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Trim or 'Fatten' the Pyramid?

Summarizing a recent round table discussion on research careers in which she participated, Jennifer Rohn at Mind the Gap says that although panelists generally agreed on the existence of "significant structural problems and instabilities" in the academic workforce, there were differing opinions on how to deal with the issue. "Some wanted to frame the discussion solely on facilitating the 'graceful exit' from the pyramid — in other words, the shape is what it is, and we should try to work around it," Rohn says. "But others wanted to probe at the shape itself, and whether it could be altered — for example, the feasibility of 'fattening the pyramid' (i.e. creating more mid-level, permanent jobs for highly skilled research staff)."

Hypothetically speaking, Rohn wonders if academic fellowship applications saw a 95 percent drop, how the remaining 5 percent would fare compared to, say, those the 6th to 10th percentile. "Was there a steep step-change at 5 [percent], or was it just a very gradual continuum? Do all quick-off-the-mark superstars who get independence always do well? … Some researchers would rather leave than not be a lab head, but there are probably a large number who would be well suited to a permanent non-PI research job and who would flourish in that environment," she says. "So how big is that latter pool?"

Turning back to the panel discussion, Rohn says participants also considered "ways to equip researchers to leave academia." While some argued that it would serve academic researchers well to spend some time in industry, at her blog Rohn says "industrial stints are not always rewarded in the current system." Rohn adds an unanswered question raised during the discussion: "If we want to encourage leavers to leave early in their career, how can this be enforced?" To that, she says, further discussion lies ahead.

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