Snakes and ladders

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One of the peculiarities of academia is that the skills that bring success at one level are no guarantee of success at the next.

A career in academia is linear, a ladder-like procession with one rung to be ascended after the other. First the PhD, then the postdoc, then the group leader position, then tenure and professorhood, then (maybe) departmental head, institute head, and beyond into the heady – or perhaps, foggy – realms of senior administration.

While this seems straightforward and certainly manages to burnish academia’s meritocratic credentials, it does have one obvious failing: good PhDs don’t necessarily make good postdocs; good postdocs don’t necessarily make good group leaders; good group leaders don’t necessarily make good administrators.

Despite this, you need to have been a good PhD in order to become a postdoc, and you need to have been a successful postdoc in order to become a group leader, and so on. You can’t simply go in at group leader level and bypass the practical stuff.

Compare this with the retail sector. Or with the military. In both you can attain leadership positions in two main ways – either you start at the bottom (the shop floor, or in the ranks) and work your way up through the levels by promotion, or you go straight in at executive/officer level. A key feature of the latter route is that training in management and leadership is mandatory. In academia, this latter route simply doesn’t exist – you can’t do an MBA equivalent and go straight in at the executive level, you need to graduate through the levels.

One might argue that by allowing only one route to the top, academia ensures that only people who are good scientists attain leadership positions – but that’s the point. People who are good scientists are not automatically good leaders, and everything above postdoc level is primarily either a leadership or an administrative position, not a scientific one. It’s also somewhat naive to think that senior scientists are necessarily on top of modern developments – like a Blackadder parody of the British Army, it is entirely possible that their stellar reputation ensures a stream of talented postdocs to do the real scientific heavy lifting while they sit cocooned in an office.

This lacuna is already acknowledged to the extent that there are now plenty of leadership and acclimatisation courses for junior faculty, but it remains a fact that a scientifically-minded individual with no practical aptitude has no chance of progress. Master’s projects exist unofficially as a means to winnow the practically-apt candidates from those whose interest in science does not extend to a capacity for conducting original research. Yet there’s actually no reason why those individual with clumsy hands (or whatever the theoretician’s equivalent would be) might still be skilful and effective leaders, grant-writers, and mentors.

The other difference is in progression. In retail, or the military, if you reach a level you’re content with you can stay there. If you don’t apply for a promotion then you stay where you are. In academia, the real-life snakes and ladders, you are not allowed to stay put. The only permanent positions are staff scientists (still, regrettably, a rarity) and tenured professors. If you don’t seek promotion you’ll find that eventually you’re let go as you’ve become too experienced – and therefore, too expensive – to maintain. Like the game, you aren’t allowed to stop. You have to keep on climbing the ladder, heading for the end.

This inability to halt at a level that suits your inclination, talents, and possibly also your psychology is arguably one of the main contributors to the current logjam at junior faculty level. Postdocs have to try to obtain junior faculty positions because otherwise they’ll be out, but it would be interesting to know how many would settle for a staff scientist position if one were available. Not everyone relishes the idea of leading a group, with all the responsibility it brings (not least, a gradual dissociation from benchwork).

And remember, once you become a group leader, you’re unlikely to be able to focus exclusively on your research – you’ll be required to lead the group and participate in the functioning of the department/institute. And even if you rise to the top and prove yourself a skilled and talented administrator, it’s quite likely that your colleagues will cluck sympathetically that in research terms, the second half of your career has been a tragedy in comparison to the dazzling achievements of your early days.

It’s been argued here already that there needs to be more awareness of non-academia science careers for young scientists. But there also needs to be more opportunity for people to stay at a level they’re happy with. And in academia’s version of the game, hitting a snake doesn’t send you back to the start, it sends you off the board.

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