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12 Haziran 2017 Pazartesi

The Guardian: "Why don't we value academics' age and experience?"

Why don't we value academics' age and experience? Telling academics they are ‘too old’ or ‘too senior’ to obtain fellowships and grants is ageist and unfair.   Some universities don’t value age and experience enough.

Since when did age and experience become a bad thing? Until recently, I thought that having a long CV and a broad range of skills meant that you were the more desirable candidate. But several responses from potential university employers have set me straight.

I recently finished my first post doc. I also have 10 years of experience as I worked as a research assistant before starting my PhD. I naively assumed that potential employers would be grateful to have a candidate who wouldn’t need time to learn new techniques or a new research focus. But I’ve been told that I’m “too old” or “too senior” to obtain a fellowship.

So is the problem my age, or my experience? It seems that the answer, at least in Europe, is that I didn’t follow the expected career path. I didn’t start my PhD until I was 30, then afterwards I did a post doc, which eventually should lead to an early career researcher position. As most of the early career researcher funding schemes in Europe have an age limit of 30, I am not eligible.

But I’m not alone in falling outside the eligibility criteria. According to the European University Institute, the average age at completion of a PhD in the UK is 26-27 years of age. So at the end of a post doc most students are already 30. 

And what about academics who want to take time off for maternity leave? I have a friend whose fellowship scheme had a maternity leave clause, and found that it was by no means accommodating.

There are so many other sacrifices that academics are asked to make along the way. I was told that in order to be competitive, I had to do an overseas post doc, demonstrate the ability to gain independent funding, supervise students, and publish in high quality journals. Most of these rely on having a good mentor and supervisor, since being able to attend conferences and supervising a student is not a decision you can make on your own as a post doc. 

But it’s also about your willingness to move and to work hard, often for free. These are conditions which younger, fresher researchers are more likely to accept - particularly those without family commitments. I know of three separate people who are currently working for their previous labs for free in order to submit a paper. Equally, a fellow Australian, who finished their PhD in 2014 and decided to stay in our rather small city, has been accepting positions as a research assistant, well below their qualifications, in order to maintain employment.

Chasing the elusive permanent position or tenure does mean making certain choices, but why should we sacrifice a work-life balance, self-worth and salary to pursue it?

Most of the challenges we face in pursuing a research career come back to the available funding and the willingness to accept sacrifices. Don’t get me wrong, steps are being taken. There are funding schemes aimed at helping people come back into research after having time off, and others which bring researchers back to their country of birth in order to reduce “brain drain” and promote collaborations. But there are still many researchers struggling to work their way up the career ladder, held back by their age and experience, when we should be regarding these as a bonus, not a negative.

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