Time limits in academia: increasing competition or hindering diversity?

The Naturejobs blog recently published an article on the potential merits and pitfalls of three year PhD programs. Authors of this article argued that while three year PhDs may be more volatile and suitable for industry, they impose additional pressure to advisors and PhD students who need to start publishing already on their first or second year. As a graduate of a three year PhD program, I would like to give a complementary view, focused on the future of such degrees.

Back in 2009, I was lucky enough to be admitted to a PhD program before even finishing my undergraduate studies. The topic, place and advisors all seemed exciting and without a second thought I accepted the position. Against all academic odds, my advisors and I maintained an excellent relationship throughout my PhD, and despite the occasional ups and downs, I could perform some experiments, publish a bunch of papers, and finally defend my PhD exactly three years after my enrolling date. What no one told me was that the moment that I was pronounced ‘doctor of science’, a countdown was starting for me.

When graduating from a three-year PhD, one is likely to be much younger and less mature than someone who took their time and detours before defending. Still, both individuals have to join the same job market and compete against some of their more experienced peers for the same postdoc and eventually the same faculty positions. Moreover, on top of competing to other graduates, postdocs also have to compete against time.

For achieving most academic goals there hard time-limits which in most cases are not linked to one’s biological age, but to the time after their PhD defense. Most grants for funding one’s postdoc strongly discourage prolonged research experience and exclude any applicant that has more than three or four years of postdoctoral training. More advanced funding schemes, that are directed towards the so-called early career researchers, provide the means to a promising individual to establish their own research group, and typically fund applicants with 2 to 9 or 3 to 8 years of prior experience.

Additional rules apply to several institutions, who want their postdocs to have for example no more than 5 years of postdoctoral training, either within the same institute, or including any other experience world-wide. This initiative could be part of a plan to prevent institutions from perceiving postdocs as cheap labor for life, but it is contradictory to policies concerning tenured faculty members, who can often keep their position for as long as they feel fit for research. Apparently, if one has not made it to tenure a few years after defending their PhD, they have nothing more to offer and should be kicked out to make space for newcomers.

This rather controversial rule is supposed to curate a leaky system that currently produces way more PhD graduates than it can possibly absorb, but, at the same time, it imposes a normative structure throughout academia. The inherent assumption of time-limits is that all PhDs start with identical capacities and levels of maturity, touch academic bases with similar speed and either make it to tenure right away, or have nothing to offer in academia any longer. There are little or no provisions to account for young PhDs and unconventional life walks, like for example long breaks or changes of discipline.

Some institutions or funding bodies that consider themselves keen on diversity and friendly towards women provide occasional exceptions to their temporal rules. For example, researchers who had to take time off academia for giving birth or restoring their health could get an extension to post-PhD time limits by a few years, but this extension needs to be approved by some official authority, often according to obscure criteria.

Such initiatives work in favor of researchers who took time off for explicit reasons, such as giving birth. However, they still completely fail to account for disadvantages that members of specific groups may encounter because of their gender, ancestry, sexual orientation or body type. In such cases, implicit bias may influence employment possibilities, co-authoring of scientific articles, teaching, or peer-reviewing. Biases or other forms of discrimination can easily hinder the flawless transition of several ones among us from PhD graduates to independent researchers. Relying on case-by-case exceptions to academic time limits can by no means account for all forms of micro-aggression or discrimination that we often face on a daily basis. Ignoring those as irrelevant to one’s career is at least naïf, and at most, harmful for individuals and research as a whole.

Academic transitions are already extremely competitive and selective, and yes, one could impose even more temporal rules to prune candidates and keep only the cream of the crop. Universities could further tune their selection criteria towards what they traditionally deem as successful, in order to deal with the massive amount of graduates they have produced and released in the job market. However, tuning all selection towards a specific normative researcher profile threatens to silence many of research’s diverse voices and educational views.

One can only imagine what a game-changer it would be if academia would sometimes embrace the unique traits of its members, instead of just tolerating them. And perhaps one can even dream how much more dynamic, volatile and creative would the collective production of human knowledge then be…

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