By Jesica Levingston Mac leod, PhD
It is a common conversation topic among researchers, but it was not until the NPR article saw the light, and the dark side, that the public realized the problems that young scientists are facing when pursuing a successful career in Academia. As we raise awareness about these tribulations, my colleagues mentioned how a “postdoc”’s quality life depends on the quality of the lab, the institution, the project, the relationships with colleagues and the Principal investigator or PI (the boss), not forgetting that this is a very self driven career. So, if your hypothesis is very difficult to prove, or you have been hitting your head against the wall with all the negative results that took you years to get, you may eventually come to hating this path and leaving Academia. The same if you have been working in a non “hot field” where the funding sources do not consider interesting enough to support or your PI is not supportive, or you have a very wicked competence inside or outside the lab. All these negative situations can aggravate the perspective of the very little options one may have by pursuing a career in Academia. On the other hand, if you are obtaining excellent results, publishing in top tier journals, made hundreds of good connections and collaborators, have a “great boss” and literally love you job… well, probably you are also doomed…
One solution could be implementing the business approach to the scientific mindset: Why only having one PI per lab? At the end, two minds think more than 1. Perhaps collaborative research centers have a solution were 2 or more PIs can have access to more equipment, grants and professionals, and therefore use the best skills needed for the job, like a company where you have an executive committee and you distribute the stock between the employees, in order to make them be part of the enterprise.
Having a business mindset would mean to have a planed strategy about your career development. Having a backup career plan is one example of this: starting to apply for jobs before needed, or before it is too late. Begin with your preparation to be a leader, and make your PI know, and discuss a good starting point. Look for leadership opportunities in any situations, such as coordinating workshops or conferences.
Sign up to run workshops and career developing series!. Many postdocs can discover a great professional gain if these opportunities would be offer to them. Get training in other expertise to be competitive in, for example, the investing or consulting field. Taking classes about how to give a class is a great example of a course that could be offered to postdocs and graduate students, in order to train them to explain and transfer their empirical knowledge to the next generation.
A month ago, at the Mount Sinai Postdoc symposium, Dr. Bruce Alberts (yes, THE Alberts, from “The Molecular Biology of the Cell” book) who spoke about “The Future of Biology: Keeping Science Healthy” and illustrated the dramatic changes in the age of the scientist successfully obtaining project grants from NIH. In contrast to 30 years ago, the average age of new investigators with PhD at initial RO1 was 36.8 year old, a large number of grants were awarded to scientist in their early 30s, but this tendency has been decreasing drastically, to the point where now, the mean age for receiving these prestigious grants is 42 years of age. Dr. Alberts, himself, made fun on the fact that he obtained his postdoc position, before been awarded with his PhD. (which actually his thesis was rejected the first time, delaying the whole process) and learned from his failures. He also pointed out that he got his professor position at a very young age, something that is almost impossible nowadays. He advocated for a change in this unfair situation, which cripples the young innovators from getting a start. Also, he encouraged researchers to get out of the lab and talk to the public about science and its importance. First, to attract/engage curious minds to the scientific field, and second to communicate “in simple language” what we do for 9 hours plus per day in the lab.
We must offer to all this new scientific minds the reality about the current situation of science, but we also need to fix it, so it is not going to turn into a snow ball and make disappear all the interest in pursuing a scientific career for the new generations. In a business mind-set we must recognize that the money is not only in the governmental funding, but also in private foundations and other organizations like angels or venture capitals. So go out there and try to pitch your science to investors.