Traditional academic career paths are over

The career path in science of being a student, grad student, postdoc, lecturer, professor and then retired professor is over. Sometimes even at the same university. Nowadays, this pathway is interrupted by periods of work for an industry or entrepreneurial endeavors. Some of the stages of traditional pathway are doubled, or even tripled. This is especially true for postdocs, with more and more junior academic positions requiring you to finish 2-3 postdocs before applying.

It seems easier to do a PhD, as the number of scholarships available around the world increases. However, it is increasingly harder to get junior academic positions. Getting a postdoc usually requires changing a country. Permanent positions are disappearing.

This is all very interesting to observe for a few reasons. Firstly, research is needed to solve different problems we face as societies. Secondly, doing science takes time, effort, people, skills and money.  Thirdly, matching the problems to be solved with the resources (people, skills and money) seems to be not existent. Lastly, researchers are the fueling power of research, and yet, doing research seems not to be enough anymore.

Matching researchers with research positions

Looking for an academic position for the last few months, made it all too obvious. The job searching websites, although existing in impressive numbers, present a scarcity of positions. In my experience, the best strategy would be to look for jobs at each university’s website separately. The other option would be to ask other researchers in the field directly.

What I experience with looking for academic positions is quite common nowadays. I hear from other postdocs around the world too that they are struggling with finding a more permanent position. This was reassuring on one hand – it’s not only me – but very worrying on the other – what if there are no positions, or some research can’t be done due to not finding people?

This tides nicely with the topic of the Tokyo’s Nobel Prize Dialogue 2019 The Age to Come, I have attended last month. I have learned a lot on this event (you can read 5 lessons I have learned from 5 Nobel Prize winners). But it also got me thinking. With the extension of lives and aging populations in developed countries, there will be more people living longer. This will create an opportunity for longer careers in science too. If we could find a way to finance more research and match resources better, we could do more.

The answers to these problems may lay in a better use of online technologies. Ubiquity of internet creates opportunities for reach beyond physical presence. This may apply to recruitment, fundraising, knowledge translation and so on.  

Money in research

The issue of money in research is real. Research is expensive to do, it also takes time and skills. So money is required to train researchers for many years before they become independent. Running a project is also expensive, as is equipment, reagents, and transport.

With research, financial profiting immediately after finishing a project is hard. Many universities develop “innovation” unites to facilitate the process of getting from a research to products. The aim of these centers is making money from research.  

These centers come up with the competitions, where the researchers peach the idea for a product, and the winners get the money and help to realise the winning idea. How effective it will be, I am not sure. If a researcher has an idea for a product and is able to prepare a business plan and so on, s/he does not need that much help. They are already halfway there.

The ones who really need help are the researchers who do great research but luck skills or interest in making this research into products. If innovation centers will come up with a process to help these researchers, then it will make sense.

Doing research is no longer enough

Academic institutions used to have all the power in employing, financing and promoting their researcher. Nowadays, only the biggest universities still are able to take care of their researchers. Therefore, researchers will be forced to take care of themselves.  

It seems that researchers who just want to do research, will not succeed. Networking, publishing, branding are a requirement equal to development of research skills. Is it good or bad, hard to say. On one hand it takes time and energy away from doing research. On the other hand however, the opportunities that these endeavors create, may outweigh the drawbacks.

Of course, if someone absolutely hates doing anything other than research and is an exceptional researcher, they should be able to just do research. I start to think that the industry may actually do a better job with enabling researchers to do their work. Companies such as Tesla or SpaceX heavily involve themselves in doing state of the art research with no relation to academia.

To sum up

I think I have more questions than answers. Situation in research is not quite optimal. Will the online technology help? Will the industry help? I think the researchers will have to solve this situation for themselves, after all they are the most experienced and qualified.

What are your thoughts on the situation of researchers in current research landscape?

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