There has been a bug in my household, not surprising when there is a 7 year old living in the same space. He seems to bring home new viruses each week. This one did not hit me as hard as some of the others, but I have been tired, very tired. The downside of each new bug is the time lost in "recovery". I hate giving up this time to a virus, especially if I have viruses at work that need my attention. Of course, I am referring to actual viruses in the -80°C freezer that are waiting for me to interrogate.
The upside of sleeping a little bit more each morning (instead of working out) is that I have let my mind wander to what I really want to accomplish professionally. A few years ago, I attempted a search for a tenure track position. To my surprise, I received several personal notes from search committee members expressing some interesting points. What was particularly interesting is that these were notes that were in addition to the rejection letter and generally unsigned. The notes were complementary, and pointed out what I would have needed to advance in that round. Almost always, the missing item was NIH funding and obvious independence. Neither is a big revelation.
As a problem solver, I have thought about this issue a great deal, not only for myself, but for future scientists. The reality is that not every postdoc has the opportunity to submit grants to the NIH. Seriously. Sometimes, it is the PI who is the roadblock, other times it is a dynamic of the lab. In the end, the actual issue is that a postdoc lives in two worlds. One world is the lab setting based by a PI, who has a particular agenda. The other world is the research community, which has "committee" based criteria for the postdoc deemed hirable. Many others have discussed the inequality of academic hiring, including fantastic, well spoken, bloggers, tweeters, etc. I cannot do this topic justice. Instead, I will point out the math: if there is one job and 300 applicants, 299 people are not hired. Many of them are qualified, but some criteria, fair or not, stood in the way. This does not mean the other 299 applicants are not hard-working, accomplished scientists. So why do we treatment as losers?
I am hungry for a change, another path for the career scientist. The biggest hurdle is knowing how to exit the current academic setting and still maintain health insurance and income. Of course, every self-employed individual struggles with that hurdle! The difference is that a scientist does not always have a "sellable" product. At least, we do not understand what the sellable product really is. In hindsight, I now realize that the postdoc effort was the sellable product. It is the relationship between PI, postdoc, and University that needs to change, and postdocs need to demand greater ownership of their data.
Just consider what a postdoc does for the PI. In a typical lab, the postdoc does the manual labor, trains grad students, writes protocols, research updates, papers, and lab maintenance. This is not to say the PI does not work, on the contrary, the PI is working on administrative aspects of the lab. Having a postdoc in the lab means more data is generated, more students are trained, and projects run smoothly. However, there is no safety net under the postdoc, who is bound by the constraints of the PI when it comes to grants and papers. A better system is one where the postdoc has a 3 yr contract. Year one, the postdoc contributes 80-90% effort on the PI's project and 10-20% effort on a personal project. This could be a literature search, small grant or crowd funded proposal, or basis of a larger project. The second year, this changes to less effort on the PI's project and more effort on the personal project, perhaps a 60-40 split. Finally, the third year is flipped, where the postdoc spend greater than 50% effort on a personal project. This is what "payment" means. Postdocs should not be service providers as much as they should be scientists.
Now, most PIs and postdocs would say that they need to give 110% for 2-3 years just to get a project started. In that case, the payment is ownership of the data generates, meaning that as a postdoc advances each year, the postdoc acquires greater ownership of the project. For those who say that we already have this system, I love that there are already PIs who think this way. But it is not the norm, at least not in my experience.
After 3 years, a postdoc really is independent and should be treated as such. Does this mean a 4th year cannot be a staff scientist? No, it means that we need to make distinctions much earlier. At the 4th year, academia needs to be responsible for all of the researchers in the department, meaning that postdocs are hired by the University rather than the lab. This is a very important change that serves to add respect for a postdoctoral position. Give all postdocs equal footing in the academic landscape and allow all to be responsible for their scientific portfolio. Open the door to allow cross effort on another PI's grant, a bit of internal freelancing.
Finally, allow these postdocs freelance space. There are so many ways for a University to capitalize on the independent scientist, without providing them long term contracts. The greatest reward to a University is the great science that is produced by highly creative and intelligent people. It makes no sense to discard superdocs at the current rate. Why not recoup the investment?