Do STEM researchers need a career coach?

Many postdoctoral researchers and Ph.D. students questioned me during our discussions why they would need a career coach or a career accelerator. In their opinion, there many persons and online resources one can rely on for addressing such concerns.

First and foremost is the Ph.D. advisor or supervisor or Principal Investigator (PI). They can definitely mentor you to follow the steps they followed to reach their position. However, they might not be aware of the many different paths one can follow outside academia. Even when they are, they might not have the time needed to help you prepare and move there.

There are some (still few) institutions that operate career offices for postdoctoral researchers, like Stanford (USA), Cambridge (UK), and Ghent (Belgium). But what are your options if your institution has not established such an office yet? Or if it is understaffed and their capacity for personalized support for each researcher is limited?

You can also rely to fellow researchers, senior or peers, for advice and a listening ear. This is an excellent source of support, especially for “internal affairs“. However, these people might have a conflicting agenda (e.g., who reaches faster to tenure or how many apply for an under-the-radar advertised post for a profile similar to all lab members?). Also, they might have a very restricted viewpoint on what is available for you out there and is a good fit for you.

Consulting friends and family, including your significant other is another option. These people definitely care about you. They are able to support you, at least up to a point. Indeed, everyone follows their own career and have their own daily and long-term struggles. One big challenge is time availability. Can they be there for you when you need them and for as long as you need them in? This is not always feasible. And there is one more thing. People that are so close to you are probably not completely neutral, as you would expect. They can be rather biased on what is good for you and for them. Which is normal, isn’t it?

Last but not least, yourself. There are endless online resources and books you can consult by your own to improve and accelerate your career. If you can devote the time needed to study and consult all these, it is great, go for it! My blog is on these resources. Allow me to point just a few more of all available that I recommend:

However, you might prefer to invest your time to deepen the expertise in your research field. In this case, you can rely on the professional services of a career accelerator to help you reach your defined career goals faster. There are many different offerings you can benefit from: one-to-one sessions, structured group programs, coaching, mentoring, advising, tutorials on job seeking, resume and CV editing (you do know the difference of these two, don’t you?), maintaining a LinkedIn profile and social media presence, networking in conferences and other events, grant reviewing before submission, scientific paper proofreading, research project management, outreach and awareness activities, and personal skills development to name but a few.

I believe that one can collect all the necessary knowledge to advance their career. In the busy times we live, a career accelerator can help you switch to the fast lane. It is your decision.

Permadocs: An illusion of eternity

The postgraduate factory keeps producing Ph.D. holders at unprecedented speeds worldwide. Some of these people manage to figure out early that they will not reach a tenured professorship or even a tenure-track position. They will either move forward to a new career outside academia or seek another career path inside academia. The former is mentioned sometimes as a “post-academic” or “post-ac” career and the latter as an “alternative-academic” or “alt-ac” career. I do not endorse any of these terms as they imply that professoriate is the path to follow and all the rest are inferior options.

There is a third group of people, the “permanent postdoctoral” or “permadoc” researchers. Collectively, this term refers to people working many years in research labs funded by “soft-money” (e.g., grants, fellowships, and R&D projects). Effectively, they are “eternal” postdoctoral researchers without any job security. Also, they may face a salary cap that does not match their numerous years of experience, as funding agencies dictate the maximum amount they can receive (e.g., FWF in Austria). Despite all these, there are a lot of permadocs: 10% of all USA postdocs in 2013.

There are many reasons why one sticks (or stucks) to be a permadoc. Some hope that once the professor goes into pension, they will be the (obvious) replacement. It sounds like a really long time investment for securing a job, doesn’t it? Some become bound to a specific location (e.g., because of the “two body problem“). But what happens when your lab decides to switch institutions? Some people enrolled in a Ph.D. program because they love science and want to continue their research without elevating to principal investigators or professors. Can they?

There have been attempts in many countries (e.g., the 6-year limit in Germany) to reduce the time one stays in fixed-term-contract postdoc positions. This article summarizes nicely such attempts, their severe side effects, and bypasses. And so does PHD Comics:

“Piled Higher and Deeper” by Jorge Cham – www.phdcomics.com

As scientific research becomes more and more complex and interdisciplinary, we need experienced people with deep expertise to run and manage large labs and infrastructures. Still, the academia has not evolved to create an intermediate level of staff scientists in research-intensive institutions. One can either be a Ph.D. student aiming for the thesis or a tenure(-track) professor. And in between, the void filled by short-term contracts for postdoctoral researchers. There are no institutionalized positions for permanent research staff to support the needs for modern research. Despite people actually enjoying to serve such a role. I cannot imagine for example how a tenured professor of medicine can do all the administrative and management work needed to run a University research lab of 20-30 persons without the support of experienced collaborators (e.g., lab managers in biomedical sciences). Neither I can imagine that a lab can afford to recycle and retrain postdocs every few years, losing in the meantime all the collected knowledge due to the departures.

My strong opinion is that universities must create tenured (i.e., permanently-funded) staff scientist positions for their research labs and for as long as the labs operate. It is the least gesture of appreciation to all the hard work these permadocs put each and every day. Hiding them in fake “administrative staff” and “teaching staff” positions or making them run from the one grant application to another for a fixed, low salary is both inappropriate and demotivating.

The Game of Thrones in Austria

In my previous posts, I discussed about investing your time in Ph.D. training aiming as a return to get a (full) Professor position at a University. I also commented on how similar tenure can be with a technology startup.

At the closing event of the “Postdoc Forum Austria” in June 2017 (LinkedIn group and Facebook event), we discussed about the apparent lack of numbers in Austria. As a follow-up, I did some desk research. There are indeed nice numbers produced by the Bundesministerium für Wissenschaft, Forschung und Wirtschaft (BMWFW, Federal Ministry for Science, Research, and Economy) under their unidata initiative. And I guess this is the nice part of it. To boldly summarize:

The Austrian system outputs every two years more Ph.D. holders
than all tenured professor positions available in the country.

The number of Full Professors serving in an Austrian university increased by 295 (or 13.4%) from 2005 to 2016. There are on average 25 more new Full Professor positions each year in Austria.

Full Professors in Austrian Universities (2005-2016)

There were no Associate or Assistant Professor positions until 2009, according to unidata. The number of Associate Professors increased ninefold, from 85 in 2010 to 752 in 2016. In contrast, the number of Assistant Professors increased by 120%, from 284 in 2010 to 626 in 2016.

By the end of 2016, there are 3.872 professors of all ranks serving at an Austrian university. When adding these additional 1,378 professors, there are on average 139 more new tenured professor positions each year in Austria.

Professors in Austrian Universities by Rank (2005-2016)

Let’s turn our focus now on the production of candidates to fill these positions. A Ph.D. degree is the absolute minimum requirement for being eligible to bid for these positions (there are some corner cases but we ignore them for the sake of simplicity). So, how is the local (Austrian) system doing? Does it produce enough educated and trained people or Austria has to rely on help from abroad?

Ph.D. enrollments in Austrian universities (2001-2016)

In the winter semester of 2016, there were more than 25.000 active enrollments for a Ph.D. degree in Austrian universities  (Source: unidata Doktoratsstudien an Universitäten – Zeitreihe Wintersemester). You can check the distribution of these enrollments in different fields of study in the unidata report “Doktoratsstudien auf Studium-Ebene“. Do you know what happened in 2001 that caused people to stop their Ph.D. studies en masse? Or in 2009 that they enrolled en masse again? If yes, please, drop me a message. Thank you!

Let me interpret the available numbers. For more than 15 years now, there are on average 23.000 persons pursuing a Ph.D. degree in Austria. At the same time, there are on average 139 new tenured professor positions in the Austrian universities.

I am not sure if it is a relief but the number of new enrollments for a Ph.D. is steadily dropping, driven by the Austrian students not enrolling as much as before. Once more, if you know what happened in 2009, please do drop me a message. Thank you!

New enrollments for Ph.D. studies at Austrian universities (2000-2016)

Still, one might claim that not all people enrolled for a Ph.D. degree will eventually get it. Let’s turn our focus on how many Ph.D. degrees are awarded each year. Again, unidata is the valuable source of information. The report “Studienabschlüsse von Doktoratsstudien auf Studium-Ebene” provides a detailed analysis per degree type. Here, we focus on the aggregate numbers across all disciplines.

Awarded Ph.D. degrees by Austrian universities (2001-2016)

There are 2,200 new Ph.D. degrees awarded each year by Austrian universities. At the same time, tenured positions expand by 139 every year. On average. Allow me to oversimplify and state that there is a 6.3% probability to land in one of these new tenured professor positions.

There are other factors not accounted for (e.g., how many persons come with a Ph.D. from abroad to pursue (?) an academic career in Austria starting with a postdoctoral research contract, how many persons leave the country, how many tenured professors leave the system, etc.). I am not aware of any reliable source about these flows, apart from a study dating back in 2011. Judging by the situation in other countries, I doubt you can make that ratio better than 10% with all factors in.

To put that in perspective. Every two years the academic system of Austria outputs more Ph.D. holders than all the available tenured positions in Austria. Please, take a moment and think of it …

In summary:

Awarded Ph.D. degrees (cumulative) and number of professors (all ranks) in Austria (2005-2016)

The tenure and the startup

How similar is a tenure to a startup? In a previous post, I discussed about the postgraduate factory. There are multiple studies at different level of detail indicating that the probability of landing into a tenured professor position is less than 30% or even 1%, depending on the scientific field. One such plot was compiled in 2010 by the Royal Society for the policy document “The Scientific Century – securing our future prosperity“.

Careers in and outside science (UK Royal Society 2010)
Careers in and outside science (UK Royal Society 2010)

As shown in the diagram, almost 80% of the PhD holders end in careers outside the science sooner or later. A mere 0.45% will land into a professor position!

However, this is not local to the UK. A similar trend was observed for biomedical sciences in the USA by 2012, as depicted in the diagram below.

Where will a biology PhD take you in the USA (Infographic by Jessica Polka, 2012)

These number is even worse than launching a high-tech startup, raise venture capital, and grow rich. In which of the two paths would you invest for your life? There is no right or wrong answer for this but one should be provided or seek real data for an informed decision.

Academia and industry – an outdated stereotype

The old-school approach on scientific knowledge discovery (i.e., “research”) draws from medieval ages. The stereotype of “crazy” scientists has evolved over time to include bright minds isolated from the real world to study and advance our knowledge. The are still exceptions that validate this rule (e.g., the cases of Shinichi Mochizuki and Grigory Perelman).

There also endless discussions about “basic” or “pure” scientific research versus “applied” or “industrial”. Or “curiosity-driven” vs. “goal-driven”. Or “bottom-up” (proposed by the researchers themselves, e.g., the ERC grants in Europe) vs. “top-down” (e.g., the framework programme Horizon 2020 of the European Union). At an institutional level, the stereotype goes like “Universities do basic research”, then “research centers do the applied research” and link with the industry, and finally the industry finds out if the research products are of any use for their real-world challenges.

The world has changed. Long time now.

Academia and industry - Then and now (imaged adapted from original source of Tim Hart, Oxentia, Oxford University Innovation Ltd)
Academia and industry – Then and now (imaged adapted from original source of Tim Hart, Oxentia, Oxford University Innovation Ltd)

Universities proactively involve innovation management and technology transfer officers to link their research with commercial exploitation. The business world approaches Universities to partner in research. High-tech startups and spinoffs are all over the place. Clusters of excellence are formed breaking the isolation.

The borders of academia and industry are not there anymore. The production of scientific knowledge has become so complex that we cannot afford to work in isolation. Scientific entrepreneurship is discussed openly nowadays (e.g., at the “Network Friday 2017” event of the TU Wien innovation Incubation Center).

The many names of a postdoc researcher

Postdoc. Who is actually that?

The question strike me once more while attending the Postdoc Forum Austria 2016 event in Vienna, Austria. And once more while listening Episode 14: Are you still a scientist? of the Recovering Academic podcast.

I think that we tend to forget that “postdoc” is a actually an adjective, not a noun. One is a “postdoc researcher“, i.e., s/he is a researcher that completed the doctorate training and was awarded a Ph.D. degree. But how long can you be “post-” your Ph.D.? More importantly, what does this reflect on how people perceive you?

The view that I have developed over the years is that this term is anachronistic, referring to a time where (almost) everyone would get a tenured professor position in a University. In the past, the postdoctoral period of a researcher was the time between the Ph.D. being awarded and landing in a tenure (hopefully!) or tenure-track professor position. Why then call it in first place “postdoctoral” and not “pre-professorship“? I discussed in a previous post how far from reality this straightforward path is nowadays. Hence, we should change it to reflect current reality.

I consider it problematic also in the sense of timespan. See the difference in the perspective: “how many years after the Ph.D.” vs. “how many years before the tenure-track professor?“. The former can be an eternal state and one never notices. The latter gives a more clear goal and deadline to reach it. Still, both are problematic in my opinion. Only a small fraction of researchers will stay in the Ivory Tower (another outdated term) and land into a professor position. Why should this period be named after this preparatory step of the very few and not of the majority of the researchers?

If you are a “postdoc” please do a favor to yourself and switch to a “researcher with a Ph.D.” or “senior researcher“. You educated yourself and developed skills to be able to perform research and advance human knowledge. Thank you!

And one last thing. You are a scientist by your undergraduate education. No matter where you work, you still apply the scientific knowledge and scientific methods you learnt at the university. An alumni entrepreneur launching a new product to the market is not less a scientist than a alumni researcher finding a new drug to cure an illness. Both try to make the world a better place through science.

Is this diver a scientist?
Is this diver a scientist?

The postgraduate factory

The “postgraduate factory” produces highly-trained scientists of all sorts. In the process, education degrees are offered, such as Master in Science (M.Sc.), MBA, Professional Doctorate in Engineering (PDEng, popular in the Netherlands), Ph.D., postdoctoral training (informal), or habilitation (particularly in German, Austrian, and Swiss universities).

Not only the number of study programs is expanding (e.g., there are more than 900 M.Sc.-awarding programs in Greece) but the number of Ph.D. holders is globally expanding. A common misconception is that a Ph.D. is still useful only for academic career and especially for a tenured professorship position (i.e., for the “professoriate“). This is well-reflected in a highly-cited article of Nature magazine “The PhD Factory – The world is producing more PhDs than ever before. Is it time to stop?” back in 2011.

United States: What shall we do about all the PhDs?
United States: What shall we do about all the PhDs? (Source: http://www.nature.com/news/2011/110420/full/472276a/box/3.html)

The statistics all over the world seem to converge to the same point: there are not enough tenured professorships for the PhDs awarded.

The PhD bubble
The PhD bubble (Source: http://parisinnovationreview.com/2014/01/29/phd-training-outstrips-demand/)

Many sources, albeit a bit outdated now, agree that the probability of landing into a tenure-track position is less than 25%. And the odds to secure a tenured professor position is around 10-15%. To put it simply … you study four years for your first degree, then two years for your master, and then 3-7 years (or even more …) to get your Ph.D., which is the entry point for the professoriate. Then you spent some 4-7 years of additional training (i.e., being a “postdoc“) to land to a tenure-track position and maybe get a tenure after seven more years. From Ph.D. to tenure, it can be anything between seven and 14 years of hard work. After the hard work of the Ph.D.

So, why do still people start to pursue a Ph.D. in first place? Are they aware of the odds and willing to play against them? What if it does not work out?