Creeping infantilization of scientists

December 5, 2016

I recently attended a scientific meeting during which it was made clear that their prize for young investigators had an age cutoff of 50 or younger.

Now the award was not literally titled “for Young Investigators” as so many are, but the context was clear. A guy who looks phenotypically like a solidly mid-career, even approaching-senior, was described as a “rising star” by the award presenter.

This is ridiculous.

It is more of this creeping infantilization of generations of scientists by the preceding one (Boomers) or two (preWar) generations. The generations who were Full Professors by age 40.

This is all of a part with grant reviews that wring hands over the “risk” of handing an R01 over to a 30 year old. Or a 38 year old.

I think we need to resist this.

Hold the line at 40 years of age on early-career or young-investigator awards. If your society is such that it only starts the awards at mid-career, make this clear. Call them “established stars” instead of “rising stars”.

25 Responses to “Creeping infantilization of scientists”

  1. HRC_academic Says:

    Did you hear about HHMI’s 2016 Faculty Scholars – “the selection of 84 Faculty Scholars, EARLY-CAREER SCIENTISTS who have great potential to make unique contributions to their field.”

    A bit of NIH Reporter-sleuthing reveals several of these grantees had finished or had several R01’s renewed, or already had DP2’s and what not. Check out Giraldez – count them 5 active R01’s, four of them in NIGMS alone. But in the eyes of the HHMI he is still an Early-Career Scientist….

    Thanks for the clarion call from your meeting, my friend, but the titanic has already sailed on this one. Much like climate change, the bulk of us GenX’ers and Millenials are doomed beyond the point of no return, and we can easily rest the blame on the preceding two generations…..only the chosen ones will inherit the spoils…..


  2. AcademicLurker Says:

    Perhaps they should just rename them “Young-at-heart Investigator Awards”…


  3. mH Says:

    Forever Young.


  4. Dave Says:

    As CPP said over on Twitter, I think career stage is more important than age, but yeh 50 is ridic

    A bit of NIH Reporter-sleuthing reveals several of these grantees had finished or had several R01’s renewed

    Are you actually surprised? These awards are rewards. The idea that someone like Ralph DeBerardinis has “great potential” is just weird to me given his current achievements. But it depends on where you sit on the BSD ladder I suppose.


  5. duke_of_neural Says:

    I find the “trainee” designation for postdocs a little patronizing. “Not yet proven worthy of an independent grant” would be more appropriate as far as I can tell. I’m still learning, sure, but aren’t new professors, tenured professors, and emeritus professors also still learning?

    Maybe I’m just not privy to the secret transitioning to tenure track ritual where you go super-scientist level two.


  6. wally Says:

    As someone who finished her PhD later in life, I’d prefer things refer to stage, not age.


  7. Jaws Says:

    I’m with Wally. Instead of age, “twelve years since award of terminal degree” seems appropriate. Some of us took a “vacation” between undergrad and grad school for mundane things like, say, national service (military, Peace Corps, etc.), and that’s far from the only reason for such a gap. And others — perhaps due to privilege, perhaps due to talent — earned terminal degrees and progressed through post-doc at lesser chronological ages, so that by 40 they’re no longer “young.”

    Although I have to say that science academia is a lot more welcoming of second-career candidates than are other fields… which isn’t saying much, given how unwelcoming things are in the sciences (which I observed as a grad student in different parts of Major Research Institutions).


  8. Ola Says:

    Yeah this shittio happens all the time in my field. At a society meeting, a PI who was clearly not a post-doc, stepped right up and accepted a travel award, where the entry criteria clearly said post-docs and students only. I called the society and after a few weeks called again. I was told to back off by a senior person, because apparently the administrative staff member whose job it was to catch this kind of thing, was devastated by her mistake and they didn’t want to push too hard because she’s a valuable member of their admin team. Effing snowflakes. They’re everywhere!


  9. nasty_woman_academic Says:

    “Hold the line at 40 years of age on early-career or young-investigator awards”.

    I feel that this type of statment is why it is _still_ hard for women in science. I did a very long postdoc. I had to have 7 IVF treatments to have my two kids. My physician-scientist partner and I chose align our timelines so that we could both get faculty jobs at the same time, and not have to live apart. I got a faculty position, an “early career” award, and an R01 at just past 40. Just because not everyone would prioritize family in this way, shouldn’t it be ok to?


  10. drugmonkey Says:

    I fail to see why being ineligible for one rare prize is saying it is not ok to take a non-traditional path through the science career arc.


  11. Laffer Says:

    Seems like you could do an analysis of age to first independent position / grant / grant renewal, (whatever your metric for teh awesome is)., broken down by gender. I think a good age would cover >90% of supposedly eligible people.

    Even with that, I could say that male scientists would have fewer career interruptions that would have the effect of inflating their award worthiness. Why not just say people in the first ~X years of an targeted position or whatnot? Why use age at all?


  12. jmz4 Says:

    “Just because not everyone would prioritize family in this way, shouldn’t it be ok to?”
    -As DM says, not getting early investigator awards isn’t the end of the world. What about the female who did prioritize their work over their family? Should there be a handicap for having kids? How long should it be?

    What advice do PIs give their grad students about timing family? Do they know about the clock that starts ticking when you finish your PhD (I don’t think I did).

    I do generally agree however, that time since (most recent) terminal degree should be the benchmark for these things. If someone gets two PhDs and starts their postgrad career at 35, they are still an early career scientist and should be given all the attendant chances for career development awards and the like.


  13. A Salty Scientist Says:

    PIs are only eligible forNSF CAREER awards if they are pre-tenure in a TT position. Seems fair to people at similar career stages regardless of the trajectory taken to get there.


  14. kristindownie Says:

    I disagree. but admittedly, I’m in a minority of having gone to grad school for my MS in 2004 and my PhD in 2007, when I was 31 and 34 respectively. I worked in industry (preclinical trials) for 4 years, clinical trials for a year, lab tech another yr. After 10 years (3.5 for MS and 6.5 for PhD) I started a postdoc at 41. Still postdoc’ing, so 50 for early career is on par for me. I know I’m not the usual, but I also know at least 3/20 PhD students I’ve personally met who started grad school after age 35. Another reason Early Career Researcher should be defined by years from PhD conferred.


  15. Draino Says:

    They shouldn’t ever ever call these things Young Investigator Award or else some people might go off the deep end and start thinking absolute age is what we should be thinking about for awarding the prize. Early Career is probably a better title, and years from PhD confirmed is a better measure of eligibility.

    Or if you’re going to make it about age and apparent youthfulness in a photograph or on a stage, then why not about absolute height or weight?

    Instead of 40 years, hold the line at X BMI, Y meters, and Z kilograms. That could be the phenotypic cutoff for a society prize.


  16. Dusanbe Says:

    A woman (who has sacrificed a blazing hot start to her lab in order to start a family also) winning such an award is infinitely more important than some mid-career dudebros crying over whether they are “rising stars” or “established stars”.


  17. Yizmo Gizmo Says:

    Who would go into science nowadays? 4 or 5 years undergrad, 6 or 7 for
    PhD and then 6-8 years as a postdoc. You’re 45 before you shed your
    apprentice status while high school teachers, cops and firemen are making 100K.
    And even if you get the Prof job grant rejections is up around 90%.
    Smarter to go into rock music or organized crime.


  18. JL Says:

    Yizmo, indeed science is not the career if what you want is to make 100K ASAP, or want to “shed your apprentice status”. I actually enjoyed the apprentice parts as much as my current position.
    Of course, I can also imagine reasons why people might choose not to be cops, firemen or be in organized crime that are as stressful as being a PI.


  19. Grumpy Says:

    Yizmo, you seriously think high school teachers make 100k!?! Maybe there is like one or two in the richest school district at the highest experience pay grade, but the average is making little more than what a postdoc makes.

    Also, years from PhD is just as biased as anything. I spent 5 years in industry between PhD and starting as a professor. Did it for family reasons and all that. I like CAREER criteria, but I’m also ok with just not being eligible for every last award.


  20. Yizmo Gizmo Says:

    Yes, many of my friends who are middle school or high school teachers in California
    make 80-100 K. Cops and firemen too. I looked them up on the Transparent
    California website. On the other side of the spectrum, last year I was offered $29,000 at USC as a superpostdoc …the PI told me after lots of false promises and visits to campus that would be my salary because “that’s how much my Chinese postdocs get.”
    That’s when I realized I was caught up in a postdocalypse and applied to Med School.


  21. MorganPhD Says:

    The infantilization of scientists goes hand-in-hand with the rise of the endowed super chair.

    It’s as if being a full professor is not enough or the end anymore. You NEED to get the endowed chair. You NEED to lead a larger research program/center. You NEED to get awards/prizes.

    So if you’re a 50 year old full professor, you’ve got another 30 years to get into the National Academy, run the Famous Donor Center for Pet Project Science at the University of X, and become the Wealthy Business School Alum Chair for Research.

    You’re either vertically ascending, or you’ve already crashed and burned (you might just not know it yet)


  22. UCProf Says:

    Yizmo, you are underestimating firefighters. At 50, they are retired after 30 years of service. They are either camping and fishing or starting their second career with a $100,000/year pension from their firefighting days.


  23. Agree with stage, not age. I also did not take a direct path into academia (was at National Lab on staff for 5 years first), and was therefore ineligible for most early career awards. I was OK with that, and had the advantage of 5 years as a PI at a National Lab in competing for resources.

    It is less OK for late bloomers or late starters (for whatever reason), who are just as inexperienced in science and the research community as “Young Investigators” but have no shot at those sorts of awards/early start boosts AND have no experience to help them compete in the general pool.


  24. A Salty Scientist Says:

    That’s when I realized I was caught up in a postdocalypse and applied to Med School.

    Unequivocally, that PI is an ass. That said, one PI being an ass does not a postdocalypse make. There are many PIs that pay the NIH postdoc rate. Some may even work in L.A. Where at least the starting salary for teachers in L.A. Unified is more like $45K.


  25. Yizmo Gizmo Says:

    No, one PI does not a postdocalypse make but I had applied to some 150-175 teaching
    (Prof) jobs at that point and finally decided to step down to …er…superpostdoc status, after already having taught at a Caribbean Med School.
    There’s definitely a shortage of prof jobs out there; the New York Times just did a story on it. I just thought my 15 years of papers would push me through the gauntlet. I was wrong, like so many others. The academic system needs to be rebuilt from the ground up. Let’s start by imposing a retirement age, like the European and Asian countries, so that 5o is not so young, in order to relieve some of the constipation.


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