ECR blues: Am I part of the problem?

A very quick lunchtime post to highlight that this week’s Nature is a special issue on the theme of young scientists’ careers, and, as it says loud and clear on the front cover, their struggle to survive in academia. There are a number of important and timely articles on just how tough it is for early career researchers (the ECRs of the title of this post), including a worrying piece by Kendall Powell: “Young, Talented and Fed-Up“.

One of the things that struck me in the various statistics and stories presented by Nature is the following graph:

AgingWorkforce.png

Note how older scientists (and I’m soundly in the 41-55 bracket) now hold the large majority of NIH grants, and how different it was back in 1980. I’d like to know the equivalent distribution for grants in physics. If anyone can point me (in the comments section) towards appropriate statistics, I’d appreciate it.

In any case, I recommend taking a read of those articles in this week’s Nature, regardless of where you happen to be on the academic career ladder. As Powell’s article points out, Nature got a short, sharp response to its tweeted question about the challenges facing ECRs…

For who’s a jolly good fellow?

It’s that time of the year again. The deadline for submission of applications for Royal Society University Research Fellowships (URFs) is today. I know four postdoctoral researchers who have submitted their proposal and now will wait anxiously for the next few months until they find out if they’ve been called for an interview. And then they’ll sweat a little more before discovering if they’re one of the lucky ~ 8% of those who’ve applied that have landed a fellowship.

A fellowship is increasingly seen as a rite of passage to an academic career (at least in many areas of physics). The bar for securing a lectureship has been raised dramatically since I was fortunate enough to be employed by the School of Physics and Astronomy back in 1997 (although it was still just the Department of Physics back in those dim, distant days). As I’ve said before — once or twice — I know for a fact that what I had in terms of “output” back in 1997 wouldn’t even get me on a shortlist these days; competition has increased dramatically.

I’ve not been a URF (or sat on a URF panel) but I’ve been an EPSRC fellow and have also been a member of EPSRC fellowship panels, so I’ve been on either side of the ‘divide’. I’ve been planning for a while to put together a list of tips/suggestions for fellowship applicants (based on my experience as a panel member), and given the day that’s in it, there’s no time like the present…

Have a mock interview.  I cannot overstate the importance of this. I’ve been rather surprised at the number of fellowship candidates I’ve met who had not sat down with colleagues prior to the day of the formal interview and had a dress-rehearsal. There is no better way to prepare than to have your colleagues, preferably those who have sat on fellowship panels previously (though this isn’t essential), give you a thorough grilling in advance. Quite a few universities now organise mock interviews as a matter of course but if yours doesn’t, don’t feel at all shy about approaching peers/colleagues/URFs/EPSRC fellows in your department and asking whether they’d be willing to do a mock interview with you.   (The same advice holds true for any PhD students who might be reading this and have a viva coming up soon…)

Assert your independence. Fellowship schemes targeted at early career researchers almost invariably are designed to select candidates who demonstrate original ideas, creativity, and the potential to develop an independent programme of research. There’s no better way to demonstrate your potential for independent research than being able to point to examples in your application (and in the interview) of where you — yes, you guessed it — acted as an independent researcher.

Although this may sound somewhat ‘disloyal’ , anything that can set you apart from your research supervisor’s/principal investigator’s ideas and goals is useful. Make yourself known in your research community by organising workshops or conferences; accept any (and all) opportunities for invited talks that come your way (regardless of how daunted you may feel); apply for grants where you can. Although I appreciate that opportunities for independent postdoc funding are thin on the ground (and this needs to change), keep your ear close to that ground and be alert to the possibilities of securing even small amounts of funding. The goal here is not to establish a £30M Centre-For-Universe-Leading-Cross-Disciplinary-Inter-Sectoral-Super-Duper-Science but to demonstrate that you can write a successful bid for funding).

Avoid boilerplate. There’s little point stating that your research has the potential to have a major impact on industry and that you’re going to work closely with your university’s Business Development and Innovation department — or whatever it’s called this month — to make this a reality unless you provide specific examples of just how you’re going to do it. Anyone can write non-specific boilerplate; it just irritates referees.

I’ve had my differences of opinion over the years with Athene Donald on the subject of impact but I fully agree with the points she made in an important blog post back in 2011 — Kidding Yourself (The Impact Saga Continues). Be specific. As someone who criticised the research councils’ impact agenda for many years, I’m obliged to say that, to their credit, public engagement alone is enough for a Pathways To Impact statement. This is particularly important if your research is on the fundamental end of the spectrum and far from application/exploitation/market. But, again, warm words and purple prose are not enough. Be specific about what you’ll do in terms of public engagement. (I should note that the Royal Society Fellowship scheme (like those of the European Research Council) is rather less focused on non-academic impact than are the UK research councils).

Papers in “those” journals matter. I very much wish that I didn’t have to include this point but, unfortunately, it’d be naive and rather disingenuous of me to avoid it. It’s not infrequently the case that members of panels tasked with reviewing fellowship applications outsource the judgement of research quality to the brand-names of the journals in which the applicants have published. I wrote about this problem at length previously for the LSE blog so I’m not going to revisit it here. I’ll just say this: In a perfect world candidates would be judged directly on their research achievements, rather than where they’re published. But let’s be realistic — this isn’t going to happen in academia any time soon. And yes, I’m indeed a hypocrite for pointing this out.

Don’t sweat the small stuff. The referees are looking for vision, originality, and novelty. They want to be excited by the scope of your project, not swamped by minutiae that mean little to anyone who isn’t one of the world-experts in your (sub-)(sub-)(sub-) field. You’re writing a proposal, not a comprehensive scientific paper. Aim to put across the bigger picture. This is particularly the case when your proposal is likely to be judged by a non-expert panel.

And, finally, keep an eye on the world outside those stereotypically gleaming ivory towers and dreaming spires. Don’t put your eggs all in one basket. Success rates for fellowships are exceptionally low, and the chances of securing a permanent lectureship (in physics at least) are anything but encouraging. If an academic career is your life-long ambition then go for it. But go for it with your eyes wide open and take the time to occasionally look outside the lab.

…and if you’re applying for a fellowship today, or any other day, I wish you the very best of luck.

(Guest post) Doing a PhD: To move or not to move?

There’s nothing I enjoy more than a good old spat with my Head of School, Mike Merrifield. Our debates run the gamut of the academic’s traditional soap-box topics, but a theme to which we return regularly is the question of the importance – or not – of moving institution for early career researchers. I put forward my views on this in a blog post for physicsfocus last year. In this guest post (a first for “Symptoms…”), Mike explains why he and I disagree on the question of whether PhD students and postdocs should be assessed on the basis of their mobility.


Once again I find myself somewhat in disagreement with my friend and colleague Professor Moriarty.  This is never an entirely comfortable place to be, because he argues tenaciously, and, irritatingly, is right more often than not, but on this occasion I thought it was worth trying to spell out my reasoning with a little more nuance than is allowed by the 140 character sound bites of Twitter.

The catalyst for this disagreement was Philip’s response to an article in the THE entitled 10 steps to PhD failure.  His objection was to one of the pieces of advice given that

“Going somewhere else for your PhD shows that you have expanded your intellectual horizons. In contrast, others will view the fact that you did all your degrees at the same place as an indication that you lack scholarly breadth and independence, and that you were not wise or committed enough to follow this standard advice about studying elsewhere.”

which led to a lengthy Twitter discussion of whether mobility is an appropriate factor to consider as an indicator of drive and independence, where Philip’s position is “no,” and mine is “sometimes.”

First let me make it clear that I agree with Philip that the article is wrong if it implies that any such consideration is absolute.  Anyone contemplating where to do a PhD should weigh up a whole range of elements, which should include lifestyle as well as professional factors to establish where on the spectrum of work–life balance they want or need to position themselves.  While some people may relish the opportunities afforded by moving to a new locale and maybe even experiencing the culture of another country, others could be happily settled where they did their undergraduate degree, or have responsibilities that limit their ability to relocate, which may well then over-ride any other considerations.

But, pretty much by definition, work–life balance implies a compromise that does not optimise either side of the equation individually, and anyone considering where to do a PhD should at least think about the potential downsides to staying in the same institution:

  • You have already interacted with the academic staff at that institution quite closely, and heard at least some of what they have to teach you. Educationally, there are benefits to encountering other points of view and learning about topics where your current institution may have very little expertise.  You can certainly pick some of that up by going to summer schools, conferences, etc, but there is no substitute for being embedded in a different, challenging working environment to really get a new perspective on things.
  • What are the chances that you happen to have done your first degree at the best place in the World for whatever discipline has caught your interest? Surely, very few students apply to university on the basis of a specific sub-discipline; indeed, they may not have even reached the level to study and appreciate many of the more exciting possibilities until they are quite a long way into their undergraduate programmes.  It would therefore be an amazing coincidence if they happen to be at the institution where the most exciting and innovative work in that field is currently being undertaken.  If you are in the happy position of being willing and able to relocate, why wouldn’t you have the ambition to try to go to the best place in the World to pursue your interest?
  • If you decide to go beyond your PhD in an academic setting, you will have to convince someone to employ you in an appropriate postdoctoral post. Typically, you may be up against fifty-or-so other applicants, and the people responsible for selection will be considering a variety of factors to decide to whom to offer the job.  One of the things they are likely to be looking for is evidence of drive and independence.  It is unfortunately true that some students do drift into doing a PhD just by following the “path of least resistance” when they finished as undergraduates, as carrying on in the same place doing more-or-less the same thing is easier than making a more radical departure.  From a potential employer’s perspective, it can be difficult to separate such drifters from more dynamic motivated individuals who have consciously opted to stay at their original institution, whereas someone who has moved to a different strong institution is clearly not suffering from inertia and has more apparently made a pro-active career decision.  Thus, while absence of mobility does not constitute evidence of a lack of drive, it is an absence of evidence for such drive.
  • The same issue also arises a little later in an academic career, when a postdoctoral researcher will likely be applying for individual fellowships or faculty positions against even longer odds. At this point, the assessor is looking for evidence of the applicant’s originality.  I know from experience serving on fellowship and appointment panels that it can be very difficult, if not impossible, to disentangle the applicant’s intellectual contribution to the work from that of their collaborators.  One indicator is the level of variety in authorship of papers published – if an individual has never published a paper that doesn’t have their old PhD supervisor as an author, it can be very difficult for the assessor to determine whether all the ideas presented originated with that supervisor, too.  A wider variety of collaborations, on the other hand, suggests a much more outgoing approach to developing research ideas, not to mention the sought-after intellectual curiosity that draws one to new and different problems.  Such a breadth of authorship and interests is more readily established if one has worked in more than one research group.

Bear in mind that for all these considerations there will always be exceptions.  All that I really want to put across is that it is more straightforward to demonstrate the intellectual curiosity that drives the best researchers if you are able and willing to be mobile, and that if you are not then it is important to take extra steps to establish these traits in other visible ways.

Finally, I should reiterate that this piece was really only intended to lay out the implications of mobility (or immobility) for one side of work–life balance, and that the appropriate location for the fulcrum of that balance is a matter for all individuals to decide for themselves.