Sunday, April 27, 2014

Professor for one year (week 43): Will there be research after your PhD?

This week, the new Rektor of the University of Zurich started his job.  There were several articles and interviews in various newspapers, where he announced what he wants to do next and what his long-term goals are.  In one article in the NZZ am Sonntag, one sentence struck me: "Wirklich geforscht habe er zuletzt als Doktorand" (The last time he did serious research was as a doctoral student).  And he apparently regrets that.

This statement made me wonder: What's your task as postdoc or as professor? When it's not research,  is it about writing grant and project proposals for other people only?  Is it mainly about teaching (looking at the workload, you could think so, I will comment on that in a later post)?  Or are your days filled with more administrative stuff, the higher your professional rank is?

There are several indicators that in fact, postdocs and professors acquire the money to then hire some doctoral student(s) to carry out the research the applicants have a genuine interest in.  For example, with the Swiss National Science Foundation, postdocs cannot submit proposals where they actually would carry out the research themselves (except for the Ambizione program, but that has specific requirements and is part of the career track, not of the project track).  You can submit a proposal and then hire someone -- but the proposal will be evaluated against the applicant's research profile.  The  DFG (German Research Foundation) recently introduced an instrument where you can apply for a grant for your own position as postdoc.  So this looks a bit better.

On the other hand: As a doctoral student, you are not eligible to submit proposals, so you have to find a postdoc or a professor who submits a project proposal you can then carry out.

Given that proposal writing is a serious but tedious task, there is of course less time to actually do some research.  Some universities in Germany have decided that some professors (rank W1 and sometimes even rank W2) cannot negotiate about academic personnel -- there simply will be no academic personnel, you have to write proposals to hopefully acquire third-party money to hire a teaching assistant or a doctoral student.  Isn't that weird?  Public universities are funded by tax payers, so shouldn't that cover all costs to run a university including all personnel needed?  Third-party funding today makes up almost a quarter of the budget of German universities.  On the one hand, it's a good sign: researchers find people who think the proposed research is worth funding it.  But it's also a bad sign: The state is only able (or willing) to fund three quarters of universities' budgets.  But that's more of a political discussion, I think.

However, there seems to be the general perception, that after your doctoral studies, there will be no time for serious research.  I recently heard the conversation of two PhD students: A just submitted his thesis and told B that he would have liked to investigate a slightly different topic, but his supervisor told him not to do so because of the risk of failure -- his research could have produced negative results.  They both agreed that this would have been more interesting and even more fun than to do something one could somehow even predict the results.  And then B concluded: "Only doctoral students do real science, so why don't they let us do risky things?  After your dissertation, you will not be able to really investigate something anymore."  Isn't that weird?  It seems to be widely accepted that your scientific life won't include research after you defended your dissertation; at the same time, it is assumed that you can only do "real" research if you've obtained a PhD, i.e., submit research proposals ...

I really have some research interests in computational morphology, computational phraseology, and writing technology where I would appreciate the help of master students or doctoral students, but where I would also like to explore some things myself -- even if this includes tedious annotation or hacking.  That's fun and only this way you can really discover something new.  I definitely aim to facilitate research by coordinating and managing projects, but I would still like to be part of the actual investigation.


lucius.antonius said...

For example, with the Swiss National Science Foundation, postdocs cannot submit proposals where they actually would carry out the research themselves (...)

Don't forget the Early/Advanced Postdoc.Mobility grants, though. PostDocs can submit proposals and carry out the research by themselves, at a foreign university of their choice. Those grants are actually excellent for researching.

antares said...

Right, but again that's the "career path", not the "PostDoc path" where you stay at your institution. You cannot submit a project proposal and then carry out this research yourself. Of course it is always good to discover a new place and even a new country.