Becoming a successful and effective academic scientist in the current competitive climate is such an unattainable goal that most would probably be content with just managing to stay in the game. According to a 2010 report by the Royal Society, A Scientific Century, only 0.45 per cent of PhDs in a science, technology, engineering or mathematics (STEM) subject in the UK will become professors, while 3.5 per cent will cling on to some form of permanent position. The vast majority of the rest will peel off, earlier or later, and do presumably useful and fulfilling non-academic jobs, most of them not involving research. The picture is similarly bleak in many other countries.
The rub, though, is that other statistics, for example from the Careers in Research Online Survey produced by Vitae (the UK organisation responsible for researchers’ professional development), consistently show that 80 per cent of postdoctoral researchers desire a permanent position in academia, and about two-thirds fully expect to get one. In a career structure that some have described as a Ponzi scheme, what fledgling science trainees really need is a good dose of tough love: a comprehensive and honest description of their chances of success, and support and training opportunities to help them to understand and realise the rich array of options outside academia. However, it is still fashionable among established scientists to assume, and to preach, that doing the “right things”, along with a sprinkling of luck and much hard work, will give trainees a fair shot at the professorial pot of gold.
Enter Corey Bradshaw, Matthew Flinders fellow in global ecology at Australia’s Flinders University, and his new book. Few taking a quick glance at his website would doubt that he is highly qualified to understand what success looks like. But can he distil his own essence into a foolproof recipe?
The answer, of course, is that no formula can overcome the stark reality of an ever-increasing glut of PhDs and postdocs fighting for a vanishingly rare number of permanent academic positions. That said, Bradshaw makes a heroic effort. With a relaxed and humorous style, he indoctrinates the uninitiated into hard-won tricks of the trade, at times opening up to the reader about his own career missteps to illustrate a point. The topics covered are comprehensive, from writing papers and grants to managing lab politics and public engagement to preserving your sanity in the process.
Much of the advice is common sense, such as keeping your data well organised, soliciting feedback on grant applications from colleagues before submission, being polite to referees, and not leaving your email on when you’re trying to write. He doesn’t shy away from thornier issues, such as lab relationships (“do not, under any circumstances, copulate with your lab mates”) and PhD student meltdown. Other advice is not necessarily that helpful, for example advising researchers to put off childbirth for as long as possible – easy to say if you’re a man. And then there’s his handy list of how to prioritise time as a group leader: is it really a good idea, as he suggests, to place media engagements and the writing of press releases above having one-to-one meetings with students and postdocs?
At times, Bradshaw delves deeper into less familiar issues. For example, he describes in detail the demoralising emotional reactions inherent in rejection, which no scientist ever truly outgrows, and how best to move on in the face of them. He also offers a forensic dissection of the brutal and cut-throat nature of peer review and explains how to keep the moral high ground and outmanoeuvre referees who engage in ad hominem attacks.
Bradshaw confesses that his colleagues probably consider him a “media tart”, but the sections about engaging with the outside world are useful, and it is refreshing to see a how-to book for scientists addressing blogging, social media, advocacy and public communication as essential parts of the profession – even if, as I suspect, focusing too much on them could be detrimental to the overall goal of clinging on to an academic position. I did wince at his description of public engagement as “informing the public about science” – which is several decades out of date and does not take into account more modern ideas about two-way dialogue. And it is possibly remiss to encourage blogging about controversial topics without including any warnings about libel, which are vital, as anyone familiar with the travails of the science writer and physicist Simon Singh and his financially disastrous altercation with the British Chiropractic Association will attest.
The author also spends many pages attacking the evils of publishers who reap enormous profits from the unremunerated efforts of academics – which he calls “intellectual slavery” – and calls for a revolution. His solution, lobbying for a system in which all peer reviewers are paid a modest honorarium, makes for a rather lacklustre conclusion. This is especially so as one up-and-coming option for breaking the cycle of academic self-harm, namely preprint servers, is mentioned only in passing, and Bradshaw professes himself “ambivalent” about the practice.
The truly revolutionary aspect of this book is buried near the very end, where Bradshaw makes a fervent plea for scientists to consider working on less abstract, more practical research problems that have a chance at making a real difference to society. While not completely dismissing a blue‑sky approach, he advocates tackling complex and planet-threatening issues such as pollution, the effects of overpopulation, alternatives to fossil fuels and climate change. “Scientists”, he notes, “can no longer afford merely to refine our documentation of the planet’s demise”; not contributing, he says, is both “morally and ethically questionable”.
And it’s not enough, Bradshaw opines, merely to focus one’s research in a more applied way. The scientist must take an active part in propelling the resulting data into real-world solutions. This might include writing opinion articles and open letters to sway policymakers, attempting to talk to government representatives or persuading them to second themselves to your lab. Even street protest is de rigueur – although thankfully Bradshaw draws the line at Molotov cocktails and looting.
As founder of Science is Vital, the British grass-roots group campaigning to prevent cuts to science funding, I have first-hand experience of how much work is required to drive even small changes in the political sphere. Helping to organise our 2010 rally, which was considered on most sides to have made a difference, probably cost me at least one peer-reviewed paper. And this brings us back to the original point: succeeding in science is a long shot. I was surprised that Bradshaw does not emphasise this unfortunate fact, nor provide the sobering statistics showing that young scientists newly embarking on an academic path are unlikely to reach their desired outcome. Because no one can escape this uncomfortable truth: all research teams are fuelled by academic aspirants who are in some sense disposable. The corollary is that scaring off students and postdocs from your lab with bleak warnings would be counterproductive to your own career. This conflict of interest is universal but seldom acknowledged openly. Every time a group leader recruits a post, we are complicit in the Ponzi scheme.
What is missing from Bradshaw’s book is the advice to be as frank with potential trainees as possible before they sign on the dotted line, and supportive of coaching them towards alternatives. Otherwise, you will always be part of the problem.
Jennifer Rohn is principal research associate in the division of medicine at UCL.
The Effective Scientist: A Handy Guide to a Successful Academic Career
By Corey J. A. Bradshaw
Cambridge University Press
288pp, £46.99 and £17.99
ISBN 9781107171473 and 9781316620854
Published 22 March 2018
Corey J. A. Bradshaw, Matthew Flinders fellow in global ecology at Flinders University in Australia, was born in a small town in Canada’s Rocky Mountains – where his father, a hunter and a fur trapper, taught him how to survive in the bush. After a first degree in ecology at the University of Montreal, he went on to a master’s in zoology at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Canada and then to a PhD in ecology at the University of Otago in New Zealand.
Even as an early career researcher, Bradshaw learned a number of vital lessons. One was the value of “strong quantitative skills”: “Without good mathematical skills, I would be otherwise destined to a more restrictive research focus, with fewer opportunities for collaboration, funding and high-impact publications.” Another was to understand that “writing well – not simply using the formulaic prose of peer-reviewed articles – was an indispensable skill for communication within and beyond the scientific realm. Good writing [can] stimulate more scientists to read and cite your research, and it can spark the interest of journalists and the general public. Finally, I realised that the capacity to speak in an engaging fashion to both scientific and public audiences was the key to becoming an effective scientist, because few are prepared to listen to and learn from a dull presenter.”
Asked about what support universities ought to offer, Bradshaw argues that they “would be wise to invest heavily in ways to assist young scientists to improve their writing, speaking and mathematical skills. Workshops in topics as varied as media training, public speaking and journalistic writing would be investments that would pay future dividends. I also think that providing intense training in various computer coding languages, statistical and modelling approaches and database management would propel many young scientists to new heights of academic potential.”