Lessons from the #postdocalypse

This post started life as a talk for the National Tertiary Education Union conference on Insecure Work. Thanks to the National Tertiary Education Union for inviting the Research Whisperer to be part of the conference, and for paying for my airfare and accommodation.


Graph showing biomedical PhDs rising to 2,500 per year, while plant sciences remain static.

Figure 1: US biomedical vs selected PhD graduates. Source:- Opinion: The Planet Needs More Plant Scientists, by Alan M. Jones, in The Scientist, 1 October 2014, via @Wyoweeds.

In the United States, in biotechnology research, a precipitous increase in PhD numbers over the last few years has resulted in unsustainable numbers of post-doc applicants.

People over there are calling it the #postdocalypse (figure 1). I want to use that as a jumping-off point for talking about insecure work in the research sector in Australia.

The situation in Australia is different to the USA. I’m looking mostly at contract research staff. That is, I’m looking at people who have insecure work, rather than people who are trying to get work. I do acknowledge, though, that the situation generally isn’t as dire as in the US. I haven’t heard of any postdocs here who are living out of thier cars. If you declare bankruptcy here, your student debt is wiped out, just like all your other debt.

Still, our data doesn’t look good, whichever way you look at it.

Australia is currently experiencing the lowest level of government funding for research since we started keeping statistics in 1979 (figure 2).

I’m always hopeful that we will convince the government to restore funding to CSIRO, the CRC program, and to research areas other than medicine. Read more of this post

The Knife of Never Letting Go

Dr Helen KaraDr Helen Kara has been an independent social researcher in social care and health since 1999, and is also Associate Research Fellow at the Third Sector Research Centre, University of Birmingham. 

She is on the Board of the UK’s Social Research Association, with lead responsibility for research ethics.  She teaches research methods to practitioners and students, writes on research methods, and is author of the best-selling Research and Evaluation for Busy Practitioners (Policy Press 2012). 

Her next book, Creative Research Methods in the Social Sciences, is due for publication in April 2015. 

You can find her on Twitter at @DrHelenKaraHer blogpost title owes thanks to Patrick Ness.


I finished writing my latest book last month.

...and in last place (Photo by Tim Norris | www.flickr.com/photos/tim_norris)

…and in last place (Photo by Tim Norris | http://www.flickr.com/photos/tim_norris)

Two or three weeks before I actually finished, I realised I was dawdling.

I usually speed up towards the end of a writing project in a one-woman race for the finish line. Not this time. I was fiddling and faffing, not quite procrastinating, but taking ages to think about minor points where I’d usually make quick decisions. What was going on? I did my Belbin Team Inventory years ago and I know I’m a ‘completer finisher’, i.e. someone who likes to get things done, dusted, ticked off the list. So, why was I finding it hard to let go now?

That was the problem. I’ve written a number of non-fiction and fiction books (some have even been published) and numerous articles and short stories. I’ve never had trouble letting go of a writing project, but this time I did. I didn’t want to part with my precious typescript. I wanted to go on fiddling and faffing forever.

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What gets covered in science blogs?

Portrait of Paige Brown JarreauPaige Brown Jarreau is a PhD candidate in mass media and public affairs at the Manship School of Mass Communication, Louisiana State University. She studies the intersection of science communication, journalism and new media. She uses a variety of approaches, both quantitative and qualitative, to study science news norms, beliefs and values of science communicators, environmental psychology and science media framing effects.

She is the author of From the Lab Bench, a science blog hosted on SciLogs.com, where she is a community manager. She  writes on a semi-regular basis for the Science & Society section of EMBO Reports.  She tweets at @FromTheLabBench.

A version of this post originally appeared on From the Lab Bench, as Something is wrong on the Internet! What does the Science Blogger do?

Full disclosure: This article discusses a fundraising campaign. One of the editors (@jod999) has contributed to that campaign.


Some of the most common words mentioned during 33 of Paige's interviews with science bloggers.

Some of the most common words mentioned during 33 of Paige’s interviews with science bloggers.

Science blogging is one of those curious social media phenomena that has moved mainstream in the science news ecosystem.

Once known as ranty opinion forums, blogs have become one of the best resources of science and science communication online.

Science blogs have spread their influence into the worlds of scientific publishing, science journalism, science policy and popular science. But as they have, we could argue that science bloggers themselves are becoming more accountable to the broader science news ecosystem, even more professionalized.

What do modern science blogging practices and values look like? How are science bloggers deciding what to cover, and what impacts are these decisions having? What does the modern science blogging network look like, and how are bloggers being rewarded for their dogged fixing of science on the internet?

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Beyond a life in the lab


Regan ForrestRegan Forrest
works with museums and other cultural organisations to help them understand their audiences better.

She is at the end of her doctoral studies through the University of Queensland’s Business School, with her thesis “Design Factors in the Museum Visitor Experience” due to be submitted for examination at the end of September.

Among the many hats she wears is being the Director of interactivate (interactivate.com.au), a research and creative consultancy committed to helping museums make the world a better place through quality visitor experiences. Years before she founded the business, she snapped up @interactivate as her twitter handle.

We invited Regan to write for us because of her approach to finding a career space. PhD researchers and ECRs often feel that a linear trajectory is what’s required and valued. Regan’s story shows that taking a risk can lead to unexpected, very satisfying job opportunities and career paths.


[Original photo by @kimtairi on flickr: https://www.flickr.com/photos/angels_have_the_phone_box)

[Original photo by @kimtairi on flickr: https://www.flickr.com/photos/angels_have_the_phone_box)

Once I turned down a PhD scholarship, only to accept another, 15 years later, in a completely different field.

After finishing Honours in Biochemistry at the University of Adelaide, I opted not to do a PhD straight away. That would have been the path of least resistance, but I thought some experience in other labs would make me a more rounded researcher in the long run. I decided to take a gap year (or two) to work as a Research Assistant instead.

About halfway through my first year as an RA, I started to feel frustrated and miscast. I wasn’t sure if the lab life was for me after all. But what else was I going to do with a science degree?

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Changing disciplinary horses

Since the beginning of this year, I’ve been mired in active discussions around who I am as a scholar.

Luckily for the world at large, these discussions exist mostly in my head, and only occasionally weigh upon the ears of close colleagues and my lucky, lucky partner.

The reason for these internal discussions is that I’ve started an academic job in a field that’s unrelated to my previous disciplines.

As a PhD student and then a research fellow, I have meandered through literary studies, cultural studies, heritage and museum research, touched on sociological work, and wished repeatedly that I’d built my expertise in science fiction and horror screen cultures.

The hinge that my scholarly work depends on is critical race studies, and the sub-field of diasporic Asian studies.

I have a shelf in my study that carries books and special issue journals that I’ve written and edited. It is my (occasionally successful) talisman against imposter syndrome. However, none of the publications I’ve had or journals I’ve published in overlap with the field Education Studies, part and parcel of the new role I’ve taken up.

Many times recently, I’ve moseyed through the literature around diversity and leadership in the academy (new field), and found a mini-Ygritte on my shoulder intoning, “You know nothing, Tseen Khoo.” And mini-Ygritte is right.

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Life as an academic at a regional university

Dr Mel Thomson

[Photo by Phil Roberts, York University]

Dr Mel Thomson completed her undergraduate Honours degree in 1998 in microbiology and immunology at the University of Melbourne.

She then migrated to the UK where she worked on various projects as diverse as allergy and cancer before undertaking further studies. She completed a Masters of Research in functional genomics in 2004 before reading for a PhD in microbial genetic regulation in Neisseria species (both at the University of York, UK).

After the award of her PhD in 2009, Mel became interested in the extra-gastric consequences of the host-pathogen interactions between gastric Helicobacter species and their human host.

She returned to Australia in 2011 to start her own group at Deakin Medical School, where she plans to continue her explorations of host-pathogen interactions leading to pathology affecting nutrient absorption in the gut.

Mel has recently become a national ‘torch bearer’ for the concept of crowdfunding academic research, with a track record of two successful Pozible campaigns: Mighty Maggots and Hips 4 Hipsters. She is involved in advocacy for Women in Science both nationally and internationally.

Mel tweets at @dr_mel_thomson and blogs at Dr Mel Thomson.


Photo by Mel Thomson

Photo by Mel Thomson

I recently caught up with several early- and mid-career research colleagues from regional Queensland and NSW at a national conference.

The last time I had seen them at this meeting was two years ago, when two of them were working on the end of their fellowships at metropolitan universities.

Meeting them again, I discovered that the two of them had moved to a ‘new’ university in a regional area outside of the conurbation they had previously inhabited.

One had followed their Patron to this new position. The other had decided to take an academic lecturing position to offer some job security in response to the increasingly unstable funding environment for early and mid-career researchers in Australia.

They knew I was from a regional campus of a Victorian university, and we got chatting about the differences they had experienced since moving out of town to a ‘second tier’ (or perhaps ‘third tier’?) university. I asked what kind of support and commitments they had, compared to before.

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Who will win?

Four colourful dragon boats on a lake in Nanjing.

Dragon boats, by Jonathan O’Donnell on Flickr

In the last week, academics around Australia have been receiving referee reports from the Australian Research Council.

Yesterday, I read just over 50 of these reports.

Today I spoke to my boss about them. I said that, in general, I was happy with them. We talked about some specific applications and some specific comments in the assessments.

Then, right at the end of the call, he asked me the question that I’d been dreading.

So, who do you think will win? What do you think our chances are?

Don’t ask me that. Please, don’t ask me that.

In the same way that I can’t tell an academic if they’ll get the grant or not, I can’t tell my boss, out of all our applications, who will win.

I can tell who got positive comments and who didn’t, which might allow you to make your own educated guess. I can tell you who, in my opinion, deserves to win.

But I don’t pick winners. Here’s five good reasons why. Read more of this post

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