Northeastern waives postdoc requirement for science hires

The College of Science at Northeastern University is waiving the postdoctoral fellowship experience for many faculty applicants, through a new hiring model called Invest.

Invest’s premise is that too many strong scientists leave academia after earning their PhDs due to the widespread expectation that they will spend years in unstable, low-paying postdoctoral jobs before they hopefully graduate. a tenure-track faculty position. Thus, by eliminating the postgraduate requirement (real or perceived), Northeastern’s Invest program aims to attract a larger and more promising pool of faculty candidates.

Other program features: Scientists from all disciplines are welcome to apply, and a college-wide (not departmental) committee reviews applications for interdisciplinary fellowship and possible cross-unit appointments.

Invest seems to work. Ten fellows have been hired so far, after two hiring cycles. The most recent round, which just ended, saw around 800 applicants from a wide variety of backgrounds, a “huge number”, said Carla Mattos, professor of chemistry and chair of the Invest research committee.

“By removing the postdoctoral requirement, we have access to a much wider network of very talented and bright candidates across society’s demographics,” Mattos said. “That includes people who may have just decided, ‘I’m going to work in the industry’ or ‘I’m going to have another career.’ So now we’re starting to compete with those candidate pools, too – people who really feel like they’ve reached a point where they’re ready to enter the real job market, right? And I think that’s a big part of very, very talented people.

Inviting applicants from all sciences also deepens the applicant pool, Mattos said.

“If we specified a particular area of ​​research, a lot of these very talented people wouldn’t see themselves applying for the job because, well, that’s not what they’re doing,” she said. “And the other thing it does is bring in this multidisciplinary group of people, which is now where the science is going – a lot of the things that are happening today at the cutting edge of science involve multiple disciplines, and a lot of people don’t see themselves as necessarily in any particular field.

Ultimately, Mattos said, “When you broaden your fields and remove that postdoctoral requirement, you have a much larger pool of candidates to choose from, and you can select these super, super talented people who are in this sea of applications. ”

Invest is the brainchild of Hazel Sive, Dean of the College of Science, who described the program as “an opportunity to open up academic avenues for people who might have been turned away from it because of the long trajectory from the PhD. training for a teaching position. It has become a long and arduous road.

Sive continued, “The postdoc started out as kind of a short period to learn a new technique or something to fill in your knowledge gaps and turned into a very long period. And it has become de rigueur in some areas. And what that does is tend to deter people from going into academia, or select a certain demographic of people – or just certain people – who are willing to go through this very long period before feel hireable.

Invest isn’t a faculty diversity initiative per se, but Sive said if it ends up increasing faculty diversity, that’s another benefit.

“I have been recruiting from the faculty for a long time. I’ve looked at different kinds of approaches to trying to hire across the demographics of the company that have been promoted, and some haven’t worked as well as one would like,” she said. “And I thought, ‘What’s the challenge here, and what can we do to really encourage people who come out of the academic track, even if they’re really bright and talented? What can we do to keep them And one of the things was to short-circuit that time in a professorship.

Sive added, “If you enter the industry with a PhD, you can get there pretty quickly directly after your PhD. But this does not go hand in hand with an academic track. And matching that industry track with the university track was the kind of approach we wanted to take.

Invest actually offers hired faculty the opportunity to start at Northeastern as science fellows — essentially post-docs — to accelerate their research programs before starting on the tenure track. A few hires went this route, Sive said, but not the majority. (Few hires are still on campus, given the long delay in academia between hiring and start dates.)

Some applicants and hires also have pre-existing postdoctoral experience. This is of course not required by Invest’s hiring standards, but candidates with such experiences are not disadvantaged either.

About half of college funding for hiring goes to Invest. The other half funds more traditional faculty research.

Academe’s “Permadoc” problem

Academic science’s postdoctoral problem—sometimes called its “permadoc” problem, because of the increasingly long tenure of many PhDs in these positions—is well known. A major 2014 report from the National Academy of Sciences, the National Academy of Engineering, and the Institute of Medicine was highly critical of how universities treat postdocs. But this report, like a precedent of National Academies drawing the same conclusions, did not lead to widespread reform. Many institutions have adopted a five-year limit on hiring individual postdocs, but there is little evidence that their actual working conditions or prospects have improved. A 2020 survey by Naturefor example, found that 51% of postdocs had considered leaving science due to work-related mental health issues.

Survey respondents took issue with their relatively low pay, job insecurity and work-life balance, and more. Thirty-one percent of respondents said they worked 10 hours overtime per week beyond their contract, and 8 percent said they worked 20 hours overtime. Almost everyone (97%) reported working weekends and holidays.

In what may be part of the great resignation of the COVID-19 era, or even a sign that doctoral students are increasingly avoiding postdocs, in particular, on their own terms, some principal investigators have recently begun to report difficulties in filling postdoctoral positions in their laboratories. Sive said he heard about this trend, but Invest preceded it. In other words, the program is not a reaction to any change in the pool of postdoc candidates, but a reaction to the postdoc problem itself.

“I think it’s generally true that if you do a terrific job as a PhD student. student, you’re very likely to do a terrific job as a postdoctoral fellow, and you don’t have to prove yourself over and over again,” she said. “It bothers me that someone sits there for years, trying to get the next fantastic paper, when they already have a bunch. What is the landscape here? It certainly benefits the advisor’s research group—which is fantastic, contributes to wonderful research in the United States and the world, and benefits the postdoc to some extent—but there is an important question when does that’s enough. When did you show what you can do? And I think this is the time of the most dynamic hiring.

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