A postdoc’s funding typically lasts 2-4 years: just enough time to start and finish a project and push it through to get published. In an ideal world, the postdoc who wants to become independent would then write a grant on what they have become an expert on. This, presumably, would be based on their most recent publication. However, it is rare that supervisors let postdocs take their projects with them, an issue which is most often not openly discussed before the start of the project. Here, a comment by Professor Ben A. Barres on what PIs, funding agencies, and young scientists should do to support a culture of good mentorship that enables young scientists to choose the right lab and to flourish in their chosen field.
In the UK, men hold 90% of senior positions in STEM. This means in a committee meeting of ten professors, at any given university in the UK, it is likely that only one female professor will be present in the room. Professor Arnold, who holds the Crum Brown chair of Chemistry at Edinburgh University, knows this tale too well. As recently highlighted by the BBC, to strike a balance, she has formed the Sci Sisters . Being part of this network, or ‘Scientific sisterhood’ means you can easily find nearby peers who are in similar positions and ready to talk about the issues you experience – even if it is just over coffee.
For some, remaining in academia is the right choice. For Tiffany, the academic environment she found herself in was one which was stifling her growth, rather than encouraging it. Tiffany made the decision to leave academia; it was her decision to make, and hers only. Below are excerpts from a blog on her experiences as an autistic in academia, originally published on her blog:
Barbara is a currently a Research Assistant at Oxford University, and is also the mother of two children, aged 6 and 10.
As scientists and academics, we are all familiar with the talks given by respected group heads, both men and women, about balancing work and life, and what paths they took to get to their successful careers. And while these talks do open our perspectives as to what is and isn’t feasible if we choose the traditional academic path, they continue to push the subconscious perspective that the only success for those pursuing a scientific PhD, is to end up in the academy as the head of a group.
For most, this can cause anxiety and other mental health issues when the values and sacrifices needed to reach this level of what is considered success don’t match with our own. Add this to the fact that very few faculty positions are actually available for people finishing their postdoc, and you have a recipe for many leaving the traditional tenure track career path. This has gotten to the point where staying in academia, as opposed to leaving, has become the “alternative” career path (See this episode of HelloPhD for dealing with issues when stepping off the academic track).
There needs to be a conversation in scientific academia about shifting our values and definition of success from what we publish and produce, to the impact that we have on our own well-being and those of others. In order to help with that, Labmosphere will be featuring blog posts on successful scientists who decided to step off the academic tenure track and are having an incredible time as scientists, but more importantly as human beings. If you know someone who fits this description, and would like for me to interview them on the site, please send me a nomination email with their information, and help us redefine scientific success.
People have compared choosing a mentor and project to a marriage, even if it’s only one that lasts less time (though sometimes PhDs can be long, and marriages short…). For a long time now, people have been using sites like match.com that use different algorithms to match people based on compatibility. It seems like academia might get a similar networking tool for pairing mentors and trainees. It would be interesting to see how some of the features on dating sites are tweaked to fit the mentor/mentee culture. Check out the small article in nature here.
We all as scientists have experienced the joy and nervousness of meeting the superstars in our fields. Our palms get sweaty as they walk up to us after a talk, and we either sigh with relief when we’re congratulated on a job well done, or are otherwise crushed when we’re told, in a somewhat offhanded (or quite direct way) about the thousand and one flaws with our current ideas. If we’re presenting data that refutes theirs, then we’re at the risk of suffering through a diatribe during the question session of the talk.
Not all leaders in the field, and certainly not all group heads, fall under the category of what we would call narcissistic. However, the unfortunate reality about our scientific culture means that we are all, if not directly, indirectly acquainted with stories of the sometimes baffling and at times downright rude behavior of some scientists.
For Dr. Bruno Lemaitre, an insect immunologist who was on the team that won the Nobel for its work on Toll receptors, these displays of narcissism became as intriguing as some of the things he was studying at the bench. It is from this inquisitive nature and open-minded approach to researching the researchers that arose his short book titled, “An Essay on Science on Narcissism: How do high-ego personalities drive research in the life sciences?”
In our continued fight against lab bullying and harassment, it is a welcome sight to see that others are pointing out the discrepancy between the incidence, reporting, and effective dealing with instances of harassment (sexual or not) and bullying in academia. We can only hope that through our combined efforts and other grassroots movements and organizations, such as the 1752 group, we can collectively begin to dismantle the culture of abuse that is all too prevalent in many institutes.
The Guardian Higher Education section is constantly publishing interesting and well-written articles about the issues surrounding academic life. In one of their particular sections, titled Academics Anonymous, different academics give their opinions and perspectives on what can sometimes be quite a frustrating topic, especially for those who feel unable to voice their feelings or trapped in cycles of unhappiness.
I recently stumbled on one of their older articles, written by someone about to leave the academic scene after a stressful time in their Postdoc. The author gives a more negative view on the entire academic process and career progression, but in doing so brings insight into some of the more pertinent issues.
Like Academics Anonymous, we continue encouraging the sharing of personal stories anonymously as a powerful tool for discussing important issues and bringing about cultural change.
Dr. Thrishantha Nanayakkara of King’s College is an incredibly successful researcher who runs a great lab. He also happens to practice Buddhism too. In this incredibly insightful blog post for PhD students, he explains how the philosophies of equanimity and responsibility can be applied to a PhD (or any academic career) and therefore find peace within oneself despite the incredible amount of external pressure creating stress and inner turmoil.
In the post, he describes the difference between achievement and accomplishment as applied to publication in a journal, and how one can use rejection from a journal for learning, growth, and ultimately, satisfaction and peace.
We at Labmosphere tip our hats to Dr. Nanayakkara, who, despite the pressures of being an academic, finds the time to work on his inner growth and peace and strives to help students do the same.