Ph.D. ‘apprenticeships’

There was a nice two-page advice piece for early-career postdocs in last weeks New Scientist (Tree-climbing for future fellows.). All very helpful and informative. To put its premise succinctly, all you need is to land yourself in a brilliant institution, with a brilliant supervisor and a brilliant support structure, and, er, be brilliant! Easy then!

Sometimes it is enlightening to look at things from the negative factor in the equation. Most of us aren’t ‘brilliant’, or fortunate enough in advice or foresight to select the environment that would serve us best so early in our careers. Consequently, due to the nature of the beast, very many of us are squeezed out of the system, when comes the time a modest publication record combines with the reality of becoming older and too expensive to factor into P.I. grant applications, rendering experience redundant or superfluous. This is just the way it is: big fierce animals are rare, and there isn’t room for all of us to end up with tenure, let alone a chair. Things may have improved, but that doesn’t alter the fact that years of hard slog will, for many, go unrewarded.

There is, maybe, an argument that might make for happier postdocs: scrap Ph.D. studentships! Instead, give them a job. Relative to peers who leave the UK education system earlier, whether at 16, 18, or as a postgraduate, usually age 21/22, Ph.D. students continue in the system for, at least, another three years. Factoring in a probable M.Sc. year in between, years out, and other delays, a wannabe scientist can be mid-to-late twenties before they land a job proper. Yet, Ph.D. students do a job; despite not being recognised as employees, in that they neither pay tax, nor pension scheme and National Insurance contributions (lack of the latter, beyond a certain time, may well see them eroding full state pension entitlement, unless opting to pay voluntary contributions at their own expense). And, unless they are fortunate enough that Mummy and Daddy have put such arrangements in place for them, they will be unable to take out a private pension either. Moreover, they will have very likely accumulated a higher level of debt.

Consider that postgraduates are often employed as salaried Research Assistants, while simultaneously registered for a Ph.D. (again, we can’t all land one of these). Yes, such a supposedly ‘part-time’ Ph.D. commitment means thesis submission is allowed six or seven years instead of three or four, delaying attainment of the qualification. But this is salaried time: more money, and pension and N.I. contributions paid – and more time to land that all important coveted first-author paper. Many, if not most newly-qualified postdocs will quite likely not make up these shortcomings in their first short-term contract. It can be confusing (to put it euphemistically) for many students working alongside such RAs, particularly as, in all likelihood, both are, in effect, carrying out equivalent jobs. Ph.D. candidates might be officially students, but they are heavily relied upon by P.I.s/group leaders and often worked like dogs.

The purpose of a Ph.D. studentship is to train one to become qualified to carry out research. But, analogous to an apprentice plumber under training to become a qualified plumber, they learn their trade on the job: in the lab, at the bench, generating data, often with scant supervision. Both are paid a pittance; however, the school peer who went down the apprentice route may have been making N.I. and pension contributions for a decade by the time a newly-qualified postdoc makes his/her first, and also be raking in greater financial return (as the Birmingham postdoc who, a few years back, quit research to re-train as a plumber found out). Such factors may explain, in part, the decline in the proportion of higher education students opting for science degrees. Coupled with the intellectual discrimination that is the vetting of postdoc applications by publication list, it may further explain why disenchantment arises among young people who start out with a genuine love of science.

In at the deep end is an effective selective pressure device and the cream will usually rise to the top. But cream needs something to float on. At least reward them properly before they drown and the milk might not taste so bitter.

One response to “Ph.D. ‘apprenticeships’

  1. I like your last paragraph. My husband plays quite a lot of poker and occassionally I join him. The first, really simple, observation is that in any given hand most people lose. It struck me that it took me a comparatively long time to realise that very few people “win” in (academic) real life either.
    One of the problems in the research “career-structure” is that the money for the salaries and pensions has to come from somewhere. So. Say you are the head of a charity that wants to reduce the proportion of people dying from cancer: Would you invest your money in encouraging people to stop smoking, or invest in research? Both are very expensive. But the former, arguably, has the better chance of success. I realise that cancer research is relatively well funded, but it is easy example to use to explain the type of dilemma that a charity, or the donating public, faces.


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