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Northeastern University’s College of Science is forgoing 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 their PhDs because they will spend years in unstable, low-paying post-doc jobs before landing a faculty position. So by eliminating the postdoc 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 invited to apply, and a university (not departmental) committee reviews applications for possible interdisciplinary fellowships and joint appointments between units.

The investment seems to be working. Ten interns have been recruited so far, following two recruitment cycles. In the last cycle, which just ended, there were about 800 applicants from a wide range of backgrounds — “an incredible number,” said Carla Mattos, a chemistry professor and head of the Invest search committee.

“By removing the postdoctoral requirement, we will have a much wider network of very talented and excellent applicants in the society’s demographics,” Mattos said. “That includes people who have just decided ‘I’m going to go into the industry’ or ‘I’m going to do another career.’ So now we’re starting to compete with those groups of applicants who also feel like they’ve reached a point where they’re really ready to go out into the real job market, right? And I think that’s a big part of the very, very talented people.”

Inviting candidates from all disciplines also deepens the candidate pool, Mattos said.

“If we were to pinpoint a particular area of ​​research, many of these talented people wouldn’t see themselves applying to the position, because that’s not what they’re doing,” he said. “And another thing it does is bring in this multidisciplinary group of people, which is where science is going today; A lot of what’s happening at the forefront of science today uses multiple disciplines, and a lot of people don’t necessarily see themselves in a certain field.”

Ultimately, Mattos said, “When you broaden your fields and remove this postdoc requirement, you have a wider pool of applicants to choose from, and you can handpick these super talented people out of 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 careers for people who might otherwise have been marginalized by the long path to the PhD.” training in a faculty position. It has become a long and arduous road.”

Sive continued, “The postdoc used to be kind of a short term to learn a new technique or something to fill in your knowledge gaps and it’s turned into this very long term. And it has become mandatory in some areas. And what that does is tend to put people off going to academia, or select a certain demographic, or just certain people, who are willing to go through this very long period of time before they feel hireable.”

Invest isn’t a teacher diversity initiative per se, but Sive said if teacher diversity increases, that’s another benefit.

“I have been recruiting teachers for a long time. I’ve looked at various approaches to trying to recruit across the social demographic that have been promoted, and some of them didn’t work as well as I wanted,” he said. “And I’ve been thinking, ‘What’s the challenge here, and what can we do to really encourage people who are coming off the academic track, even if they’re really brilliant and talented?’ What can we do to keep them?’ And one of the things was to short-circuit that time to a faculty position.”

Sive added: “If you go into industry with a PhD, you can go there pretty quickly after your PhD. But that’s not the same as going into an academic track. And connecting that industry track with the academic track was the kind of approach we wanted to take.”

Invest offers Faculty (essentially postdocs) the opportunity to start as research fellows in the North East to further their research programs before embarking on a tenure track. Sive said that a few recruits have opted for this route, but not the majority. (There are still few recruits on campus, given the long lag in academia between recruiting and start dates).

Some applicants and recruiters also have post-doctoral experience. This, of course, is not required by Invest’s recruitment standards, but applicants with such experience are not disadvantaged either.

About half of the university’s funding for recruiting goes to Invest. The other half funds more traditional teacher searches.

Academe’s ‘Permadoc’ Problem

Academic science’s postdoctoral problem—sometimes called its “permadoc” problem, due to the increasing length of time many PhDs spend in these positions—is well known. A major 2014 report by the National Academy of Sciences, the National Academy of Engineering, and the Institute of Medicine was highly critical of how universities treat postdocs. But that report, as a predecessor of the National Academies drew the same conclusions, did not lead to extensive 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. For example, a 2020 Nature survey found that 51% of postdocs had considered leaving science because of mental health concerns related to their work.

Respondents to the survey include relatively low pay, job insecurity and work-life balance, etc. 31% of respondents said they worked 10 hours more per week than their contract, and 8% said they worked 20 hours more. To see also : The politics of healthy aging: myths and facts. Almost all (97 percent) reported working weekends and holidays.

Perhaps part of the Great Resignation of the COVID-19 era, or a sign that PhDs are increasingly turning away from postdocs, especially on their own terms, some senior researchers have recently begun to report difficulties filling their postdoc positions. laboratories Sive said he had heard talk of this trend, but Invest predated it. In other words, the program is not a reaction to changes in the postdoc applicant pool, but a reaction to the postdoc problem itself.

“I think it’s generally true if you do a tremendous job as a doctor. student, you’re very likely to do great work in your post-doctoral internship, and you don’t have to keep proving yourself over and over again,” he said. “It bothers me that someone sits around for years, trying to land the next fantastic paper, when they already have a ton of it. What’s the point here? landscape? It certainly benefits the consultant’s research team—that’s wonderful, contributing wonderful research to the United States and the world, and it benefits the postdoc to some extent—but there’s an important question of when is enough. When have you shown what you can do? And I think this is the time of the most intense recruitments.’

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