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Margaret Harris: May 2011 Archives

By Margaret Harris

Do we have too many PhD students? Should we be training them differently? What can we do to improve prospects for early-career researchers? Should the government get involved, or is this something the scientific community should handle on its own?

These were just some of the questions debated on Tuesday evening at London’s Royal Institution, where a crowd of about 50 gathered to air concerns about scientific careers before a panel that included UK science minister David Willetts and the Cambridge physicist Athene Donald. Organized by the pressure group Science is Vital, whose founder Jenny Rohn also appeared on the panel, the event aimed to move beyond the perennial debate about science funding to highlight other problems in science careers.

Panel moderator Evan Harris – himself a former MP and one-time science spokesman for the Liberal Democrats – began by asking everyone to “concentrate on the negative”, and audience members obliged. Short-term contracts for postdocs make career planning hard and family life impossible, said one. The constant need to get recommendations for the next short-term job discourages us from reporting bullying, added another. Janet Metcalfe of the career-development group Vitae argued that there is “not enough honesty” when senior scientists discuss job prospects with junior colleagues. One audience member even compared the current system – in which many PhD students and postdocs chase a tiny number of permanent jobs – to a pyramid scheme.

Some partial solutions did crop up in the discussion, including the idea of creating permanent “senior postdoc” roles for researchers who want to remain in science, but don’t want to manage a group. The existence of such roles would prevent some talented, well-trained people from leaving science, Rohn observed. However, she also suggested that senior academics had little incentive to make it happen, because PhD students did the same work and were much cheaper. “There is an inherent exploitation element to science careers,” she concluded.