Academia: the academic career ladder

PhD, postdoc and PI are terms that have two things in common: 1) most people have little to no idea what they mean and 2) they are all names for jobs on the academic career ladder. Okay, and 3) they all start with a ‘p’.

The first step: doing a PhD
I am currently at the first step of the career ladder in academia: doing a PhD. Apart from some shorter PhDs in the medical field, most PhDs take (at least) four years. As discussed in several other articles on this website, doing a PhD is mostly about doing research. Apart from doing research, the tasks of a PhD candidate generally involve some teaching and student supervision tasks. Those latter things do not contribute to the final evaluation of the PhD candidate, though. A PhD project is judged on the PhD thesis that is written in the end. This thesis is a book containing an introductory chapter, two to many research chapters, a discussion and a summary for non-scientists. While it is not strictly required, it is better for future career possibilities when at least some of the chapters of the thesis have been published in a scientific, peer-reviewed journal before handing in the thesis. After approval of the thesis by a committee, it has to be successfully defended in front of a group of scientists before the doctor degree is awarded.

Postdoc time!
The new doctor can now move on to the next step in the academic career ladder: doing a postdoc. A postdoc – short for postdoctoral researcher – is also a temporary position, which generally last two to three years, there are also people doing much longer postdocs. The main responsibility of a postdoc is still doing research. However, more responsibilities can be required. Postdocs might partly supervise PhD students or give lectures, for example. While postdoctoral research can be in the same research field as the PhD was performed in, this is not necessarily the case. In general, people at least go to a different lab, and often even to a different country.

Moving towards a permanent position
After about two postdoc postitions, the next step is a tenure track position. A tenure track is a job for four to five years and often comes with money to pay a PhD. At Dutch universities, tenure trackers are generally placed in an existing lab. This is in contrast to the situation in the US and at Dutch research institutes like the NIOO and the Hubrecht, where people with a tenure track position almost always start a new lab. In the five years of the contract, the  person needs to prove that he / she is ‘worthy’ of a permanent position. In practice, this comes down to publishing enough papers in important enough journals. If these requirements are met, the person will get a permanent position as ‘principal investigator’, or ‘PI’. At research institutes like the NIOO and the Hubrecht, principal investigators are often not connected to a university and thus not Professors. At universities, principal investigators are generally either assistant, associate or full Professors.

Apart from the PhD candidates, Postdocs and principal investigators, most labs in the beta-sciences also have technicians. Technician positions are generally permanent positions, thus ensuring continuity in a lab where most people leave again after a few years. Technicians are part of the support staff: they help out with experimental work and make sure that everything works smoothly by ordering supplies, keeping track of stocks, arranging lab cleanings, etc. From my experience in different labs I learned that good technicians are vital for good research.

Advancing on the ladder
As already mentioned in several of the interviews on this site, permanent positions are hard to come by in academia. The following graph, published in one of the major journals, illustrates this well.

Since 1982, almost 800,000 PhDs were awarded in science and engineering (S&E) fields, whereas only about 100,000 academic faculty positions were created in those fields within the same time frame. The number of S&E PhDs awarded annually has also increased over this time frame, from ~19,000 in 1982 to ~36,000 in 2011. The number of faculty positions created each year, however, has not changed, with roughly 3,000 new positions created annually

Even when someone reaches the highest level of the career ladder, that of principal investigator, that does not mean that he / she can relax and focus on research from then on. In fact, people in those positions in the beta sciences, generally do not carry out research anymore at all. Instead, they spend their time managing the lab, supervising PhD candidates and postdocs and applying for money. Money, more specifically research funding and grant application, is worthy of a post itself, though, so I will go into that in a later post.

Figure and supporting legend from Schillebeeckx et al. (2017) The missing piece to changing the university culture, Nature Biotechnology 31: 938–941. Reprinted by permission from Macmillan Publishers Ltd: Nature biotechnology, copyright 2017.



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