Tuesday, November 1, 2011

The ties that bind, may break

I gave in to my preoccupation with postdocs years ago, but I am constantly searching for the significance of this hang-up.  After all, postdocs come and postdocs go (although it is true that they may hang around a bit longer than they did a decade ago). Still, relative to the duration of their PI's career, their department's existence, and academia's legacy, each individual postdoc is a cursory disciplinary footnote. Isn't it right then that the most raucous debates center on the modern day relevance of higher and graduate education, the evolution of disciplinary boundaries, and the continuation of the tenure process?

For whatever reason, these questions don't occupy my mind or imagination.  But I do feel a sense of foreboding when pondering the experiences and travails of individual postdocs and when considering the all-too-limited array of employment and career opportunities that await them. We are a country hungry for innovation and technological advancement, and one that is willing to support the perpetual pursuit of knowledge. Unfortunately, we use these priorities to justify the misuse of doctoral scholars as an over-populated and underutilized research battalion.

This has proven to be no good for postdocs. And I believe that it is no good for science.

It may be that postdocs are the most immediate sign that research goals and practices are not well-tethered to important realities. Thus, I think it is time that national and institutional research priorities include goals for the sustainable use of the scientific workforce.

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