An editorial in EMBO Reports calls for PhD students to “know [their] rights”, but not to exercise them.

This is a quite strange editorial that the EMBO Reports published on the 30th of September 2011. The whole thing is about how hard it is for PhD students and postdocs to do a career in science, and that how hard they try, they’ll fail.

What is weird is that while the paper acknowledges the problems faced by the many who chose to embrace, or try to embrace, a career in science, it seems to just make a point that PhD students and postdocs should forfeit any hope. A stable, happy family life isn’t for them. If they want to get to a stable position in academia, that is. Well… That’s true for some, not for others.

I know so many students or postdocs who worked their butt off while not even being thanked by their supervisors. And why should they? They are working for their own career, aren’t they? Surely, no supervisor will benefit from any paper produced by the lowly people he/she was kind enough to hire? That’s bull! And anyone who has been a master’s student knows that.

The prime benefactor of any paper is the supervisor. But it has been the greatest feat of the system to make believe those who actually produced the science that the role of PIs is that of mere enablers. The PIs are not necessarily to blame, though: the system is made in such a way that they have little choice but to exploit the people. This is where the conclusion of this editorial is at odd with reality: the author claims that the PIs strive —should strive— to make the whole of science more humane. But of course, in the meantime, PhD students and postdocs should suck it up and work their butts off. Here, I have something to say; and as in the beginning of this editorial, I’ll take my analogies within the workers’ movement: anyone in a trade-union knows that rights are not given but taken. The means to get this rights? Strike, direct action, disrupting the functioning of the institution you aim to change. Therefore, postdocs and PhD students shouldn’t wait for the benevolent PIs to be kind enough to grant them their rights. While it is in the formers’ interest to lead a “more humane” life, with proper pay, proper working conditions, no bullying, etc… it is of the interest of the latters to have their PhD student and postdocs work as hard as they can, for as low a pay as possible,  to try to gain a place in the “rat race”. Pretty much like in the wider society, in fact.

So, the ones who actually produce science, like the ones who actually produce wealth, shouldn’t hold their breath and wait for their rights to be granted. They should reclaim them!

The only question being: how do they (we) do that? How do we overcome the fact that we are on fixed term contracts, some with a PhD exam at the end of this term? And, given that most of us would want to become a lab head, how do we ensure, eventually, that the interest of the PIs and the early career scientists converge?

These are the real questions, and this sanctimonious editorial does not address them.

Now, a public service announcement:


About ravingscientist01

Trained as a molecular geneticist, I did a PhD in biochemistry and molecular biology. I am interested in science, its communication, the impact it can have on policies as well as the impact of various policies related to science may have on the latter.
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