Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Bleak outlook for academic postdocs

This article in Nature offers a bleak outlook for science postdocs.

The problem is the aggregation of individual human actions. If the system as a whole could change (as per the US National Academies' recommendation, or the article's call for synchronized, systemic global change), then the problem would be easily fixed. Of course! Simplify away all the complexities, and a theoretical approach can surely offer many solutions [she says, tongue-in-cheek].

In the absence of unanimous, organized global overhaul of the scientific research system, what to do? I take the retrospective of Dr. Thuault-Restituito seriously. I have come to a similar conclusion, luckily much earlier in "the pipeline." I am lucky to have the luxury of choice --- if the system is not treating me nicely, I can take my training and education and leave. I can contribute, and find stable, productive, interesting employment elsewhere. I am mentally and personally flexible. I can switch universities, or countries. I can leave academia. If everyone had such freedom (and stubborn self-respect), then again we would find ourselves in a simplified system where decade-long underpaid, precariously-renewed postdocs are eliminated, for lack of a population willing to subjugate themselves to such treatment.

Aside from solving my own (local) problem by simply refusing to participate, I feel some social obligation to contribute to improving the complicated system as a whole. I'm just not sure how to do that from my current position (or indeed from any position whatsoever, even as director of an entire government's science funding agency).

As with all things in science, we continue to fumble towards* understanding and improvement.

This post's theme word is lebensraum, "space required for living, growth, and development." Some postdocs are academic bonsai, continually pruned and hemmed-in, prevented from obtaining the lebensraum needed to progress professionally.

*my least-favorite preposition to see in any scientific context, esp. when accompanied by "understanding"!

No comments: