As academic professors, we aim to train people in our fields. We have good intentions, but we make one key mistake: we try to create our trainees in our image, for them to be the younger copies of ourselves. Our job is to train students to follow in our footsteps, even when this may not be the best choice for them.
We help students to get their PhDs, then land postdoctoral positions in the hopes of having them eventually get academic faculty appointments -ideally, a tenure-track one. We create an army of Mini-Me’s ready to continue the same scientific quests that we have been working on, and so we perpetuate the circle of life in academia.
Are we setting trainees up for failure? For many new research scientists, the academic career path becomes a series of dead-end postdoctoral positions with little prospects for their own independent academic careers. According to a recent New York Times article, we are training many more research scientist than there are faculty positions. So why are we doing this?
There are several ways in which we contribute to this cycle. Part of the problem is that we, academic professors, don't know any better. We were trained by professors who, upon sensing our impending graduation, would call a colleague to ask: “Do you have a postdoc position for my student?” And off we'd go, right onto a well-paved track: PhD to Postdoc to Assistant Professor and so on. But this track is not working as smoothly now, not even for our best trainees.
Another part of the problem is that our measure of success is the number of doctoral and postdoctoral students we have mentored and how many of them are now in faculty positions with their own grants. This measure of success perpetuates the idea that unless you become a tenured professor, you have failed as a research scientist. This measure of success is simply too narrow. Although many consider reaching tenure professor status as the goal, it is not the only way to be a successful scientist.
Why can't we also measure success by how many of our trainees have satisfying careers as teachers, exciting jobs at start-ups, productive jobs in industry, effective positions in government? How many of our trainees are fulfilled with other career paths that may not have been available to us way back when we were newly-minted PhDs? Let’s open our eyes to other options that put trainees’ best talents to work in new ways.
We have to expose our trainees to other career options and present these options as equally valid ways to use scientific research talents, not as fallback plans for those who don’t make it into academia. We need to understand that times have changed. True mentoring means for us to help our trainees follow their own best paths. Let's stop expecting them to become replicas of ourselves.
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Dr. Luz Claudio is an environmental health scientist, mother and consultant, originally from Puerto Rico. She is a tenured professor of environmental medicine and public health. Luz recently published her first book: How to Write and Publish a Scientific Paper: The Step-by-Step Guide. Dr. Claudio has internship programs and resources for young scientists. Opinions expressed in this blog are solely her own and may not reflect her employer's views.