Jörg Ruppert is a German physicist presently working at the physics department of McGill University, Montreal, Quebec, Canada (since Sept. 2006). This job is his second postdoctoral appointment. He has worked at the physics department of Duke University, NC, USA, for two years after graduating from J.W. Goethe-University, Frankfurt, Germany. His research interests are the QCD phase diagram and related to that phenomena occurring in hot and dense nuclear matter produced in heavy-ion collisions at RHIC and CERN. In his spare time he enjoys discovering the wonders of Montreal.
Yesterday, Bee send me a link to the article by M. Lang in Nature. The title (and the subtitle) of the article sounded interesting ("Temporary display: If you look on short-term employment as a way of window shopping, you could get a bargain"). And I am sure one could have written a nice one page essay about it, the actual article fell short of my expectations.
What the author actually did in the first column was contrasting "German" and "American" points of view on temporarily employment. This was followed by his point of view on the advantages of temporal employment for employee and employer in science.
Since the text was published in Nature under the category "inside track from academia and industry" and therefore has been made part of the discussion in a scientific environment, I feel that I have to respond critically to the article as it stands. While I have no problem with the fact that the author (or in general somebody) has a different view on the issue than I have, I would have a problem if the text remained unresponded. That's why I think that it is a good idea that Bee made it an issue in her blog.
I confess I did not have time to do a lot of research about the author and the circumstances in which the text was written. I also confess that I am one of those who are on "Temporary display" and that therefore my opinion might be subjective and perhaps as biased as the author's one (although biased in a different way I hope).
I also decided against analyzing every part and the total of the text in great detail. I just wanted to let you know what came to my mind while reading it:
I think M. Lang misses the point in the German vs. American discussion of temporary employment in scientific research. While the German job market has always been more regulated (in the sense of unions and legal protection of employees) than the American and while Germans (on average) might tend to emphasize job security when considering the benefits of a job more than Americans, this difference in attitudes is not addressing the main issue for people employed in short-term (say <~5 years) research jobs (in many research fields). I actually think this part of his discussion is misdirecting the whole punchline in which the issue should be seen. Obviously job security is a question in research as in any job, but the specific character of research jobs as opposed to many other jobs might make it even more important in research in the long run:
- Long term projects in fundamental research afford a longer term perspective. That is one reason why (at least (!)) senior scientist should have tenured (or long term) positions. People working on long term position can develop research fields on long term perspectives. People working on short term positions can't do that as effectively.
- Short term jobs are also enforced by funding agencies: senior scientist get grants for a certain period and have to reapply, they can't offer long term jobs to their (former) postdocs unless a research or faculty position is opened by their university/research institution.
- If one wants to see the system of postdoc employment from its best aspects, it might be seen as a setup which wants to help young scientists to work with experts in their research field at other places than where they made their PHDs or where they will eventually get a senior science position. It can be interpreted in the sense of "years of travel" where you gain additional experience after having finished your PHD.
Every single postdoc appointment has to be long enough to allow the person (and his/her collaborators) to substantially profit from his/her stay at every single place.
Switching between short-term employments means moving and adjusting to new places and people. While this can be thrilling and keeps you in an active state of the mind, this also takes considerable time, energy and financial resources. One is tempted to point out that even postdocs are not research machines, but human beings with human needs. What does it mean not to be "tied down with family and financial commitments" and friends? It simple means that you shift (because you decide to in order to gain experience and improve your prospects on the long-term appointment job market) during the postdoc years your commitments towards your job away from friends and family. Many people decide to do that also outside of academia -- but it is a decision and for those among us who value close social bonds to loved ones a tough one. In this context I wonder why the author fails to acknowledge that "family values" might be one of the strongest American traditions (stronger than in Europe at least) and that it is actually difficult to move one's partner over the planet -- especially if he or she wants to develop a reasonable career by him-/herself.
For most of us choosing this path also means making not the most reasonable possible choice (judging only on economic grounds): a postdoc position in fundamental research almost never pays off in dollars and cents (even if you get a long term job). Measured financially most of us could seek much more lucrative job options (also in the long term), I guess. In that sense the discussion of the scientist job market in a reduced economical language might in the end prove counterproductive: if we are only economically justifying our choices then a science career definitively is not the best one after all.
That is not to say we shouldn't pursue a scientific career, but people discussing this career path should have in mind that most folks that have chosen to work there don't have money on their highest priority list - which is not to say that a decent salary is necessary to attract good people to science and science careers.
So what's the rational reasoning for making a postdoc experience (and not opting against it and pursuing another career) to my opinion?
- You love research.
- You want to learn from/ do research with leading scientists in your
field and go to where they have long term jobs (which also provides scientific networking later on etc.)
- You want to eventually get on a tenure track position towards a "senior researcher" with a long term perspective. (As an Ass. professor in the North American system one is on probation for a long term job -- Nobody I know who is German and knows that system doesn't want to have the assistant professor tenure track system copied into the German University system)
- If the long term perspective is gone (meaning the firm believe that your short term appointment can turn eventually in a long term appointment), than it gets a much tougher journey. And that is the real problem in many fields especially if you have not been clever enough to chose the research topics and places (and last but not least supervisors for thesis/postdoc) that have the full level of publicity in the scientific community. Then it gets tough, even tough to motivate oneself further albeit most people love their research. It is especially hard to keep a positive perspective if you know of other researchers in your field that just fail to get a job because their subject is not on the peak of (temporarily and changing) public awareness of the scientific community -- not because they won't do great research or have a vast knowledge and competence.
- I also think that short term appointments increase the publication pressure (which can mean more quantity than quality in research output) and the pressure to do short term projects. Furthermore looking for a job every one or two year can make the competition fierce. Again: one should value competition in research (in he sense of providing independent checks and keeping the people focused and on the frontier of research), but I think collaboration in science is equally important. The present system favors competition often over collaboration -- probably copying the free economic market system.
Science should have a different quality than economic life. While competition is the most important principle in order to provide different competing choices of products for the costumer, science should still seek the unique answers meaning truth and advancement of knowledge -- as its ultimate goal -- and should value collaboration equally high.
To my understanding the prospect of long term appointment can motivate short term appointment (and make it justifiable even if one thinks somewhat in an economic perspective).
The author acknowledges this simple fact also indirectly: "it gives them an opportunity to see the scientist in action, before they make a long-term commitment",
Exactly, nobody argues against a research institute putting somebody on temporary 'probation' to test if the person fits in. In addition nobody says that if people stop doing research or do inappropriate things at their workplace that they should be protected by unreasonable laws or regulations from being fired even if they are on long term position.
All what I argue is that a long sequence of short term positions with a fading perspective of long term jobs in research can drive researchers/postdocs and even worse the quality of their research down: may they be from North America or Europe...
TAGS: SCIENCE, SCIENCE AND SOCIETY, JOBS