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Postdocs: who needs them? – #uberresearchprize

21st August 2014
By Katy Alexander

In July, alongside the ÜberResearch team, we launched a Twitter competition open to PhD students. The task was to tweet how you would spend £10 million of science funding using the hashtag #uberresearchprize.

We had hundreds of tweets and the top three, as voted by our judging panel, were then invited to write a blog post, delving into their original tweet. Over the next few days we will publish the top three blog posts here on our blog, announcing the winner on Tuesday 26th August.

Today we are publishing Kevin Rattigan’s entry and this was his original tweet:

Photo (6)Kevin Rattigan completed his undergraduate degree in 2011, which was Human Genetics, in Trinity College Dublin.
He is currently in the Wellcome Trust 4year Mres-PhD programme in the University of Glasgow. For his PhD he is investigating perturbations of the immune system by Leishmania mexicana. Outside of research, Kevin enjoys Ultimate Frisby and anything else that gets him outside.

Postdocs: who needs them? Efficient: optimising and seamlessly establishing new protocols. Productive: multitasking projects effortlessly. Mentors: assisting PhD students to screw up less. These attributes make postdocs indispensable. Every lab treasures their postdocs and their experience is invaluable. As I, a first year PhD student, surmount the steep learning research curve, I understand learning from inevitable mistakes is beneficial. Nonetheless, many easily avoidable ones are not. Experience and training will lead to fewer mistakes, but the policy of postdocs being jettisoned in favour of a less-equipped army of cheaper PhD students will hinder this. Unfortunately, there are only two options in science: become a PI or find a “real” job. A  postdoc is seen as a stepping-stone – a last-chance saloon to “make it” in science.

Fortunately, there is an increase in the promotion of non-science careers and an increasing awareness that failing to becoming a PI isn’t a catastrophe. However, why aren’t permanent and productive postdoc positions available? Two major barriers are prohibitive: increasing pay grades, and a lack of mobility being seen as a sign of lacking independence. However, the luxury of moving periodically is untenable, especially if family matters are a concern. A solution to this impasse won’t be easy. One solution is reducing the number of PhD students, subsequently having fewer postdocs compete for the same number of permanent positions. Would this reduction result in a comparable  reduction in new ideas brought by the diverse and creative people attracted to PhDs? Competition already selects talented researchers, so much so as further cutting could be detrimental. An alternative is having some sort of  system whereby permanent postdocs (not staff scientists!!) work as part as a lab or department.

Unfortunately, £10 million won’t fund many permanent positions. A drastic change to the structure of academic research will require cooperation between tax payers and charitable organisations that fund research, the universities and labs in which the jobs are located, as well as non-PI researchers. This will cost money and £10 million could go a long way. It will require researching the cost of a system similar to that proposed here, negotiating with the various interest groups to determine where the money will come from and why it is needed. Additionally, administration of such a system would have to be implemented. Achieving this will require salaried people and  this is where £10 million would be invaluable.

It will not be possible to have a permanent position for every postdoc, but certainly more than there is now. The value of postdocs has to be made known. This is just as important as lessening postdocs’ uncertain future.

Having spoken to various PIs and postdocs, I have realised that such a system would have major support. However, personal opinion/vested interest will not make this happen. This new academic structure, and any increases or allocations in research funding needed (if well justified), can result in a research environment that will be more efficient and employee friendly

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