Calling the Postdoc Monster


An old children's joke runs:

Q: What do you call a deaf monster?

A: Anything you like, it can't hear you!

Here's another one: What do you call someone who:

  • solves complex practical and technical problems, on shoestring budgets

  • supervises junior researchers and students

  • writes books, academic papers, and technical reports

  • organizes international conferences

  • teaches in lectures, seminars, and tutorials

  • programs computers and has highly advanced technological expertise

  • creates and implements new research ideas, and writes grant proposals to fund them

  • organizes a cramped, overstretched research lab

  • has the most highly specialized and up-to-date information-seeking skills in the university, excepting the best librarians

  • works extra evenings and weekends without recognition or reward

  • is one of the most highly qualified, but lowest paid and least secure, professionals in the country

  • despite all the above, is considered by peers as an inferior, disposable, and disinterested temp/trainee?

What should we call him or her? Many academics in both the United States and the United Kingdom would use the word ?postdoc?, but this implies that any researcher not on a ?permanent? contract (UK) or ?tenure track? (US) must possess (a) a PhD thesis on which the ink has not yet dried and (b) a mere student's knowledge of university life. Clearly an inappropriate term for someone who, like myself, has performed post-PhD academic work for the past 13 years. It also ignores the many contract researchers who don't have PhDs, especially in more applied research areas such as computing.

How about ?contract researcher?? A bit casual-sounding, isn't it? One thinks of ?contract programmers? in the software industry. They drop by for a few weeks or months, their only relevant skills are programming in a specific language, and they have no particular interest in the project's future. Of course, despite these obvious differences from someone whose whole life is motivated by science, contract programmers are also massively better paid to compensate for their insecurity!

Frankly, there is only one word for someone who can take on all the above activities, requiring deep motivation and knowledge of a scientific specialty, as well as the highest possible aptitude and education. It's the word used for those who have been sufficiently lucky, ?productive? (in terms of number of publications), or socially well-connected to wind up in a permanent position doing exactly the same things: an academic.

Who, then, are the ?contract? academics? There are those who choose this life because they feel a vocation in research but do not believe they would be able, or happy, teachers (or the reverse: They love to teach, but feel no inclination toward research). They don't recall ever saying that they also liked insecurity and low status, but somehow they got it.

Then there are those who concentrate too hard on doing each research project to the highest scientific standards, with a resulting publication rate that is too low to count in the quality-be-darned ?numbers game? of current academia. There are more--who can tell how many?--who?s boss is the type of anachronistic rascal who insists on being first, and maybe even sole, author on all the journal papers, despite his near-total absence during the research or writing itself. Too few publications on your resume equals no chance of advancement. Likewise, if you never got to mix with academics at conferences, because your boss used up the whole travel budget, or you didn't get the time or permission to leave the lab, or you're simply not that good at ?schmoozing?, will they ever have heard of you when you apply for that faculty post?

Finally, there are those for whom somehow the ?fates? are wrong. Do your PhD later in life, or without a good mentor; go off on a ?baby break? or some travel and let your publication rate sag; switch disciplines so that your achievements to date count for nothing; or go into a field that is too popular or prone to job cuts: You may never make it up there to stardom and security. Of course, if you do make it, you'll find life equally tough, hours almost as long, students even more demanding, and pressure to ?produce the goods? just as strong as ever, while also being co-opted onto committees and presented with a ton of administrative work. Nobody is saying that life for tenured/permanent academics is a bed of roses--but they will never have the humiliation and worry, from one year to the next, of wondering where next year's salary will come from. What's more, they will never again be treated, by administrators as well as fellow academics, as if they were a lower species of life-form.

Why has the number of academics on short-term contracts expanded so much on both sides of the Atlantic in recent years? Simple. The research funders and universities have cheaply expanded both science and student numbers, as demanded by governments. How? By effectively casualising and downgrading the profession that does the science (and its teaching). By keeping all those expensive, bothersome faculty posts down to a minimum, and expanding the 'cheap and disposable labour' side. Great news for the accountants! It's not so much a case of 'too many postdocs', as one of bad faith by those responsible for science employment.

The people whom the public call ?scientists?--those with the title ?Professor?, eccentric personalities, and a comfortable office--are no longer those who actually do the science. Quite often, one suspects, they actually could not perform some of the tasks that their research teams have to tackle. Science in the 21st century, even in the human sciences such as my own discipline of psychology, requires mastery of rapidly changing technologies. It also has an ever-greater need for organizational and managerial skills that are notably absent in, and even rejected outright by, many older academics.

The questions we should be asking about modern scientific work are therefore not the demeaning, narrow-minded ones that we hear too often from high-level committees, such as "are there too many postdocs?" and "why can't all those little PhD graduates run off into industry?" (The answer to the second question, in a nutshell, is "Because that's not what the PhD trains them for." Which raises its own serious questions about the qualifications system that can't be addressed in this article.)

The science is there to be done, and (some) money and expertise is there to do it. The questions should be:

1. What are the requisite skills for modern scientific research, and for teaching it effectively?

2. Who has those skills?

3. What are they worth?

4. How can we suitably identify, reward, and retain the best people who have them?

5. How can we transform scientific work into a quality-driven enterprise, rather than a throughput-driven one that produces large amounts of thoughtless garbage?

While our academic system depends firstly on weighing piles of paper, and secondly on ?old boy? networks, those questions won't even be heard by the ?deaf monsters? who reached the top through that very system. And dedicated professional scientists will continue to be abused.

Clare Davies earned her first degree from Oxford and her PhD from Loughborough. She has taught and/or researched at five British and American universities since returning to academia from the computing industry in 1989. While publishing research in at least four disciplines, she has also been active in various career improvement initiatives for contract researchers.

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