Why postdoc delineation is not the best solution to job insecurity in science

A few years ago, a German postdoctoral researcher, conducting experiments with cold quantum gases, obtained results that promised to open new lines of research. Continuing it meant spending two years rebuilding the experience because it required the integration of technologies that had not been used before in this context. This was very risky.

“There was evidence that she could succeed, but it was a great adventure […]. I posdoc He could have been a failure.” Three years later, the research group he was part of had achieved what the scientific community considered “one of the greatest advances in the field.” After five years as a postdoctoral researcher, this physicist agreed to a permanent position in a prestigious university department. Abroad This story is part of a study where it was analyzed Some characteristics of the early stages of search jobs.

Despite this success, our researcher was not able to access one of the new vacancies. Possession track German. There, a previous post-doctoral is expected to be able to attend these places for a maximum of four years.

In the Spanish context, it would not be advisable today to conduct such a risky and time-consuming investigation. Reason? The current government is also planning to introduce this type of scheme, where access to a permanent position is preceded by a limited time of temporary employment.

Define the boundaries of the post-doctoral stage

The problems that these standardized bureaucratic processes have to deal with are real. Many national systems of research careers struggle with researchers being subjected to a series of temporary postdoctoral contracts.

Reasons for this trend it’s complicated And It is only partially understood.

Extending periods of temporary employment makes systems for scientific careers less productive and less attractive. Less productive because researchers’ independence is very limited. Less attractive because extended periods of temporary employment make scientific careers unsafe and unpredictable.

To counter these trends, post-doctoral limitation has been proposed, something that has been implemented in some cases. Some American universities have adopted a recommendation Limiting the post-doctoral employment period to five years.

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In Germany, the last federal program to fund an additional 1,000 such places Possession track she stands On the recommendation of the German Science Council. He argues that “as a general rule, a postdoc should not exceed four years […] To ensure that academic independence is granted in universities as quickly as possible.”

In Spain, the science law reform project initially provided for the introduction of a new type of place Possession track, whose maximum period of employment is before reaching permanent employment It will be four years.

The chronological delineation of the early stages of the research career is an attempt to force change in the system. But complex systems handle interventions in ways and with effects that are difficult to predict. Gentle interventions, such as recommendations or incentives, may be less effective. This explains the tendency towards non-negotiable and more formal solutions.

However, bureaucratic standardization will only really work if all searches and all career paths affected by it are equal. To the extent that this is not the case, and one part of the mismatch – the time limit – becomes constant, it is the other part – the search – that should produce.

We anticipate two types of imbalances likely to negatively affect the research.

The results of scientific work are unpredictable

First, uniform and non-negotiable boundaries cannot accommodate the diversity of investigations.

Some research processes require long periods of fieldwork, lengthy experiment design processes, or trial-and-error approaches that must be repeated until results are achieved. The case in which a posdoc It is not able to provide competitive results within the specified period, and may be the result of the characteristics of the investigation. These people will see their careers ended for reasons completely unrelated to the quality and scope of their work.

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a posdoc in plant biology, which is now the leader of its group, He described how his initial idea for a long-term research program was unsuccessful.: “It didn’t work because all the construction I was planning to do wasn’t working on Arabidopsis. We still don’t know why, but there was no way to fix it.” When did you realize? “One year after starting the postdoctoral fellowship.”

We have evidence for similar situations described by physicists who spent years reconstructing complex experiments before getting results, to biologists who set out to search for candidate genes from unpredictable trial-and-error processes. Even from historians whose original plan did not work because the archive materials did not contain enough information.

New roles required for science

Second, one possible reason for extending post-doctoral employment may be that part of the specialist knowledge needed by the research body that is retained in these types of positions because there are no alternative contract numbers for these specialists.

these posdocs They may not thrive on their own because their type of knowledge is highly specialized or because they do not aspire to lead a group. Leaders, for their part, continue to hire them because their contribution is essential to the group. In these cases, bureaucratic constraints will not only end the jobs of these specialists, but will also carve out necessary knowledge from research groups.

By not taking into account the mismatch between cognitive diversity and standardization of deadlines, bureaucratic standardization forces scientific communities to reduce the evaluation of candidates to the question of whether a certain level of output and results have been achieved in a given period.

In occupational systems with very few permanent jobs such as Spanish and German, these practices increase the risk that the few permanent jobs will not be assigned to those who are best prepared to take them.

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Risk-free science to beat bureaucracy

Bureaucratic standardization also increases pressure on posdocs To operate it safely, adjusting the few years available to meet production standards and thus accepting no-risk cost. In other words, the bureaucratic solution removes both posdocs As well as their scientific communities.

Promoting access to permanent employment arguably facilitates unconventional and risky research at the early ages of those who do. Unfortunately, this is exactly the type of research they were adapted to avoid early in their careers.

alternative solutions

However, the problem of increasing the duration of postdocs in jobs is real. Are there alternative solutions? We suggest looking at three potential measures that, while unpopular and more expensive, would address the causes of the problem rather than its symptoms.

  1. Science policy must address the issue of the growing gap between the number of post-doctoral researchers and permanent or permanent jobs. Most of these two types of arenas are funded by the same institutions that seek to tackle the problem with bureaucratic solutions. Moving toward greater balance would be the first logical step.

  2. Time frames are not negative In itself, but must be adaptable to the specific situation of the scientific community and posdocs. Therefore, well-founded exceptions must be accepted from the rule. Yes, these can be a source of abuse, but the focus should be on the ease of use of the rule and not on the opportunities it presents for abuse.

  3. Scientific policy must recognize the emergence of new roles in research by creating enough diversity of jobs to include permanent employment without the number of lead or independent researcher.

Aileen Morales

"Beer nerd. Food fanatic. Alcohol scholar. Tv practitioner. Writer. Troublemaker. Falls down a lot."

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