Postdocs are innovation engines, but where are they going?

Postdoctoral Fellows (PDFs) are innovation engines driving science, technology, discovery, and change. They have become critical to the cutting edge research being done at Canadian universities. This was a key message echoing throughout the 2015 Annual General Meeting of the Canadian Association of Postdoctoral Scholars (CAPS-ACSP) held jointly with the 2015 Canadian Association of Postdoctoral Administrators (CAPA) conference.

In the keynote address, “The PDF Universe: Where training becomes a career,” Maryse Lassonde highlighted the ups and downs experienced by postdocs. She began by sharing “Lassonde 101” an inspiring story about her research journey to become President of the Royal Society of Canada and Scientific Director of a funding agency. Next, she reported statistics showing how PDFs are research trailblazers: 1) postdocs publish more articles annually compared to university professors and PhD students, and 2) postdoc articles have more impact on average than the publications of professors and doctoral students.

Lassonde discussed the main problems of the PDF situation, including: administrative ambiguity (unclear status), low compensation and benefits, and training does not reflect current career realities. Although the majority of postdocs view their position as a stepping-stone to academic careers, the reality is that few will obtain university faculty positions. She stated that realistic expectations are needed as PDFs can find rewarding career opportunities outside academic research, including business, government, non-profit, trades, health, and education. Perspectives also need to change on the view that getting a non-academic job is a dismal failure. Failure is deciding that academia is the only successful option.

The CAPA Institutional Survey Report, presented by Marilyn Mooibroek, offered informative data illustrating reasons for the low probability of PhDs and PDFs to achieve an academic career. PhD enrollment is noticeably increasing and hiring at the professor level is limited as full-time faculty members are postponing retirement.

 

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Increasing concerns about lack of academic career options is not the only issue for today’s PDFs. Emphasizing the need for diversity on our Canadian research team, Charles Dozois discussed the importance of working together to tackle the issues of gender equality and inclusion of under-represented minorities. We also need enhanced funding opportunities to attract and retain the best and brightest international scholars. He presented an interesting example to show the importance of diversity: the roster of the 2015 Chicago Blackhawks needed 15 talented Canadians and 15 players from other countries to win the Stanley Cup.

Stephen Larter graded what and how well universities do. He assigned an A for trained staff; A- for research and new knowledge; B- for inventions and potential solutions; and D for developed and deployed solutions (beyond knowledge carried by trained staff). To put it another way, universities are not doing a good job of getting knowledge and cutting edge innovation into industry. He asked, “Why is most applied research not applied?” He argued that Canadian universities must become more successful at innovation and mobilizing knowledge through ethical partnerships between research institutions, businesses, angel investors, and entrepreneurs. He quipped that in the Canadian economy, $30 billion is spent on Christmas gifts, $500 million on Halloween candy, and $1 billion on research (annually).

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The two-day CAPS-ACSP meeting and CAPA conference took place downtown at the Hyatt Regency Calgary where the all the friendly employees wore cowboy hats with their formal business attire. The view outside hotel offered a marvelous view of the free standing Calgary Tower illuminating the nighttime sky. Inside the hotel, the history of Calgary was depicted by an educational collection of over 500 original Western Canadian objets d’art on permanent display. During the conference, many productive ideas were generated for strengthening the culture of academic innovation and entrepreneurship. The problem is there is no pervasive culture of innovation in outdated university system models. Identifying that structural changes are needed, conversations revolved around: how can merit be awarded for innovation, involvement in society, and demonstrable research impact? What are realistic expectations and perceptions of innovation? How might entrepreneurial education be more integrated into the university system?

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Rebecca Hugler’s session on “Professional development for PDFs” focused on improving training so that it is more in tune with the needs of society. The reality is that approximately 80% of PDFs will end up in non-academic environments, however employers are often reluctant to hire postdocs who lack business acumen. Possible solutions to address this challenge are developing a formalized mentorship program with industry partners and implementing high-quality paid internships as part of doctoral and postdoctoral appointments.

The good news is that highly skilled researchers are needed in non-academic areas of society. Postdocs are R&D trailblazers with valuable skills to get knowledge and innovation into industry. As Edward Tse of Smart Technologies remarked, “Your PhD is another set of weapons in your arsenal.” Postdocs have a unique skillset that is highly sought on the labor market, including: strong capacity to deal with high levels of uncertainty, ability to make sense of vague topics and turn ideas into something meaningful and tangible, innovative mindsets (visionaries), critical thinking and research expertise, and independent leadership skills (PDFs need little direction compared to regular employees).

Victoria McGovern delivered an empowering presentation, encouraging PDFs to take ownership of their career aspirations. She spoke with intelligence and humor, reflecting how, “Being a scientist is the adventure of a lifetime! You get to find new worlds, to see with new eyes, and to leave a legacy.” She advised postdocs to change their focus from “Where will I work next” to “What legacy will I leave when I look back?” She also shared useful advice for PDFs to increase the immediate and long-term impact of their research.

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Charles Dozois from the Institut National de la Recherche Scientifique (INRS) also encouraged postdocs to take charge of their careers: “Work hard, publish, innovate, know your surroundings and opportunities, make some noise (communicate), get noticed…” Pursue excellence in all that you do. No one has a future predicting crystal ball, but there are many rewarding job positions for talented and highly trained PDFs. You need to network and talk to others in order to find out what your career opportunities are. Enjoy the journey!