Radical Research III – A freelance market for post-docs?

How about living the rest of your life as a post-doc, but making lots of money and never having to move city, yet alone country, while you do it?

In this, the 3rd in the series of “Radical Research” posts (a term Carolina Ödman and I coined in the car on the way to AIMS one day) — you can read some of the other posts here and here – I would like to challenge the way post-docs are employed. My proposal isn’t without flaws but I put it out there primarily to stimulate some creative and original thinking around an important issue that has seen little innovation over the past few decades.

Whereas my 2nd post in this series made analogies with computing libraries, this post makes analogies with the freelance world such as is rather typical in graphic design and related fields (e.g. see here) and has even made it into the commercial scientific domain via Innocentive.

Let’s start with a question: Why can’t you stay a post-doc forever?

People often look back on their post-doc years as their most happy and the times they most closely approached the life they were dreaming of when they decided to embark on graduate study in the first place. The thing they hated was the lack of security.

Here by ‘post-doc’ I mean a professional who has a PhD and is primarily employed for their skills at doing research, rather than the 101 other things that permanent faculty are now forced to do, such as teaching, committee meetings, supervision of students, tutoring, hiring new faculty, applying for grants, reports, general departmental management, etc etc… that relatively few academics enjoy and many detest.

It is one of the weirdest things about research that many academics spend years and years training to do a job that they essentially stop doing (other than as a hobby) once they get a permanent position. Instead they then train other people to do a job that they also will not do in the long term.

Weirder still, to get a job you have to show skill at research, but new faculty are often hired with little or no experience in the wide variety of management and training activities that they will typically spend the majority of the rest of their career doing. The people, on the other hand, with these skills and who would enjoy the management, don’t get the jobs of course because typically they don’t have the research profiles to get permanent positions! The result: a large number of people doing jobs they don’t like that they feel they didn’t sign up for and for which they don’t have any real training. The end result: unhappy, unproductive, demotivated and unprofessional staff.

There is a joke along these lines:

   "The juvenile sea squirt wanders through the sea searching
 for a suitable rock or hunk of coral to cling to and make
 its home for life. For this task, it has a rudimentary
 nervous system. When it finds its spot and takes root, it
 doesn't need its brain anymore so it eats it! (It's rather
 like getting tenure.)"

CONSCIOUSNESS EXPLAINED, by Daniel Dennett, p. 177

It didn’t use to be like this. The post-doc is a relatively new introduction to put people into holding patterns while they wait for a permanent position. At the same time the nature of permanent positions have changed under the pressures of over-supply of candidates, demands for transparency (implying an increase in admin) and the commercialisation of universities. [Update 19 May 2011: An interesting discussion of this issue is over at Cosmic Variance.]

This isn’t meant to be a tirade against the academic system. There are many counter-examples of people who are happy and successful at all aspects of the job, but accept for the moment that at least some of my arguments hold water. Why then, can’t we have a system in which one could simply do the job for which one trained all those years – research – all one’s life?

So with that rather long-winded intro, here is my proposal:

A freelance system in which people with grants would offer open-ended contracts for specific research jobs. For example, I might need a large computer simulation done but I might lack the skills or, perhaps, access to a supercomputer. I advertise that I am willing to pay $20,000 to have someone do it for me. I spec out the job, post it with a closing date, choose a candidate and then start the collaboration. Since the candidate only works for me part time and will have to accept other contracts in order to live, the collaboration is done remotely in whatever country the person happens to live.

When the project is complete a paper gets published with our names and affiliations and crucially both the “boss” and the post-doc get rated by the other. This feedback system provides an open referencing/kudos system needed to make sure both sides deliver. Post-docs who perform poorly will quickly pay for it in their reputation and hence their ability to win future contracts.

One of the interesting side-effects of this is that post-docs would likely begin to specialise. If you can do essentially the same job brilliantly for ten different contracts you could earn $200k a year rather than the measly $35-60k most post-docs pay. The employer in turn can potentially get many more papers published a year.

So the pros are they one might be able to make a real living, to specialise and become a real expert in a small number of fields and be able live in the same place for one’s whole life. In short, one could be a professional. I think it would likely lead to better research since to win every contract one would have to bid for it.

There are many potential cons however, that one would have to overcome. First, students and faculty would suffer from the loss of the day-to-day precence of the post-docs. Informal knowledge transfer (at journal clubs, over tea or coffee or food for example) is crucial for most students whose actual supervision is often done by post-docs and not by the formal supervisor.

Even more pernicious perhaps, given that the aim of this proposal is to improve working conditions for post-docs, is that it might lead to a “stars and slaves” system like pro golf or tennis where most of the money goes to a few stars and the rest have to eek out a living. At the moment, although top universities attract the top candidates, they don’t actively block positions at other universities. In the freelance model, a top post-doc could win a large number of the most lucrative contracts. In short, the system would become more capitalist with all the good and bad that entails.

The fact that one could win lots of contracts with a very specialised but in-demand skill might significantly discourage openess. Why would someone release codes like GADGET or CAMB when they could keep it to themselves and have a monopoly, or at least significantly slow down the competition? Since openess is one of the coolest things about academia that would also be very sad loss. Fortunately that need not be inevitable as the classic cathedral and bazaar essay argues. The open source community manages to function well within a money-making environment.

Aside from the cons there are numerous challenging practical barriers to implementation: how would one run the freelance, kudos and reputation systems? Even more difficult, how would one convince government agencies, who supply most post-doc funding, to allow their money to be sent overseas rather than being spent in the home country? How would tax work? Where would post-docs spend their time? They could get a desk at the local university or a more exciting possibility perhaps would be for a few post-docs to band together to get shared premises.

Rather like many small medical practises, one could rent a room in a house. This ronin/guild model of groups of professional post-docs is quite appealing to me. They could potentially have all the good things of a university, without most of the downsides.

I would be interested in your thoughts and comments…

Bruce Bassett

PS. I would like to thank several people for discussions around this idea including Carolina, and Russell Johnston who had already had thoughts these lines independently. I have probably benefited from discussions with others too; please forgive me for not remembering!

PPS. For anyone interested in being a successful academic, I highly recommend the book “Tomorrow’s Professor” .

UPDATED: 20 November 2013.

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6 Responses to Radical Research III – A freelance market for post-docs?

  1. Stuart says:

    Another potential downside for the freelance postdoc is the time spent putting together bids for work. I’m not sure if this would be more or less than the time required to put together grant applications and/or prepare for job interviews every couple of years. It might then make sense to have postdoc agencies where a few postdocs team up to work together on projects. I could see that being quite attractive.

  2. Paul says:

    It has long been puzzling to me that, in general, apart from the lucky few who find a position in a research institute*, most researchers are expected to teach. Even those that aren’t good at teaching, or who don’t want to teach, usually have to teach as part and parcel of their permanent position. And this seems to me a gross misuse of resources, and it doesn’t surprise me that undergraduate satisfaction is falling. If someone wants to teach, and does it satisfactorily, let them teach. If someone wants to research, and does it satisfactorily, let them research. If someone wants to do both, allow it. But forcing everyone into a teaching role just seems… I don’t know what word to use… stupid?

    So, yes, as a person who is not particularly well disposed to teaching, I like the idea of being a postdoc forever. I am not too sure if the capitalistic aspects of your scheme will work out for the greater good, though… as you say, the very best postdocs will have a lot of contracts, but I can see this leading to less than stellar postdocs not having a sufficient wage to live, and them dropping out of the field. Most of us mediocre postdocs are good workers, and losing us I think would fragment the field of astronomy into hot topics or where specific skills (e.g., running large simulations) are crucial.

    *Please note my bias :)

  3. One downside is it might mean these freelance postdocs would not have the opportunity to come up with their own research ideas. They would get paid to perform specific tasks but may never be able to do their own work, something which a permanent position allows…

  4. Pingback: Radical Research IV – rating researchers | Cosmology at AIMS

  5. Steve says:

    I actually know someone that is already doing this: He started his own private company to do Adaptive Optics research. I imagine there are a whole series of pitfalls and overhead that is required with this, but it is already being done.

  6. JC Holbrook says:

    Bruce, I have developed a similar idea but structured it in a different way to address some of the evils of astronomy culture. Many women and minorities phd astrophysicists/astronomers love doing astrophysics research but don’t like their colleagues and astronomy culture. They would rather do the research not in an astronomy department, etc. I advocate changing the culture but one has to be secure financially, emotionally, and intellectually to tackle that enormous issue.

    The idea is similar to yours, except I had a funding source in mind for the project: NSF Advance in the USA. The Advance program is specifically for the promotion of women in STEM; they have programs to aid women at all stages of their careers including if they had had stops and starts in their careers because they have had to move for family reasons. The project would include 10 participants at a time. Each participant would get a laptop, training in the online databases available, research design utilizing the databases, and project management. Similar to the South African system, they would receive ‘bonus’ payment for every paper accepted for publication and the project would pay their page charges. Perks depending upon the funding would include travel to one conference per year and research trips. In theory, one university would host all the scholars. There would be one project manager/astronomer that would negotiate with potential collaborators on the behalf of each participant, after all collaboration is the norm in astrophysics today. Before being accepted into the program each participant should consider carefully their long term goals: Is it to reenter the academic track? To have a job in a remote location that doesn’t have any facilities? To break into a particular research group? Or, as you suggest to be a postdoc for life? Each one of these requires a different strategy but in theory all can be accommodated.

    What would be different from a ‘freelance postdoc’ as you propose is that the participants would form a support group, there would be a writing coach, there would be public speaking couching, as well. One of the goals is to build a cohort that will be friends and colleagues into the future. Unlike your freelance model, this project will be much more hands-on with a central mentoring component.

    What drove the formulation of this project was attending Astroinformatics conferences where they complain about not having enough able bodied astrophysicists to dive into existing databases and LSST meetings while doing my NSF funded research on Database Driven astrophysics see http://www.nsf.gov/awardsearch/showAward?AWD_ID=0956589&HistoricalAwards=false. I know many excellent women and minorities with their PhD and postdoc experience who left astrophysics. When I contacted some of them, they were excited to become part of such a program! I have bounced this around with John Johnson, Emily Freeland, Laura Chomiuk, Chris Impey, Kim-Vy Tran, Kathryn Johnson, Romeel, and of course the various astrophysicists who would like to be supported by such a postdoc.

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