Put Your PhD/Postdoc Where Your Mouth Is

open mouthLet’s get the obvious out of the way. The academic research system is broken, particularly for young scientists like us grad students and postdocs. Some of the senior academics want us to make ourselves heard: the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology called for younger scientists to respond to the alarm raised by senior academics, in particular about the state of biomedical research in the US (obligatory link to Alberts et al.).

I have written previously about the need for postdocs and grad students to contribute their voices to conversations about the future of academia. In Boston a discussion and subsequent report attempted to engage local researchers and similar discussions will soon be under way in New York, the San Francisco Bay area, and elsewhere. Aditi Dubey takes this further with her excellent (and prize-winning!) essay, “Challenges for the biomedical enterprise,” describing that it’s all very well to write editorials and blog posts, but that scientists need to get their voices heard in the political sphere. Here at COMPASS, grad students and postdocs represent a growing trend in scientific societies of young scientists getting involved and striving to implement change within the society. Many scientific organizations are engaging with younger researchers who are, after all, aspiring to be their future members as established academics, and giving the opportunity to make serious contributions to the discussion.

We LOVE venting. Venting is a big part of life as a grad student or postdoc. It’s therapeutic but rarely constructive. I have a once in a lifetime offer. What if I told you, I have not ONE but TWO opportunities to vent, in a constructive manner?

I’m going to tell you of a couple of ways you can put your postdoc (and PhD) where your mouth is. Just for starters.

Emeritus Award: NIH Request for Information

Deadline: MARCH 6

The NIH has issued a Request for Information, which is something akin to a Royal Proclamation only there’s fewer men with bells shouting “Hear ye.” The idea of an Emeritus Award is basically to provide a mechanism for senior investigators to gracefully exit, transition out of their lab and close it down in some way, shape, or form (some suggested allowing them to pass the lab onto someone younger). I don’t want to editorialize, but read through the Request for Information, and also Sally Rockey’s NIH blog post (don’t forget the comments), the excellent Datahound blogpost by Jeremy Berg and, if you’re feeling brave, the Twitter hashtag #emeritusNIHGrant. You can also find coverage at Science magazine.

Take home point: You can comment on this. Tell the NIH what you think. I do recommend looking for balanced opinions on this to weigh the pros and cons you may or may not have considered; it’s been quite controversial and deserves a lot of thought.


FASEB Report Feedback

Deadline: MARCH 10

The Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology (FASEB) has published a report, “Sustaining Discovery in Biological and Medical Sciences: A Discussion Framework,” which is a collection of recommendations that arose from discussions among FASEB’s member societies about issues that affect young researchers particularly. It makes for interesting reading by itself (hey, we all have our thing) and it actually presents the recommendations clearly in the first sections, and you can read more about them later in the document if you are intrigued, don’t know what they’re talking about, or just love looking at those depressing graphs [you know, the ones where all the R01s go down and the age of the first one goes up and the number of postdocs over time smashes through the top of the page (not that anyone actually knows how many postdocs there are)].

Take home point: you can comment on this by taking part in a survey. It takes 20 minutes if you’re feeling particularly opinionated. They really want to hear from students and postdocs and have reached out looking for feedback. I told them I’d get you all to do it. Don’t make me a liar.


Vote early and often* (*often denotes indirect voting, by making your colleagues vote too)

It doesn’t matter how you vote; all that matters is that you DO vote. If those in or running for government don’t think we’re politically active, they are not going to listen to us. Make them listen. Let them know the riffraff have spoken.

I’ve done it. Do it during your incubations. Do it in the lab. Do it on the train (wifi permitting). Do it where your PI can see you. Do it in the warm room. Do it in the cold room. Then back in the warm room. Do it in your homes, on the streets – heck, do it on the beach. Years from now, your grandchildren will ask, “What did YOU do during the great Alberts crisis (I don’t know what they’ll call it but they’ll still be putting the link everywhere. Look, there it is again)?” Will you be able to look them in the eye? Will you?

Your biomedical research system needs you.

About the Author:

Gary McDowell is Executive Director of The Future of Research, Inc. (http://futureofresearch.org/), a nonprofit organization seeking to champion, engage and empower early career researchers with evidence-based resources to help them make improvements to the research enterprise. He is a COMPASS alumnus.