Challenges of life as a researcher
Pressures such as publishing papers and funding can weigh heavily
Dr Kieran Meade, a senior scientist at Teagasc, considers himself to be one of the lucky ones. “I had a relatively short post-doctoral research career of four years before I was made permanent in Teagasc,” he explains.
Meade is funded through Teagasc, the Department of Food and Agriculture and Science Foundation Ireland for his work on bovine immunology, which is looking to prevent disease in livestock through a better understanding of their immune responses.
The short-term nature of post-doc contracts can make it difficult for non-permanent scientists to stay in the system, whether for career progression or family reasons, according to Meade.
“We generate these highly skilled people with new, cutting-edge ideas, but we make them wait, often for many years, before they can fund, research and translate those new ideas,”he says.
“I suspect it also means that we lose a high number of those talented individuals to science who cannot see a future in short-term contracts.”
Dr Sarah Doyle has recently made the leap from an immunology lab at Trinity, where she was working as a post-doc, to a lectureship position at Our Lady’s Children’s Hospital in Crumlin, where she is setting up a group to study children’s immune responses to infection.
Doyle made a conscious decision to stay as a post-doc for six years in the Trinity lab, but she admits that was a risk.
“As a researcher you are expected to work in different labs to build up your experience, even though that doesn’t always gel with family life,” she says.
But the strategy paid off because the principal investigator in the lab gave her the freedom to develop her own lines of research. “I got the chance to become a bit more independent,“ she says.
“It would be good to see more post-docs being supported by their schools as independent researchers. That would offer more of a stepping stone to a lectureship – at the moment there is really no bridge.”
Publish or perish
Another sticking point, expressed by a researcher who did not want to be named, is the pressure to publish papers in scientific journals in order to be eligible for research funding.
Science Foundation Ireland now requires applicants for more senior awards to have at least 15 papers where they are a first or senior author.
The mid-career scientist has already published several well-cited papers but will take another few years to reach that magic number of 15, and feels quality should be taken into account too.