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’.
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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