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October 9, 2013 / jpschimel

The challenge of non-academic careers: risky for the researcher?

When I get a grant from the NSF, I have effectively signed a contract to complete a body of research, and that includes publishing the work and making the results and insights available to the public. Essentially NSF expects me to pay them back for their financial support with published papers.

When I recruit a postdoc to work on that project, I have signed a contract with them—I will do what is in my power to support them and to advance their goals: to get a job and develop a career. In exchange, they agree to support me—to do and complete research on the project. By accepting my NSF funding they have taken on a portion of the obligation to pay back with papers.

And here we run into the challenge of non-academic careers. Only one postdoc I have ever worked with who took a non-academic route ever finished the papers they had been working on. This problem exists, but is less extreme, with Ph.D. students who are likely to have finished most of the papers for their dissertation. But a postdoc’s job is to get a job, and jobs come up when jobs come up. Thus, the probability of a postdoc taking a pile of half-processed datasets with them is high, and the probability of their ever finishing the papers is low.

When you start a new job, there is a swarm of new challenges to learn the place, people, and problems you’re working with.  In academe, we generally accept that publishing previous work is part of the current job. Finishing Ph.D. and postdoc papers is important to getting a permanent job and advancing. With non-academic jobs, though, managers are unlikely to care about old papers. With little support to finish the papers, and in a new professional environment, it’s no surprise that people find it difficult. No one has ever left with anything but the best of intent, but that is rarely enough.

Thus, trainees who are interested in non-academic careers can be a risky investment for a researcher. They bring many wonderful things to a lab—friendship, creativity, intellectual enrichment, and a mentoring resource for students—but ultimately, you pay them off the grant and they are less likely to pay back the investment by publishing their work.

This leaves me personally and professionally conflicted. It’s my job as mentor to help my people get to the right place for them, and its important to get our people into the public world. We need experienced and talented people in industry, government, and NGO’s and we have an obligation to train people for these careers. But I have needs from the relationship as well—I need the work completed and the papers published.

So what is the solution? I know I can’t convince companies and agencies to wait till a postdoc is done, and I don’t think I can get them to meaningfully support new hires in finishing their previous work. Many students have said we don’t value non-academic careers, and I think that’s not true—we do, but the structures push us toward academic trainees. How do we fix the balance between what we strive to be as academics and what we need to do to survive as academics?

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3 Comments

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  1. Matt Wallenstein / Oct 10 2013 4:03 pm

    Partly in response to this challenge, I’ve recently implemented a formal data management and project documentation policy in my lab. My goal is that everything we do should be documented well enough that someone else could publish the study even if someone left prematurely. There are of course, other reasons to implement this policy, and I think everyone will benefit.

    I’m strongly in favor of training PhD and MS students on a non-academic trajectory. But, you point out that they have incentives for writing up their work that post-docs may not share. Perhaps post-docs are really apprenticeships for academia or other research careers and should be primarily reserved for candidates on that path.

  2. Meredith Warshaw / Oct 10 2013 5:17 pm

    To follow up on Matt’s comment, I work in a semi-academic setting. We get a lot of people who are here for a few years then leave for grad school or permanent positions elsewhere. Because of that, we have things well set up for transitioning a new statistician on to the project of someone who’s leaving. Perhaps you could work out a transition protocol and have part of your contract be that departing post-docs have to follow it?

  3. Armen Kemanian / Oct 12 2013 11:19 am

    Given that this happens frequently, projects need a built-in safety factor. In a simplistic scenario it will work like this, if for every two “postdoc level” hires one completes work and publishes as expected and one does not, then you need a safety factor of two: for every project needing one effective postdoc you need to budget for two. Of course, this is unrealistic, so our safety factor is the wheel fortune or the skill to hire the person that can perform x2. This is more than challenging for young faculty but still careful budgeting and hiring are the keys to deal with these predictable issues.

    Of course we can discuss why things are they way they are. But meanwhile, things are they way they are.

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