Group Leader is not the only career option

Career-OptionsLast August, I was invited to run a mini-workshop at a post-doc retreat in the Swiss Alps. The beautiful landscape was conducive to good and creative work. One of the workshop topics was what career options are open to post-docs who do not want to pursue the traditional academic career option of setting up their own research group. As the photo shows, options are not the issue.

The research community focuses on producing group leaders. Too often, other career options are made to sound like the symbolize failure. Indeed, training and staff development has focused on preparing people for their independent position – a strategy that meets the needs of a small minority.

In an interview earlier this year, Francis Collins, Director of the NIH, put the figure of biomedical Ph.D. in academic tenure or tenure-track at 23% in 2008. Since the number of positions is growing more slowly than the number of Ph.D.s, this percentage is decreasing. The picture in other research areas is similar. He spoke about the work the NIH is undertaking to prepare students for a broad range of research-related careers, including non-academic paths.

The options range from developing a non-group leader career track in research, fostering mentoring networks, and encouraging career development programs. Just as most biotopes thrive on diversity, we need a research environment that positively encourages a variety of career options. As Dr. Collins says at the end of his interview, “I worry that a number of [post-docs] are receiving the message that if they don’t get a tenure-track position, they have failed. The good news is that nearly all postdocs are likely to be employed in interesting positions, but many will not travel a narrow academic path.”

The post-docs in the workshop last Summer showed just how broad that path can be.

Photo: CJ Fitzsimons

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