The experience trap

PhD party

The candidates for a postdoctoral fellowship, all “fresh” from defending their PhD*. Current eligibility criteria say they’re all the same age in scientific terms, despite huge variations in the length of time spent in postgraduate study.

What’s the fairest way of allocating funds to individual scientists? That, at heart, is the puzzle that has led to the generation of the experience trap. There is a limited pool of money available (in terms of fellowships and grants), and there has to be a means of winnowing the field to ensure that the number of applicants is not unmanageably large.

There is, rightly, no discrimination on the basis of age, sex, race and so on, and it’s the first of these factors that is the most significant (and praiseworthy). No discrimination at all on the basis of age. So if you decide, at the age of 42, that your office job no longer satisfies and what you’ve always wanted to do is a be a scientist, you can enrol for a PhD and on its completion, apply for fellowships on an equal footing with your new peers.

Or will you? Because the criterion that’s used to trim the field of applicants is that of experience, and specifically, post-doctoral experience. EMBO Fellowships, Human Frontiers Fellowships, and a lot of the other main bodies apply a cut-off of around 2-3 years – so once you’ve been working as a postdoc for even a short period of time, you’ve already become too “old” in scientific terms.

The first big implication of this is that Fellowships are now almost exclusively available for first-time applicants that are fresh out of their PhDs. If you want or need to take a second postdoc position, you’re almost certain to be wholly dependent on your group leader raising your salary, with obvious implications in terms of demonstrating your independence. Already there are big ramifications here – the current generation of scientists is facing a longer and longer post-doctoral career phase (5-10 years, instead of the 2 that it commonly used to be), but are likely to be become more and more indentured as they go on.

The second big implication is that it assumes that all first-time Fellowship applicants are identical. This disregards the fact that there are wide variations in the duration of undergraduate and postgraduate training from one part of the world to another. Someone coming through the British system can theoretically get their PhD at the age of 24 after 3 years’ work; in continental Europe, you’re likely to finish sometime in the your late 20s or early 30s after around 4 years, and in the USA PhDs were for many years notorious for lasting 7 years or more.

As such, by starting the career clock at the point when a PhD ends, you’re actually introducing a huge element of bias. And that bias carries on to the next stage too – grants for new group leaders also commonly have an experience cut-off based on years of post-doctoral experience.

There’s actually an easy solution to hand – why not start the clock at the onset of the PhD? It’s still not a completely level playing field even at that early stage (owing to variations in undergraduate training), but it’d be much fairer to be judging people on the basis of years of research experience, rather than years of post-doctoral experience. That’s got to be better, right?

*This is actually a picture of my cousin, uncle, and grandma on the occasion of her 100th birthday.

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