "affiliated" with a first class institution.

Perhaps getting the post-docs, who are professionals, into a professional environment is a reasonable alternative. The current system is unsustainable.