Could computer modelling help to build a better career structure for postdocs?

Clearly describing the inefficient and damaging situation might point the way to better alternatives, says Eric Silverman

November 26, 2015
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Having done my time as a postdoctoral researcher, like many of us I’m pretty convinced that the current pyramid scheme structure of academia is not only suboptimal to scientific productivity but fundamentally damaging.

A consensus is growing among academics that the current structure is inefficient and very much stacked against young researchers, but the real question is how to get that across to funding agencies and employers who seem reluctant to actually do anything about it.

My hope is that we can make the case for change by uncovering alternative structures that would redress these imbalances and give early career researchers a sensible path to advancement in the academy.

I’m hoping to kick off a major project on simulating the research career structure and its effect on scientific productivity. The current system of grant funding is inefficient – huge amounts of time are spent on obtaining grants, which takes away from research productivity, and since most grant proposals are unsuccessful we end up with a lot of time wasted.

Previous work by Nicholas Geard and Jason Noble used a computational model to demonstrate how competitive funding systems result in inefficiency by requiring academics to spend significant time on frequently unsuccessful funding bids.

What I’m proposing at this stage is to modify Geard and Noble’s modelling framework to include academics who are on fixed-term research contracts. Presenting a simplified version of the postdoc experience would require a few changes because:

  • Many postdocs should be given much more time to devote to research in general, being largely free of time-consuming teaching or administrative duties

  • Postdocs need to spend significant time during the end of their contracts looking for a new job

  • New postdocs may lose some productive time due to needing to acclimatise to their new working environment

At the moment I’m envisioning a version of the model where we add significant new elements to try to work postdocs into this:

  • Fixed-term contracts can vary in length from two to 10 semesters – as do projects
  • Fixed-term academics don’t contribute to grant proposals, nor do they submit proposals for review (in reality some do contribute, but at least here in the UK postdocs are not considered proper academics by the research councils and thus cannot apply)
  • When the postdoc first starts work, 30 per cent of their time is spent adjusting to the new environment, getting to know people and the work that needs doing.

  • When the postdoc’s contract is due to end, again they lose 30 per cent of their time to job-hunting, interviews and general stressing-out

  • When grants are disbursed, the top 10 funded projects are allocated a postdoc with a contract length matching the grant length

  • Postdocs add their research productivity to the academic holding the grant

  • When a postdoc’s contract ends, at the end of the current semester they’re given a 10 per cent chance of being made permanent – allowing them to then conduct their own research programmes, apply for grants and get their own postdocs

  • Postdocs who don’t get made permanent can transfer to another project if one gets funded and needs a postdoc. If that doesn’t work they drop out of the research population

At the end of a test run, I’d be looking at overall research productivity, research productivity in postdocs vs permanent faculty, the career history of the postdocs, and the distribution of grant income across the population.

What I’d expect to see is an elite set of academics who started collecting postdocs early on, then snowballed their way into a series of successful grants and even more postdocs, while the rest of the population flounders, and is at a serious disadvantage compared to faculty members on the exploiting-the-postdocs train.

As for the postdocs themselves, only a tiny number would be made permanent and thus benefit from their efforts, while a large number would end up on multiple fixed-term contracts or dropping out of the population altogether.

If that were to happen, then perhaps this model could provide a good platform for investigating alternative methods of organising research careers, and for examining how different funding disbursement methods affect the fate of postdocs.

Eric Silverman is a research lecturer/senior lecturer in artificial intelligence and interactive systems in the School of Computing at Teesside University. A longer version of this article appeared on his blog Science, Philosophy and Miscellaneous Musings.

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