Scientists wanted

May 17, 2018

In “Good luck, you’re going to need it”, her review of The Effective Scientist by Corey Bradshaw (3 May), Jennifer Rohn begins by painting a “bleak” picture of the prospects of a young scientist’s gaining a faculty position, supporting the claim with gloomy statistics (just 0.45 per cent of PhDs in science, technology, engineering and mathematics become professors in the UK).

In reality, the number of faculty positions, and of personal chairs, in STEM is far higher now than it was even in the “golden age” of the 1960s university expansion. In that era, the life chances of a vast proportion of the UK’s young people were restricted very early: at 11-plus, at entry to A levels, at selection for a number of university places less than a 10th of the current number, and at selection for PhD scholarships that were few and far between. For those very few who reached the PhD stage, competition for faculty positions seemed low, but only because most of it had already happened. Today, higher education, even at PhD level, is accessible to many more people. This should surely be a cause for celebration rather than gloom.

Giving our brightest young academically inclined scientists a false message that there is little hope of their obtaining a faculty position does them a great disservice: the truth is that the truly creative people who would have gained such positions in the past are still sought – aggressively – by world-class universities. One of the pleasures of my greying years is watching the PhD and postdoctoral alumni of my lab gaining academic positions of their own: I hope that, in mentoring their own students, they dispel the common but false message that scientific creativity and leadership are no longer rewarded.

Jamie Davies
University of Edinburgh


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