From PhD to Professor the Australian way

Over the last six months or so, I’ve had that nagging feeling that something important has slipped my mind. A little over a week ago, the Australian government released the 2015 budget papers, and I remembered. I’d just about forgotten the Future Fellows.

The 2015 budget was generally pretty palatable. That is, it was palatable by comparison to the 2014 budget, which was increasingly disliked as the year ticked on. The 2014 budget was especially dire for large parts of the higher education and research sectors. While medical researchers had been a promised $20bn Medical Research Future Fund, other disciplines were less favoured. Medical research was on the podium. Anything that wasn’t medical research was feeling decidedly shaky. Deep cuts to various federal science agencies were flagged and our Cooperative Research Centres were headed for the same chopping block.

As the year went on, it was clear that at times the ‘good news’ for science in budget was anything but. In several cases, our big winners turned out to be far from enviable. Indeed, several big wins were bound up with substantially hefty strings and caveats. Funding for science’s 2014 budget winners was intimately tied to deeply unpopular reforms of both our national health services and our higher education sector.

At first, the Future Fellowships scheme was listed as a big 2014 budget winner. $140m in new funding was announced to continue support for our most talented mid-careers researchers in building world-class careers and see them on stellar trajectories towards professorships. However, the scheme was welded to widely disliked university reforms that were never going to pass through the senate. When the reforms were blocked, the Future Fellows slipped away, mostly unnoticed.

In March this year, several of our world-class national research facilities (NCRIS) were facing closure and bankruptcy as their future was being gambled on the same tenuously related legislation that our poor prospective Future Fellows had been strapped to. A last minute reprieve saved the jobs of some 1,700 NCRIS scientists. But in our collective disbelief about the broad sweeping and brutal cuts proposed in 2014, the Future Fellows quietly dropped off the radar.

As a result, many early and mid career researchers, with very few other opportunities for career progression in Australia, eagerly awaited news of the Future Fellows in last week’s budget. It looked like good news. The Fellowships would be continued!

As detailed trickled through, the good news started to more closely resemble bad news. For example, precarious funding for our crucial research infrastructure facilities (NCRIS) had been secured for 2015/2016. But it had been cleaved from the block grant that funds crucial university research. It was aptly described as budget cannibalism – research infrastructure was saved by cutting the funds that support its use.

Meanwhile, we celebrated the continued funding of the Future Fellowships. But of course, there were ‘buts’.  Funding was now in place on a smaller scale, but it was now supporting only 50 Fellows on 4-year appointments. And continued funding of the program was flagged, but it appears to remain tied to those much-unloved higher education reforms that are snarled in the senate. The funding of the 2015 miniaturised scheme is unclear, but a cut to the Australian Research Council over the next three years from other programs was noted.

I’ve previously mentioned my recent travel to the US, where many discussions with early career researchers revealed the truly absurd nature of Australian academic pathways. These young American graduate students were ambitious and talented. They planned to enter tenure track positions and aimed to make their way into continuing faculty positions at good universities. They were incredulous that I did not harbour the same aspirations. I tried to explain that we simply don’t have tenure track positions. Although very taxing and also uncertain, tenure track provides some glimmer of hope that a long-term academic career can result from hard work and talent.

Instead, Australia’s young scientists tend to undertake a series of increasingly less desirable short-term postdoctoral positions that often act simply to delay an inevitable exit from academia. I do not mean to sound cynical. I have loved the academic freedom of short-term contract-based postdoctoral positions. They have allowed me to pursue new and exciting research interests, seek out a diversity of mentors and also to prioritise my partner’s sometimes incompatible academic needs.

However, it is bewildering that this year in Australia, only 50 world-class, talented and hard-working researchers will have a clear opportunity to carve out long-term careers for themselves. There are, of course, other routes from PhD to Professor that do not require a successful application to Future Fellow funding.  A timely retirement and a sudden dearth of applicants might serendipitously reward a young-ish researcher in the right place at the right time.

However, alternative funding tranches and pathways are also meagre. The Future Fellows program represents a critical opportunity to recognise and support researchers at a crucial career phase. This provides mid-career academics an opportunity to make the leap across the chasm between early career researcher and well, simply, researcher. The scheme allows researchers to demonstrate their talent to their institutions and reveal themselves to be indispensable to their faculty.

I still can’t quite explain the Australian approach to academic careers. Without the Future Fellows scheme, or equivalent, I can’t even begin to envisage how the best of my generation of scientists can become academic. How does someone become a tenured academic in Australia?  While I understand that the academy is highly competitive and rewards only the most accomplished and driven, our system is highly wasteful. What happens to the vast proportion of PhD students and postdocs who aren’t successful several years down the track in an impoverished mid-career funding scheme? What are we training these students for?

I’ve gratefully had 24 years of formal education invested in me by Australia. But what will be the return on this hefty investment? I have now been working for 4 years and very much hope to land the baby version of the Future Fellows scheme – the DECRA – this year. Even if  my DECRA application is successful, it’s becoming less clear how good an opportunity this actually represents. There was a high profile instance earlier this year of a successful DECRA candidate turning down her grant in favour of pursuing secure career opportunities in the USA. Funding for a 3-year early career award is fantastic! But what then?

The 2014 and 2015 budget decisions have accentuated young and young-ish researchers asking “what then?” Despite the grumbling, we are generally more or less willing to give an academic career a shot against the odds. However, without opportunities to move forward, it all feels a little more hopeless and a lot more wasteful of Australian nurtured talent.

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