Tuesday, April 25, 2017

More on scientific bottlenecks

If you think of it, even during "peaceful times" academia is full of bottlenecks. I was on a job market just 3 years ago, and  I remember this feeling very well: you get trained for some 12 years (feels long!), and now you pretty much have 2 years (feels very short!) to make a jump to the next level (professorship), with something like only 2-3 attempts per year. So about 6 attempts overall! If you don't make it, you are mentally prepared to quit. Because by that time you are probably exhausted, and you are probably in your mid-30s, and you want a family, a place to live, and the clock is ticking.

So a person arrives at this landing pier and waits for a ferry to come, for a job to open, at mercy of random luck of somebody retiring. Somebody who used to teach exactly the courses this new person can teach; exactly in the field they are interested in; and in the region where they are OK to live. They are waiting there, like Frogger on a moving log, with this very limited time to make the leap. Because after that both the guidelines for postdoc employment, and personal patience, and the faith of potential employers would probably run out.

This bottleneck of possibility feels completely ridiculous. I am sure there are great postdocs our there who can teach courses A and B, but we now need somebody who would teach C and D, and be a good teacher, and a good researcher, and be fine with moving to our neck of the woods. If you multiply all these probabilities, you end up with a ridiculously low number of qualified candidates. Call if "fit", or call it "luck", but it almost feels like a numerical problem. A candidate may be great, and the probability of them finding a job may be quite high, but there are only that many years to try, and only that many openings each year. It's a rather cruel system, if you think of it.

Especially considering that postdocs cannot hibernate like bears from one job season to another.

(And even if they could, they'd loose "research momentum" while in hibernation, so it would not have worked anyways).

I'm guessing good mentorship would really make a difference in this situation, as a mentor could help a candidate to understand what part of their CV or application package to boost, how to hone their research talk, how to get "street credibility" if they are applying to an adjacent field (say, a computational neuroscientist to a computer science position). But it seems that most postdocs don't have this mentorship for some reason.

By the way, that's also the main reason I think age-restricted scholarships are evil. It's bad enough that everybody die, and get older, and are scared of missing the Frogger-train. Adding some artificial deadlines to this story, and making people who were on a maternity leave, or changed careers, or served in the army, - making them explain how they are not as old as they seem to be - that's just plain evil.

I guess time to join some support group, and maybe support or mentor somebody somewhere, to pay it forward and dispel the gloom.

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