Life in academia, no matter what stage, can be tougher than people realise. The perception that academics while away their days in tweed jackets with elbow patches has never contrasted more with the stark reality of the desperate struggle to raise money, get recognition and cope with university politics. Here are six issues facing them everyday.
1) Too many postdocs/PhDs: Are we living in era of ‘Generation Postdoc-alypse’? We are training too many postdocs and neglecting to offer them a proper career path, so they simply cannot escape postdoctoral life. Many researchers are languishing for years in underpaid and often exploitable conditions, leaving them overqualified for many other positions outside of the university environment. This lack of infrastructure, perhaps done for the sake of cheap labour or to promote the illusion of the knowledge economy, is an issue everywhere from the US to China (as outlined here).
2) Disappointed research graduates: The skills required to be a good research scientist, apart from discipline and diligence, largely centre around creativity and problem solving. However, most big companies, while having development and manufacturing facilities around the world, tend to have smaller centralised research units. The result is that many PhD graduates find themselves disappointed in development and quality-assurance units of big companies. While governments will spin the line about the value of the ‘high knowledge jobs economy’ and actively promote the employment of people with PhDs, a GMP-regulated development and manufacturing environment does not usually test ones creativity very often. This isnt a problem just for Biotech as this article shows a similar problem across STEM.
3) Institutionalisation: Years spent beavering away in a laboratory while completing BS, MSc and PhD qualifications can leave some scientists with small, unvaried networks. This can mean that you can stymy your own brand and your skills can go unrecognised. Even allowing for the fact that students and postdocs may move around, many industries become suspicious of people who spend so much time within a learning Institute. Perhaps unfairly, they may feel that a long time spent in academia does not prepare people for the realities of being in a normal working environment.
4) Poor supervisors or bullying bosses: Stories abound in all universities of poor PhD and research supervision: stories that range from indifference to highly controlling and downright crazy. Here is a useful website if you find yourself in that position. The simple fact is that too many academic institutions care more about how much money their ‘talent’ is bringing in. A fact even acknowledged in a recent EMBO report. They largely overlook teaching and supervising abilities and too many young researchers and students find themselves the victims of this, regardless of their skills and aptitudes.
5) The clamour for grant money: This is perhaps the toughest issue for a lot of skilled young scientists. There are great researchers and scientists out there who struggle to write papers and grant proposals. But science, indeed academia, has been guilty of developing a language that is not accessible to many people. Examples where this is broken down were posted in this blog. In more recent times, self promotion has become incredibly important. How many of us know people who can make their sow’s ear sound like a silk purse while more modest colleagues, through modesty, can take the air of their own tyres?
You can not make it in the academic world without writing and self-promotion skills. But does being an exceptional academic writer make you a better researcher? Of course not.
Even commercialisation grants provided by government organisations usually have stipulations connected with academic status. These include the number of years you have spent as a postdoc, industrial partner availability, possession of other grants or number of publications – all of which may have little to do with your likely entrepreneurial ability.
Finally, fashion is everything in science. Young researchers who just happen to find themselves connected to the latest buzzwords can ride the wave until the hype machine breaks down, while other areas fall out of fashion only to be recognised as very valuable years later.
6). The rise of the biohacker: As a traditional, old-school scientist who has been through the system, I had been hearing about the biohacker as well as the IGEM phenomenon for some time. However, I was genuinely shocked with just how advanced their ‘play’ time was getting. Places such as Genspace, Biocurious and Waag in Europe are all to be taken seriously. Work previously only possible through doing a PhD is being done now by high-school kids. This is a growing trend, aided by companies like Briefcase Biotec, the Odin and our own Cell-Free Tech. Many of my former colleagues behind the hallowed doors haven’t fully recognised this. For applied science institutions, in particular the technical universities and colleges, this could suck away much of their status in the world and, as result, reduce their students’ inherent value.
There is, of course, one way to circumvent all of these problems: become an entrepreneur. Here in RebelBio, we respect your academic qualifications and research achievements. However, we also recognise all the issues above and thus, we are more interested in what you can bring to the world in terms of product and your willingness to work with us to push that through.
We offer you independence, including independence for your research. If you secure investment and show us that you’re serious, you will find that previously closed avenues will open up to you – opportunities that no amount of high-impact factors will provide. By getting our attention, you’ll find that you’ll be taken more seriously by academic institutions and other investors.