• Over-supply of PhDs and an career full of uncertainty is having an outsized impact on women, Osbourne says. (Getty Images)Source: Getty Images
Career uncertainty and short-term contracts are making life tough for Australian PhD graduates, with an especially big impact on women, Catherine Osborne says.
Ben Winsor

14 Jul 2016 - 11:03 AM  UPDATED 17 Jul 2016 - 4:56 AM

This week the ABC published an op-ed by Catherine Osborne, an Australian microbiologist, which has resonated with many young Australian scientists.

Australia is failing mid-career scientists, the headline reads, and Osborne recounts her struggle to get any certainty beyond one year contracts in Australia. This was despite experience at the CSIRO and Berkeley in the US.

She says this has led her to give up her career in science.

“I have a PhD and five years of postdoctoral experience, 80 per cent of which has been funded by the Australian taxpayer, and to me, that seems like a huge waste of money,” Osborne writes.

Osborne’s experience isn’t isolated, it resonated with many online. There are numerous stories of Australian trained scientists moving overseas for work, or giving up on scientific careers entirely.

“This country faces an imminent brain drain from its health and medical research sector,” the Australian Society for Medical Research warned the government in a submission earlier this year. “In the absence of a stable research ecosystem, Australia’s best and brightest are being lost.”

“Australia is in danger of squandering its opportunity to capitalise on years of investment into our highly qualified and talented workforce-the enabler of research capacity and improved health,” they said.

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While an industry of short-term contracts and career uncertainty is enough  to give anyone a headache, Osbourne pointed out that it had an especially deep impact on women.

She told the story of a friend’s experience at a highly regarded research institute.

“After seven years of rolling contracts, when she went on maternity leave, her contract was not renewed, no reason given,” Osborne wrote.

“You might think that a decision like this only affects that one woman, or that institute. But it doesn't. Everyone single one of her female friends in science takes note and it makes them uneasy,” she said. “This is why, at the age of 31, I was no longer interested in 12-month contracts.”

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Osborne also slammed outdated policies by the CSIRO which cut mid-career scientists out of the loop for post doctorate positions – they are restricted to those who completed PhDs within the last three years.

“The assumption is, anyone with a PhD would surely have a permanent position after three years,” she writes, “that might have been the case back in the '70s, but it's certainly not the case today.”

It seems there may not be one single solution to the issue - a range of measures might be needed.

Scientists from around Australia have called on the government to live up to its rhetoric on innovation and ideas by increasing funding to scientific research. Osborne clearly also wants to see some of the CSIRO’s hiring policies updated, and a change in the culture of short-term contracts.

The apparent over-supply of PhD positions may also be an issue.

“I get frustrated that the Academy of Sciences constantly lobbies the government for more PhD scholarships, while mid-career scientists, who are much more productive, languish,” Osborne says.

“PhDs are cheap labour in the scientific industry: all of the institutes have financial incentives to push out as many PhDs as possible,” she says. “I would like to see the Academy limit the number of PhD entrants to sustainable levels.”

“Institutions don't need to consider longer than 12-month contracts, as (PhD graduates) are a dime a dozen,” one commenter notes. “No lab or funding body can break the cycle without a really carefully thought out full-country effort,” another commenter wrote.

But it appears that Australia is not alone in suffering from an apparent glut of PhD, headlines from America and the UK scream the same issue and their criticisms echo those of Osborne and others.

“Faculty members rely on cheap PhD students and postdocs because they are trying to get the most science out of stretched grants. Universities, in turn, know that PhD students help faculty members to produce the world-class research on which their reputations rest,” Julie Gould writes of the situation in the US in Nature.

Among more innovative proposals for reform in the US is the idea of splitting PhDs into those tailored for academic research and another more vocational stream which combines the academic side with more practical, job-ready training such as project management.

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