The Canadian Association of Postdoctoral Scholars (CAPS
) recently released the results of their 2013 survey (the full report can be found here
and an executive summary here
). The survey received responses from 1,830 postdocs across Canada, which amounts to about 20% of all Canadian postdocs.
The premises for the survey were to
- Present demographic data about the Canadian postdoctoral population
- Identify the primary concerns for postdocs and compare their concerns to the ones identified in a similar survey from 2009
The demographic data shows that the average Canadian postdoc is 34 years old and equally male (53%) or female (47%). More than 2 out of 3 (69%) are in a serious relationship, and 35% have dependent children. Over 50% of Canadian postdocs are not originally from Canada (i.e. on work visas or landed immigrants).
From the CAPS 2013 survey report
The postdocs in the survey were mainly from the
Life Sciences (46%), Physical Sciences/Engineering (32%), Social Sciences/ Humanities (14%), and Interdisciplinary (8%). My time as a Canadian postdocs fits perfectly with these demographics (when I started I was 34 year old, common-law with a child, permanent resident arrived from Denmark and working in the life sciences), and I thus dare call myself an average Canadian postdoctoral fellow. As such, I was not surprised to identify with every single key point raised in the report, and I have discussed several of them in previous blogs like this one on low compensation and benefits, and this one on being called a trainee after 8 years of university.
Salary and benefits
While Canadian postdocs are generally satisfied with their research environments (which speaks highly of the present quality of Canadian research organizations), they are dissatisfied with their low salaries (which raises concerns for the future quality of Canadian research organizations). Around two-thirds of Canadian postdocs (63%) make less than $45,000 per year. Before taxes. The standard salary from the three major funding agencies in Canada (CIHR, NSERC and SSHRC) is only $40,000. A number that hasn't gone up by a single dollar in many years (see here
for NSERC awards since 2008), and most postdocs have thus received de facto pay-cuts over the last many years due to inflation. As one survey respondent writes:
Coming to Canada for a postdoctoral ‘training’ is a financial disaster in every way.
On top of this comes the lack of benefits. Most Canadian postdocs do not receive general benefits like parental leave or extended health care. Even the few organizations that do provide benefits (like University of British Columbia), still don't offer a pension plan to their postdocs. Since the survey also shows that half of all postdocs spend 3 or more years in a postdoc position, many thus spend a significant percentage of their career without benefits or pension.
I don't think that it is fair to expect someone to go through an extended period of education, and then 3-5+ years of temporary, low paid employment as a ‘trainee’ with no benefits, probably in several different locations before they can even start to apply for permanent employment. The uncertainty is incredibly difficult, especially at a time when people are trying to maintain long term relationships and start families.
The classification grey-zone
Part of the problem lies in the classification of postdocs as something of a grey zone between student and employee, cleverly called a trainee. A whooping majority of over 75% of postdocs would prefer to be classified as employees with the taxes, employment insurance, extended health, pension plans and lack of student-discounts and everything else that comes with being an adult (who went to school for more than 20 years to become über qualified). However, only about one-third of them are employees (a big chunk of those only became employees after a law-suit against UofT
in 2012). The rest are trainees, students, contractors and others. Most of the postdocs classified as students or trainees also felt rather insulted by this classification in light of their level of expertise and education. This might seem like an easy-to-fix problem, but as always, there is money at the root of it. Most large organizations in Canada have an obligation to provide benefits and pension plans to their employees, while they have no such obligations to their students and trainees. Classifying postdocs as something other than employees thus save the research organization a lot of money. Especially since the Tri-Council funding agencies (CIHR, NSERC and SSHRC) do not include such expenses in their awards, and the extra money therefore has to come out of the university/hospital/etc.'s pocket. Or out of the postdoc's salary, which is also sometimes the case.
Career prospects and qualifications
The vast majority of postdocs (81%) have a faculty position as their ultimate career goal, and state that their postdoc position is a stepping stone towards that goal. Unfortunately, reality shows that, if Canada resembles the US, less than a quarter of postdocs will actually achieve that goal, according to the US national science board
That obviously means that two-thirds of postdocs will end up working in non-faculty positions as something else, as I previously wrote about in my post "alternative careers are the new norm in science
". There is nothing wrong with that per se
, except that most postdocs dont really have the qualifications for a non-faculty position. They have qualifications for academic jobs coming out of their ying yang, but for the industry, government, management....not so much (apart from the translatable qualifications of researching, applying for money and such). PhD's and postdocs are trained to become faculty, and many find themselves lost and confused when that doesn't happen. The "academic tunnel vision" permeates the entire system and it leaves no room for preparation for a non-academic career. 87% state that they have no access to career counseling or are unsure if they have access (at UBC for instance, the postdocs are the only group who does not have access to such, as students have their own career counselor program to which postdocs do not have access, and staff and faculty have another career counseling program, again closed to psotdocs). You could make a good argument that postdocs need career counseling more than anyone (except maybe grad students).
I am constantly stressed that I won't be able to get a job as a university professor, but I really don't have a satisfactory ‘plan B’ if this doesn't work out.
When asked if they had received any exposure to non-academic career opportunities as postdocs, half reported no exposure at all, and less than one in ten (7.7%) reported that they had a lot of exposure. That leaves a lot of postdocs with no training or exposure to the non-academic career path in which they will eventually wind up.
From the CAPS 2013 survey report
CAPS finishes off its report with two major concerns that are in urgent need of attention. I will just copy-paste them into this blog, and hope that the stakeholders of Canadian research communities will read them and take action
"First, many postdocs are unhappy with their administrative or employment status and with the corresponding salary and benefits. Postdocs would like to be treated as employees, and to receive benefits and compensation commensurate with their work and experience.
Second, respondents are very concerned that, after investing years as postdocs, their career opportunities remain uncertain. Successful transitions from postdoctoral scholarship to independent careers are in Canada's interests as well as those of Canadian postdocs. Canadian postdoctoral appointments should be supported with appropriate and relevant career development opportunities."
So have the concerns changed since 2009 (see the 2009 report here
)? The percentage of postdocs with student or trainee status has gone down from 38% to 36%, which is hardly significant. In 2009, 79% reported a salary of $45,000 or less. That number was 63% for salaries less than $45,000 in 2013. That might represent an improvement.
However, in light of Tri-Council not changing their awards at all, it is probably more likely to reflects a change in the survey set-up from 2009 to 2013: the significant number of postdocs receiving exactly $45,000 would have been included in the 79% earning $45,000 or less in 2009, but not in the 63% earning less than $45,000 in 2013. I suspect this accounts for most of the difference, if not all. Adding inflation rates to the picture, postdocs overall might have even taken pay-cuts since 2009.The conclusions to the 2009 report are very similar to the ones from 2013, and there seems to be a lot of work ahead for the Canadian research communities, if they want to continue attracting the high-quality researchers they currently enjoy.
As I wrote in my last post (infertility story - part 1
), I had a D&C following an incomplete miscarriage in July 2011. A D&C is a fairly small procedure and it shouldn't take too many days to get back on your feet. There will be 2-3 days of bleeding and being sore but that's about it. In most cases people go back to work after 3 days or so, get their period back after a couple of months and get pregnant (if they wish to get themselves into such circumstances again) after 3-6 months.
What happens after the D&C?
Now, when the body is pregnant it starts producing a hormone called hcg (human chorionic gonadotropin). It is produced by a part of the fertilized egg which will later form the placenta. Hcg binds to a specific receptor (luteinizing hormone receptor) found mainly in the ovaries, the uterus and the breasts, and it is responsible for most of the pregnancy symptoms that women feel (fatigue, nausea, sensitive breasts). Hcg consists of to subunits - an alpha (α) subunit and a beta (β) subunit and below is a video of the whole molecule.
Regular pregnancy tests measure the presence of the β-subunit (β-hcg) in either urine or blood, and the level goes up very dramatically in the first months of pregnancy. Hcg signals to the ovaries that they have to continue producing progesterone, which in turn signals to the uterus to develop a thick lining. It is in this lining that the fertilized egg will implant itself and start growing. If the egg is not fertilized and thus does not produce hcg, the ovaries will consequently stop producing progesterone and the uterus will slough off its lining in a normal period.
After a successful D&C, β-hcg will no longer be produced and the blood and urine levels will slowly decrease. Once the level of β-hcg is low enough, the normal hormonal cycle will will kick in again, and the menstrual cycle will continue. However, if the period does not return within 2 months after the D&C, a number of reasons have to considered.
1. Are you pregnant again?
Because every period is preceded by an ovulation, there is a chance of getting pregnant before your period has even returned.
2. Has the level of β-hcg decreased sufficiently?
Because the hormone β-hcg signals to the body that it is pregnant and should stop the normal hormonal cycle, the level of β-hcg has to come down to a non-pregnant level before the menstrual cycle can continue. A non-pregnant level of β-hcg is below 5 IU/L (International Units per Liter of blood) as seen from this table of international standards:
IU/L (3rd International Standard)
Non Pregnant: < 5
0-1 Week: 5-50
1-2 Weeks: 40-300
2-3 Weeks: 100-1000
3-4 Weeks: 500-6000
1-2 Months: 5000-200000
2-3 Months: 10000-100000
Post Partum: detectable levels for 30 day
As most women have a D&C in the second or third month of their pregnancy, their β-hcg levels can be as high as 200000 IU/L. It can therefore take many weeks for it to come down to less than 5 IU/L and for the menstrual cycle to pick up again. A blood sample can determine if the β-hcg has decreased sufficiently. If there is still a measurable amount in the blood 8 weeks after the D&C, it has to be determined if there is still some tissue left behind in the uterus that keeps producing β-hcg. This can be done easily and pain free by ultrasound.
3. Have your regular hormones for some reason not returned to their usual cycle?
Sometimes the hormonal cycle gets messed up by a pregnancy followed by a D&C. Even though there is no more pregnancy-related tissue in the uterus and the pregnancy hormone β-hcg has dropped to zero, the hormonal cycle has not been stabilized. This can be determined through a blood test measuring the levels of Luteinizing hormone (LH), Follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH), estradiol and progesterone. These four hormones fluctuate throughout the cycle and multiple blood tests can therefore be necessary to determine where in the cycle you are, and if the hormones are all back on track after the D&C. Below is a table of the normal levels of LH, FSH, estradiol and progesterone in different phases of the menstrual cycle:
- Follicle/Luteal phase: <3.0 IU/L
- Midcycle: 14.0 - 100 IU/L
- Follicle/Luteal phase: <3.0 IU/L
- Midcycle: 4.0 - 20.0 IU/L
- Follicular phase: 70 - 530 pmol/L (p for pico is a prefix in the metric system denoting a factor of 0.000000000001, and mol is a way of calculating number of molecules)
- Midcycle: 230 - 1310 pmol/L
- Luteal phase: 200 -790 pmol/L
- Follicular phase: <2 nmol/L (n for nano is a prefix in the metric system denoting a factor of 0.000000001)
- Luteal phase: <2 - 50 nmol/L
- Midluteal phase: <2 - 81 nmol/L
4. Have you developed scar tissue inside the uterine cavity as a result of the D&C?
During a D&C, the scraping of the uterine wall will remove not only the contents of the uterus but also part of the uterine lining. The lining is made of two layers: the functional layer (which is shed during menstruation) and the underlying basal layer (which is necessary for generating new functional layers). Sometimes the D&C procedure inflicts damage on the basal layer which prompts the uterus to form adhesions or scar tissue inside the uterine cavity. This is called Asherman's syndrome
. The adhesions can vary in severity from minor adhesions, with no consequences on fertility or life-quality, to the entire uterus being occluded by scar tissue with ensuing infertility and monthly pain and discomfort. The adhesions can also extend upwards into the Fallopian tubes and downwards into the cervix, and often partially or fully block the passage of any menstrual blood trapped inside the uterus. A woman with Asherman's syndrome has a normal hormonal cycle and will usually experience all the normal symptoms associated with a period once a month, except there will be no bleeding. Because the uterus works really hard at trying to squeeze out the menstrual blood, the cramping can be quite severe. Eventually the blood will get reabsorbed by the body and the cramping will dissipate. Asherman's syndrome cannot be diagnosed by ultrasound. Ultrasound examinations can show a completely normal uterus even if it is totally obliterated by scar tissue. Instead, Asherman's syndrome
is diagnosed by either hysterosalpingography (HSG) or hysteroscopy.
HSG is the visualization of the inside shape of the uterine cavity and the fallopian tubes. A contrast dye is injected through the vagina and the cervix into the uterine cavity. The dye will then fill the uterine cavity and flow through the fallopian tubes. Using X-ray techniques, the contrast dye can be visualized while inside the uterus and Fallopian tubes, thus revealing the inside shape of the uterine cavity and the fallopian tubes. If the uterus or tubes are blocked or malformed, it will show up on the HSG, but the exact reason for the blockage might not be clear. To actually look inside the uterus a hysteroscopy can be performed.
HSG usually only requires a mild painkiller or local anesthetics as the main complaint is cramping.
During a hysteroscopic procedure, the uterus is visualized by introducing a small camera through the vagina and the cervix and into the uterine cavity. The uterus is expanded with either fluids or gas and the inside of the uterus can be seen on a monitor (hysteroscopic pictures from a normal uterus and tube openings can be found here
). The downfall of hysteroscopy is that although the openings to the fallopian tubes can often be visualized the inside state of the tubes cannot be perceived.
Hysteroscopic procedures can often be done with local anesthesia of the cervix but in some cases it is done under general anesthesia. In most cases it is described as uncomfortable but not overly painful, although I had a very different experience as I will describe in my next blog post.
The above was the workup that I received when my period did not return post-D&C, and it covers the most common reasons for the period not returning after a D&C. There can however be many other causes (including metabolic irregularities and polycystic ovarian syndrome) and your doctor will have to determine if any further tests are needed. A good background description of amenorrhea (lack of a period) can be found here
When our son was about 2 years old, we started thinking about making number two. After some time (I am well into my thirties, so things don't go as smoothly as they used to) I got pregnant again. About six weeks into the pregnancy, I started bleeding and an ultrasound confirmed the sad news; I was miscarrying. I was saddened0 but also very rational: I wanted to move on as quickly as possible and get pregnant again. It was the strangest feeling. I have never been particularly preoccupied with having kids and definitely not with having them at a particular time in my life. But suddenly, I found myself obsessing over every week that I was set back from having a second baby. And the weeks were many. I kept bleeding and bleeding and bleeding. I was experiencing an incomplete miscarriage.
A miscarriage is called incomplete if the cervix is dilated and the bleeding has begun, but all or some of the pregnancy tissue is withheld inside the uterus. The uterus will usually pass the tissue at some point, but after weeks of bleeding, the risk of infection starts outweighing the risk of treatment. I reached that point after about five weeks of bleeding, at which time I was desperate to move on. A small piece of tissue appeared stuck at the top of my uterus, and it seemed as if my body was not able to expel it on its own.
I was advised to have a D&C by the hospital professionals. D&C stands for dilation and curettage. This essentially means that the cervix is dilated and that an instrument called a curette is inserted into the uterus and used to remove any remaining tissue inside. The curette can either be sharp and scrape the tissue out, or it can use suction, and there are no studies confirming if one is safer than the other.
What is safer however, is something that the professionals urged me to avoid, in spite of all research showing that it is both safer and cheaper than a D&C: A medical abortion. A medical abortion requires no surgery and thus no sharp or sucking instruments inside the uterus and also no anesthetics. Instead, you have to ingest a pill containing a compound called misoprostol. Misoprostol is a synthetic analogue of prostaglandin E1. It causes the cervix to soften and open and the uterus to contract. Misoprostol is often given in combination with mifepristone (a progesterone receptor antagonist), but is also commonly prescribed by itself.
The success rate is somewhere between 80% and 95%, depending on the study, and it can be done in the comfort of your own home. I know it doesn't sound super attractive to go through a mini-labor in your own house, but when forced to choose between that and a D&C, trying a medical abortion might the best decision you will ever make.
Back to my story. I was strongly advised to undergo a D&C, and on July 5, 2011, I did. It changed my life forever.
First episode: Family #1 consists of a mom a dad and their 16 year old daughter. The daughter suffers from a newly discovered chronic condition that doesn't affect her life expectancy but greatly decreases her quality of life. She is in constant pain and can only go to school or work for 3 hours a day, and she spends most of the day in bed. Her pain is treated with various pain killers and she takes sleep medication every night. There is a very expensive life-long treatment available for her, which would not cure her, but alleviate the pain and give her an opportunity to lead an almost normal life. Family #2 consists of three young children, a stay-at-home mom and a dad who manages a car-dealership. The dad was recently diagnosed with a condition for which the available treatment is not very effective. He will probably only live another 5-10 years, and in those years he will gradually become more and more sick and eventually bedridden. The viewers of the reality TV show are presented with both cases, the treatment recommendations from various doctors and friends and relatives of the families. The families are then given a 3-minute opportunity to plea with the viewers to chose their family for covered medical treatment over the other.
This scenario is thankfully still pure imagination. But after getting a small peak in behind the healthcare decision-making curtain last week, I can't help but wonder if there is more truth to this image, than I would like to think...
Last week I attended a workshop discussing personalized medicine and health economics in British Columbia (BC). The participants were a mix of researchers, policy makers and industry, and the four speakers each gave their perspective on how BC will tackle the ever increasing cost of healthcare and the need for new treatments, including personalized medicine.
While listening to the four speakers at the workshop and their very valid arguments for why we can't afford to treat everyone, a strange and very uncomfortable feeling snuck up on me. Images of reality TV shows, where the viewers get to chose between two patients, deciding who gets treatment and who doesn't, started flashing in front of my eyes (somewhat due to the catastrophic lack of coffee at the conference, making way for lots of half-awake/half-asleep pictures and ideas in the late afternoon). One of the speakers presented a beautiful graph showing the cost and "value" of a certain treatment combined with the available healthcare budget in BC. The graph displayed how any given treatment needs to live up to a certain threshold of Value/Cost ratio, to be considered for coverage in the BC healthcare plan. If it lives up to that Value/Cost ratio, it is moved to the side of the graph that is within the budget, but it will inevitably push out other treatments that we no longer have money for. Logical but unpleasant! In this day and age there are so many treatments available for so many conditions that we have the luxury - or curse, if you will - of choosing who gets to be treated and who doesn't.
The graph on the left shows how the Value/Cost ratio for treatment 1-7 is deemed high enough to qualify for healthcare coverage. While treatment 8-10 does not qualify. The red bar represents a new treatment considered for qualification. The graph on the right shows how the new treatment (red bar) had a Value/Cost ratio that just qualified for healthcare coverage. But in the process it pushed out treatment 7, which is now no loner covered. These graphs are my own remakes of the one shown at the workshop.
This discussion of Value/Cost ratios obviously led to the question of how "value" is determined. Is it how many years it adds to the average life expectancy, or is it determined by increasing quality of life, productivity (value for society) or something else? And that is obviously down to a judgement call from the Canadian Agency for Drugs and Technologies in Health (CADTH
) and the decision makers in BC. The speaker was jokingly saying that "any treatment will usually add to either the quality of your life or the length of your life, or both. And if it does neither it is probably chemo."
He is probably right, but how do you decide on behalf of someone else if quality or length is more important?
Several of the speakers pointed out that Canadians define themselves by their healthcare system. They are very proud of the general idea that healthcare is for everyone and everyone is covered. But will that continue to be the case, as the cost of healthcare increases and the number of treatments keep going up? Is a reality show like the one I described in the beginning of this post as outrageous as it initially seemed?
After 10 years of public school, 3 years of high school, and 10 years of university, I did not think that the prospect of two more weeks of education would make me as excited and giddy as a little school girl. The cause of the excitement is the acceptance into the science communications program at The Banff Centre
this summer. Awesome science communicators in my circles talk of this program as something of a promised land, and never actually believed that I would go there myself. I mean, the chair of the program is Jay Ingram! And it's in Banff in The Rockie Mountains (which is pretty much the promised land for a Danish flat-lander turned Vancouverite like me).
Valley of the Ten Peaks and Moraine Lake, Banff National Park, Canada. Picture taken by Gorgo.
So, I quietly applied back in early spring. More to say that I tried than because I thought I would be going there. Getting into the program seemed the smallest (yet massive) hurdle. Then there was raising enough money to be able to go (cause it aint cheap), finding someone to take care of my son for the 2 weeks, getting time off work etc. etc. It just seemed impossible. And yet here I am, syllabus in hand, glaring at the endless number of amazing communicators who will be throwing golden nuggets at me this summer. So I would like to take this opportunity to thank all the people who made this possible. The Banff Centre for accepting me and providing me with some financial aid, the Canadian Science Writers' Association for their scholarship award, my parents for flying out from Denmark to help with my son in Vancouver, my husband for agreeing that leaving him with our kid for the two absolute busiest weeks of his work-year was a good idea, and my work for giving me time off and financial support. I am very very grateful!
I bet a lot of you are thinking that I am going a bit overboard here and I probably am. But this is a big deal to me. This a chance to completely submerge myself in something that I love and to be guided in that submersion by some of the most awesome science communicators around. Chances like that don't come very often. Especially when you have small kids to mold your plans around.
I will do my best to keep this site updated on the program progress and use it as a lab for the creative and crazy ideas and projects that will hopefully start crystallizing as the program starts rolling.
Getting kids excited about chemistry
Pressing his hands against his ears, the young boy kept his eyes wide open and glued to the flame at the end of the stick. Excitement mixed with terror was painted all over his faced as he held his breath and waited for the big 'bang". His body shook as the balloon popped leaving a giant fireball in its place. His hands dropped and he shouted "wow cool, fire! Just like a dragon."
The audience in the old chemistry lecture hall at University of British Columbia is not quite what you would expect it to be, as 30 kids between the ages of 3 and 5 have occupied the chairs in safe distance from the front. Before them stand two chemists (Susan Vickers and Angela Crane), showing them just how magical and exciting chemistry can be. After a brief discussion on whether it's true that everything is a chemical and if chocolate is a bad one or a good one, Susan and Angela went on to demonstrate the wonders of chemistry through a series of competitions. Angela would use traditional ways of drawing a star with a crayon, hammering a nail into a piece of wood, and popping a balloon, and Susan would try to perform the same tasks using chemistry.
Pre-drawing a star with invisible paint and then spraying the paper with a magic chemical made a star appear in front of the kids' eyes. A couple of them instantly thought of using the tricks for pirates and treasure maps.
The star was drawn using invisible paint, the nail was hammered using a super-frozen banana, and the balloon popped in a blaze of fire.
Susan Vickers runs the chemistry outreach program along with her partner in crime Angela Crane. The invite kids from pre-school through elementary school to come and see what chemistry is also all about.
If you have a nail but no hammer, super-freezing a banana in liquid nitrogen will quickly solve that problem.
The kids were impressed by the show to say the least. As were the accompanying teachers. Now, no scientists are made without them getting their hands wet, so the activities moved to a different room where the kids could do some chemistry of their own. The first task was making slime from glue and laundry detergent (a 4 percent Borax solution). As fun as this was, many were starting to get impatient about the ice-cream that they had been promised, and the show moved on. Instant ice-cream making in a huge cloud of smoke is pretty cool on its own but kids are not easily impressed, and many of them just wondered why it took so long (yes, taking it out of the freezer is even faster).
Angela had one more trick up her sleeve. Making a long blue balloon disappear into liquid nitrogen only to reappear as a perfect dog. That's the kind of chemistry-magic that will linger in the head of a 4-year old for a long time, and - if Susan has her way - will turn to curiosity and belief that chemistry and science is both fun, interesting and full of wonders.
This Christmas I went to Denmark to spend the Holidays with my family and friends. I caught up with a bunch of my old university friends, and now – in our mid-thirties – most seem to have found their career path. What struck me was that basically nobody was on the traditional tenure-track career path within academia that we were all trained for. That might seem like a triumph for the University of Copenhagen Biochemistry program that the students are able to embrace all sorts of careers, but reality is that most of us scrambled and improvised and taught ourselves whatever we needed, to get to where we are today.
Granted, we would be nowhere without the scientific training we received, but the skills it takes to make it outside academia are not taught in the science programs of most traditional universities.
Is lab work and lab-related activities the only thing graduate students in science need to learn?
We pretty much all did Masters and PhDs, and of all the people I studied with only one has made it into a tenure-track position. One started his own company (after extensive business and project management training in his own time), several became high-school teachers (after further training in pedagogy and biology or chemistry, since a PhD in biochemistry does not qualify one to teach biology and/or chemistry in a Danish high-school), one studied patent law on top of his PhD to become a patent advisor, and the list goes on and on. I am not saying that once a person has an education there is no need for further training ever, but I do think that after more than 8 years in university, it should be possible to get a job without having to immediately look for more education.
This picture is as true for Danish science academics as it is for Canadian. My involvement in the postdoctoral association at University of British Columbia
has given me the opportunity to connect with many different postdocs. A few are aiming at becoming tenure-tracked in academia and consequently put all their time and effort into bettering themselves at what they have been trained to do (lab work, research, publishing papers). Those few are however, far out-numbered by the many postdocs who are unsure of what to do next, feeling that they are just ‘parking lot’ed’ as postdocs until they can get together the experience (doing volunteer work and taking courses an workshops) to qualify for a non-academic job.
If the norm is no longer the tenure-track position, are we training our science PhD’s all wrong?
Should we be training students for the jobs that they will likely end up with, or should we train them for the traditional professor job that very few will get? The hardcore academics will argue that PhD degrees and postdoc positions were designed to train the traditional tenure-trackers, and that we should therefore continue to train them for what they were ‘meant’ to become. But, if reality no longer fits the program, is it not time to change our education to actually teach the students what they need to know for a successful career?
Richard Wiggers of the higher Education Quality Council of Ontario
recently encouraged (as printed in 24hrs Vancouver) that we “be more candid with the PhD students about their prospects”. Graduate students (in the life-sciences at least) are only trained according to the possibility of becoming tenure-track academics. Other options are not mentioned and not accounted for, and as a result, a ton of PhD graduates have no clue what to do when they graduate.
Training to become an academic professor can be compared to training for a spot in a symphony orchestra
Genegeek recently wrote a blog
comparing the training to become a scientist to that of becoming a professional classical musician. Very few musicians make it to the big symphony orchestra, but the training still focuses almost 100% on that possibility. I still think there’s a place for that specialized form of education training the very few to excel at something very specific. But it should be presented as exactly that: a specialized education for the few. Not as a general training program for all scientists.
As a side note I would argue that many traditional tenure-track scientists would benefit greatly from a bit of training in project management, technical writing and conflict resolution. I further argue that science in general – and the public understanding of science in particular – would benefit enormously from scientists having a bit more training in science communication (as I have exemplified in this article about knowledge translation as a powerful means to more funding).
As a very important start, I agree with Richard Wiggers that we need to be more candid with the students about their prospects. They need to know what reality looks like when they graduate, and they need to be given opportunities to prepare for that reality while in grad school. Some might decide that they don’t actually need a PhD degree to pursue a particular career or that they need to turn it in a different direction. Overall it will give the students a chance to educate themselves for the careers that they will likely end up with. As a result, they will be better at their jobs, they will start their careers sooner (as they don’t have to spend years after graduating figuring out what to do now and how to qualify for it) and they will likely be less frustrated in the process. As a side bonus, the young scientists, of which many have families with children, will have more time to spend on those families instead of hunting down workshops and courses and volunteer gigs while desperately networking themselves into the unknown space of non-academia.
In November I was lucky enough to get invited to a science communications weekend retreat in Whistler. It was organized by the Banff Science Communications Program
alumni, and thus held promise of great discussions and great people. I was not disappointed, although exhausted after 12 hours of non-stop discussions and workshops.Over the course of the 12 hours we brainstormed and workshopped themes like scientific tv-shows, pitching science stories to magazines,
how to make a good science video, the possibilities of being a freelance science writer in Vancouver, communicating science to scientists, and how to prioritize your time to reach your own career goals. All topics that are extremely relevant and interesting to any science communicator or scientist in general. However, what prompted me to write a blog post from that weekend, was the very last topic of the night.
After dinner and quite a few beers (including a highly recommended drinking game involving a toast every time the term science communication was used), David Ng
from University of British Columbia, urged us all to think about ways to engage an uninterested audience in science. At the end of the lengthy discussions, the overall points were to:
- Make the audience believe that science is cool
- Make the audience believe that science matters
- Teach science without the audience realizing it
- Get the audience to engage in science
Now, that all seems like great ideas, but how
is it actually done? Starting with #1, how does someone make an audience believe that science is really cool? Outside of academia (and maybe even limited to Faculty of Science), the general view of a scientist is usually either 1) an evil scientist working with some 007-worthy bad guys to eradicate the world in clever ways, or 2) a geeky absent-minded semi-crazy man seeing the world through equations and microscopes. Or, even worse, there is no general view of a scientist whatsoever! In a 2008 survey
(that I also wrote about here
) where Americans were asked to name a scientist role model, the top answers were teacher and astronaut (not single people and usually not scientists). The three actual people that did get mentioned were Albert Einstein, Al Gore and Bill Gates. Two of whom are not scientists and the third one is dead.
When asked about science role models, the three top names Americans could come up with were Albert Einstein (dead), Al Gore (not a scientist), and Bill Gates (not a scientist)
In fact, less than 4% of Americans could name a living scientist.
Thus not exactly a profession considered super cool and worthy of spending your time on.
Clearly, science is not considered cool, so how do we change that in the name of science communication? A recent attempt by the European Commission to make science appear cool and appealing to girls (Science, it's a girl thing
) failed miserably and was ridiculed and bashed from all sides (and rightfully so). Linking science to being girly girly was clearly not the answer. But then what is?
The - later withdrawn - EU campaign to make science cool amongst girls
The tv show The Big bang Theory
has certainly made scientists popular but not very cool. The scientists on the show live up to every crazy scientist stereotype out there (inability to speak to women, social awkwardness, compulsive behavior, hobbies revolving around video games and comic books, to name a few). It does however relatively successfully teach the viewers about science without the audience realizing it (David Ng's 3rd point on how to engage an uninterested audience in science). The main problem is that most of the science on the show - though accurate - is too fast and complicated for the general viewer to understand. So while the show is somewhat successful in fulfilling David Ng's point #3, it does so at the expense of making science cool (point #1).
The Big Bang Theory cast of four incredibly geeky scientists trying to live a "normal" life
Had I written this post a week ago, I would have been unable to come up with a name of a scientist who is cool in the eyes of the public (I can come up with many scientists that are cool according to me, but that's beside the point). However, last week I discovered that Henry Reich, who is the master behind the youtube videos MinutePhysics, actually has groupies.
Real groupies that want his autograph on their bras and follow him around.
He seems to have mastered the art of making science really cool! He is also making his audience believe that science matters by approaching it through everyday concepts (like walking in the rain), and teaching them while they think they are just watching a cartoon. Maybe linking science to art and video is one of the answers?
As amazing a feat as it is to make physics that understandable and popular, I am still not convinced that MInutePhysics should be the scaffold for all science communication to come though (partly because I can't draw).
So I looked further for ways of engaging the public in science according to David Ng's points, and came across the popular facebook page "I Fucking love Science"
. It posts funny quotes, images and jokes about science in case you hadn't come across it. It actually manages to portray science in a cool and funny tone, often teaching the audience a thing or two about science, and making them believe that it might actually matter. Someone took the time to make a cool image or joke about it, and it has millions of likes on facebook, so maybe it matters...?
The last step of science communication to the uninterested audience is to get people to engage in science. This is probably the trickiest of all, given our busy lives and constant bombardment of things we should be tending to. Nancy Baron has written a book called "The Escape from the Ivory Tower
" that addresses the issue of how to make your science matter. She states that the most effective science communication is the type that makes your audience want to take action for you. Maybe not because they understand every detail of your research, or because they think you are the coolest person on the planet. But because you make them care.
So; be cool, be interesting, be educational, but above all, be engaging!
Why the Impact Factor of scientific journals is deeply flawed.
The # 1 thing that scientists are judged by in academia is the impact factor of the journals they publish in. For those readers not in academia; the impact factor of a scientific journal, is a number that is based on the number of times that the articles in a certain journal are cited by other articles. Backtrack: Scientific knowledge is built little by little as the scientific community adds building blocks to the foundation laid out by previous scientists. We rely on a solid foundation and keep adding new blocks to the structure. In this way, we keep growing our knowledge as a community. We publish our work in scientific journals so that others can keep building on our work. So in every article there will be a list of references to the articles that make up the foundation of the work described in the new article. We cite each other’s articles to show that we understand and add on to previous work (and to a certain extend to please the egos out there, but I’ll let that pass for now). Usually, the more times an article is cited, the bigger an impact it has had on the scientific community and our common knowledge. Enter the impact factor.
On the surface this might seem like a good idea. A way of sorting through the thousands of scientific journals and making sure you only read – or publish in – the ones publish important stuff. However, the impact has some very significant statistical errors that in many ways make it more harmful than beneficial to the individual scientist and to the community. Every journal has an impact factor that is calculated by taking the number of times an article from that journal was cited in the literature in the previous two years, and dividing it by the number of articles published in that journal the previous two years.
- For example: A journal published 1000 papers in 2010 and 2011 combined. Those papers together were now cited 2000 times in total in 2012 and 2011.
The impact factor for that journal would be: 2000/1000=2.
In other words, the impact factor is an average.
It represents the average number of times an article in a given journal has been cited. This is where the trouble with the impact factor lies. An average is a very useful number, if the values that it is based on are scattered around it in a bell-shapes manner. However, the number of times articles from a given journal are cited by no means form a bell-shaped curve. They are scattered all over the place. Most articles will be cited 0, 1, or 2 times, and a few will be cited twenty times or a hundred times. And those few papers will pull up the average for all the others although they have nothing in common whatsoever (besides the journal they are published in). I do have some data to back up this claim, and as you can see in these figures below, there is no correlation between impact factor (x-axis) and number of citations (y-axis).
BMJ VOLUME 314 15 FEBRUARY 1997
So why are we all so obsessed with the impact factor? Well, as beautifully put by professor at UBC, Dr. Michael Blades
in a recent talk: "As long as there are people out there who judge our science by its wrapping rather than by its contents, we cannot afford to take any chances".
Journal editors are not stupid.
They know their journal is judged by its impact factor, so they will jump through all kinds of hoops to up their factor. Citing articles from your own journal is a common trick, and researchers know that. Many researchers will customize their reference list to the journal that they are trying to get published in. A slightly more advanced way of boosting your journal’s impact factor, is by publishing a review of the specific discipline of the journal at the end of the year, in which all the articles published in the journal are cited. In fact, every year in December the Journal of Raman Spectroscopy
publishes their “Recent advances in linear and nonlinear Raman spectroscopy“-review.
In 2011 this special edition cited 266 published in the Journal of Raman Spectroscopy in 2010 (plus 3 more from the 2008 and 2009). For a journal that size this significantly pumps up their impact factor, and they are in fact the #1 ranked journal in their research field (based on impact factor), which they proudly advertise on their website. Now, I am not trying to put down this particular journal, they are just playing the game. I am just questioning whether the game is helpful to the scientific community.
The impact factor has become the single defining number for a scientist’s career. When applying for a job as professor in any academic institution, the impact factor of the journals you have published in is the most important number in your application. Not the number of publications, how many patents you have generated, your engagement in the research community by science outreach, number of conference talks given, graduate students you have successfully supervised, research chairs you hold or even teaching ratings. None of these numbers are even close to being as important as the impact factor. And that is a problem!
Besides making no sense from a statistical standpoint, the impact factor has many other limitations. One of them being language barriers. An English language based journal is more likely to have a high impact factor, because more people can read it. However, some areas of research are very country-specific, and the actual impact of a paper in a non-English language is not reflected in the overall impact factor of the journal it is published in. As an example, I can mention a drug that is currently only approved for cancer treatment in China (I can’t mention the name however, for intellectual property rights reasons). Because it is only on label in China, most of the clinical trials are published in Chinese journals and are in Chinese. Since this particular drug is now being studied fairly extensively in North America, the Chinese clinical trials have had a high impact on the general research of this drug. However, their impact factor is very low, because they are published in Chinese journals which overall are not cited very often due to the language barrier.
Thus, the impact of the specific articles is really high, but the impact factor associated with them is really low.
Furthermore, the impact factor is based on total citations to a journal in a year, and does not distinguish between whether the cited articles are original research papers or reviews. The latter will usually get cited a lot more, and reviews are thus another way of boosting an impact factor, without it having any relevance to the other papers published in that journal. They just benefit from the increased impact factor, although the impact of the paper is neither increased nor decreased.
Recently, the Eigenfactor® Score was developed at University of Washington by Jevin West and Carl Bergstrom and is calculated by and freely accessible at eigenfactor.org
. The intend is to judge the total importance of a scientific journal by taking into account not only the number of citations but also the origin of the citations. The Eigenfactor score comes with its own set of limitations, e.g. it is greatly influenced by the size of a journal, but it is an attempt to overcome the many problems associated with the impact factor.
I could come up with a lot more examples of why the impact factor often gives a skewed view of the importance and impact of your work, but I will just end this rant with the words of Dr. Michael Blades
at a talk that he gave recently at UBC:
“If you use the impact factor to validate the importance of your work or to judge other researcher’s work, you are statistically illiterate”
Seeing the study on gender biases in science by Corinne A. Moss-Racusin
and her colleagues at Yale a couple of weeks back, and the internet commotion it brought with it, made me think a bit about my experiences as a woman in science over the past decade.
Briefly, the study
tested how science faculty (male and female) rated the application material from various students in terms of how hireable they were, their starting salary, competence, and the mentoring they would likely be given. The only variable in the study was that sometimes the applicants would be given a male name, sometimes a female name. And behold, the men were consistently rated as more hireable, needing a higher staring salary, being more competent and eligible for more career mentoring than the women.
It is a well-known secret that women scientists are paid less than their male peers; they publish less, are invited to speak at conferences less, and fail to reach the higher steps of the Academic ladder. We all know it (and by all, I mean all the female scientists), but nobody really talks about it. It is perceived as old-school feminism and whining, and will in all likelihood make life as a female scientist even harder. After all, it is a lot better now than it was 30 years ago, and some women do make it to the top, so quit complaining and get to work!
So, the women in science secretly organize themselves in networks like SCWIST
(Society for Canadian Women in Science and Technology) and EPWS
(European Platform of Women Scientists) to encourage each other and provide a network where female scientists don’t have to compete with men. I am very grateful for the existence of these organizations and enjoy meeting strong female scientists struggling with similar issues to myself, but my male colleagues are completely oblivious to the fact that a) such organizations exist, and b) there is a need for them. Most men in science apparently think that gender bias was a thing of the 60’s and that we all enjoy glorious equality in this day and age. That is why I love this new study so much. It is published in a highly recognized scientific journal; PNAS
. It is coming from a highly recognized scientific institution; Yale
. It has a solid methodology with just one variable (gender), which is the hallmark of sound scientific studies, it has graphs and statistics and everything you need to convince a male scientist of its validity.
It is an objective proof of gender bias in science, but it is backed up by so many subjective stories of the women that are affected. I’d like to tell you one of my stories: In the very beginning of my career as a researcher I was told by a (male) mentor that he was a little unhappy with my performance, and that it was probably because I was an attractive female. In his experience attractive females tended to think that they had to work a little less hard than their less attractive counterparts (the attractiveness of men – or lack thereof - did not seem to be an issue that worried him too much). Shortly thereafter I proceeded to graduate with the work in question, getting the highest possible grades and honors for a project of its sort (awarded by an external panel). Needless to say I was stunned by his comments, but luckily confident enough not to take them to heart. That could have been a career ender at an early stage and would in that case have accounted for one of the many women in the statistics who get a science degree but never proceed to become a member of the science faculty.
This effect, women getting their scientific degrees to then leave research altogether, is called the leaky pipeline
, and it is meant to be rooted in various factors in the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) careers. The so-called pipeline carries students from their undergraduate degrees, through graduate studies to postdoctoral contracts and research jobs within research faculties, and ends in life-long careers as professors in Academia. This pipeline leaks women like it’s going out of style. They bleed out all over the place, and several suggestions as to why have been offered in the past. In 2007 a naturejobs
article suggested family issues as one of the top reasons why women leak from the pipeline; an academic career usually really takes off exactly when most women need time off for maternity leave. This view is backed up and taken a step further in a 2009 article
based on a study from the Center for American Progress
investigating the leaks in the American pipeline. Not only are the female researchers expected to deal with distractions like childbirth and maternity leave just as they start their climb up the academic ladder, but the structure of Academia is such, that the minute you stop climbing, you are pushed to a side plateau, from which it is practically impossible to get back on the ladder. You are either stuck at the plateau or forced to jump off the ladder. Regardless, you will never move up again.
Courtesy of www.freedigitalphotos.net
These arguments are no doubt true and very valuable points, but as the new study from Yale shows, a strong and statistically relevant gender bias add to the problem. Not only do women have to juggle small children, busy careers and a relentless pressure to keep climbing, they have to do this having smaller chances of being hired, getting lower salaries and less mentoring than their male peers. It’s like biking uphill in the rain with a head wind pulling a trailer full of rocks. Luckily some women are up for the challenge and continue to succeed. Unfortunately, many bright women with brilliant ideas and great potential never make it to the end of the pipeline, but leak out somewhere along the way to find jobs where the uphill sections are mixed with straight and even downhill, and where there might even be time for the occasional bike ride with your family.