Young Australian scientists questioning the status quo. Part 3: Any hope?

The all-nighter timeline. Image: PhD comics.

Here are some attempted-quotes from the Forum: (‘attempted’ because I can’t write very quickly and didn’t get them down verbatim… but the general gist should be right!)

“We are paid for the work we do during the day, and promoted based on the work we do at night”

 “We are doctors of philosophy – yet many grants are awarded on the basis of whether there will be some sort of monetary outcome at the other end. What happened??”

“I think we need to ask if science is exploitative”

So – is there any hope?

Well, I’m trying remain optimistic. There was a strong drive during the forum to identify (and look at implementing, or at least advocating) some solutions to the above problems. Longer contracts. Joint appointments for researcher couples. Better metrics. Better links between science and industry. Better communication of our science. Flexible work options. A change of culture so that those who move out of academia into industry or teaching aren’t viewed as ‘failures’.

Final dodgy phone photo: Chuwen Keynote address, Prof. Brian Schmidt

Ultimately, one should not have to sacrifice their health, personal relationships and sanity for the sake of their job (though many do, and this problem is certainly not limited to research). And to put it all into perspective, Brian Schmidt pointed out that there are very few unemployed PhDs out there, so we shouldn’t let it get us down. He himself was fourth in line for the position which he eventually won the Nobel Prize for; the three candidates ahead of him just happened to pull out. If he hadn’t succeeded in getting that job, he was considering moving on to teaching.

Cathy Foley, who is Chief of CSIRO Materials Science and Engineering, told us to remember that our skills are very transferrable, and realise we can sell that to employers outside of academia. Due to the nature of our work, we have generally mastered written and oral communication, time and project management, teaching and mentoring, analytical thinking, are good at problem solving, and are flexible and dedicated to our work.

But, more than anything else, the problem is that we as young researchers are inherently very competitive and proud (if trying to get a word in edgeways during the discussions was anything to go by!) So, whether we can be happy in these alternative non-academic positions is another thing, and this really will require a fundamental culture change where we are told by our mentors that teaching and industry positions are jobs to be proud of. Of course I’m being a huge hypocrite here, because I’m not putting my hand up to leave – I love doing research at a university, and if someone out there could make it a little easier for me to continue doing so I’d really appreciate it!

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  1. I don’t think that anyone should worry about being viewed as a ‘failure’ or ‘copping out’ if they leave academia to join industry or the public service. The fact is, you’ll be a lot more appreciated and valued in industry/public service then you were in academia. Don’t forget that when you’re in academia, having a PhD is by no means unique- everyones got one! But if you leave, you’ll realise that you are part of the ‘elite few’, and you will be recognised for this- particularly in the long term. If you don’t have prior industry experience before you finish your PhD, you can’t necessarily expect to jump straight into a high-flying position, but chances are that you’ll get there faster then your colleagues, because you have the skills of critical and analytical thinking that are really the most important skills in the long run. Sure, you mightn’t be seen as having the book-balancing or traditional work-place skills at first, but these are quickly gained and cheap to come by. I joined several PhDs in their early years of a career in the public service. I (with no PhD), at first saw them as having no advantage- we were all in the same graduate program, they didn’t seem to be doing any better than me or any other of the undergraduate-qualified people, and hell, they’d just wasted 3+ years of blood sweat and tears to get to the same place that I was, with just an undergrad degree. It’s now, 4-5 years into their careers that I see them achieving great things, and excelling well above the rest of the cohort (in general). They’ve published books, got places listed on the World Heritage List and are managing whole teams. They’re appreciated, they’re well utilised, and they stand out from the crowd. And they LOVE it!

    1. Hi Kat – thanks, that’s really heartening to hear it from that perspective! I think you’re right, in that the ultimate benefit of a PhD isn’t the pile of paper that you get to hand over at the end of it, but the experiences (both good and extremely stressful) that you have along the way that allow you to grow – I’ve heard many people say this when they reflect on their 3+ years of blood sweat and tears! It’s also interesting because many of the participants seemed to grumble at the suggestion that they consider the APS grad program, though it was the word ‘grad’ that they seemed to object to the most.

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