The possibilities and challenges of changing health research career paths: emerging themes from the BC health research community

As a funder focused on developing health research talent, MSFHR is interested in the national conversation about how research career pathways are changing and is curious about what these trends mean for the next generation of BC health researchers, and how funders might need to respond.

We recently had the opportunity to explore this topic in depth as part of the development of MSFHR's next strategic plan. We’ve been conducting research and having conversations with a wide range of people in BC’s health research community to understand what’s happening.

Health research career pathways are evolving – in this post, Maija Tiesmaki, MSFHR senior specialist, Strategic Initiatives, reflects on what we’ve learned so far and shares three emerging themes from the health research community.

Forward Thinking is MSFHR's blog focusing on what it takes to be a responsive and responsible research funder.


What we know so far

The traditional career pathway from PhD to tenured full-time professor is no longer the norm for the majority of Canadian PhD graduates – in fact, only about 20% of PhDs are working in traditional academic positions after graduation.1 With a growing number of Canadians obtaining advanced degrees, and a relatively small academic job market, today’s PhD graduates are bringing their skills and expertise to a wider range of careers than their predecessors, taking on roles in industry, health care, and government. These new career pathways for PhD graduates are prompting graduate training programs in Canada to move from the more common “academia-first” mentality to an “academia-and” approach that embraces the full range of career possibilities for PhD graduates.2

At the same time, those who decide to pursue careers as academic researchers may face a more challenging journey than before. The 2016 Fundamental Science Review shed light on some of the dynamics at play, including declining success rates for federal grants, demographic shifts in the academic labour force (including the elimination of mandatory retirement), and a limited number of scholarships  for Canada’s growing cohort of graduate students and postdoctoral fellows.3 Groups like the Science & Policy Exchange, the Association of Canadian Early Career Health Researchers and others have been advocating for positive change and greater investment in the next generation of Canadian researchers. There are promising signs that this message is being heard: the federal government’s Budget 2019 proposed a series of investments to improve education affordability and accessibility, including $114 million over the next five years to create new scholarships for masters and doctoral students.4

The changing nature of career paths and an increasingly competitive academic environment also came up in our conversations with BC graduate students, postdoctoral fellows, early career researchers, senior research leaders and administrators in academia and health care. We heard that many BC researchers want to bring their skills to jobs in the non-profit, public and private sector, or pursue “hybrid” careers that blend academic research with other forms of professional practice (e.g. clinical practice or policy work). We also heard that more needs to be done to help emerging researchers discover and access these career paths.

Researchers and administrators working in academia described a challenging funding environment that’s making it harder for early career health researchers in BC to secure the resources they need to get their research off the ground – this is especially true for women, racialized and Indigenous faculty, and faculty with disabilities, and those based at smaller institutions. Some early career researchers were also concerned about the trend towards more precarious forms of academic employment, including the rise in contract and grant-funded faculty appointments,5 which has made a long-term career in academia feel more uncertain.

While the challenges were clear, there was also a sense of possibility about how funders, universities and others can work in partnership to better support the full spectrum of career possibilities for health researchers. This next section outlines three themes that are emerging from the health research community to support the future of health research talent development in BC. 

Emerging themes


1. Create opportunities for research to happen outside of academia

Researchers across all career stages told us they want to make more meaningful connections with industry, health care, government and the community, to share knowledge and spark new collaborations. In particular, up-and-coming researchers in BC spoke about wanting to be involved in forms of scholarship with the potential for “real world” impact.

One way MSFHR is working to create these connections is through our Convening and Collaborating (C2) and Reach programs, which are designed to bring health researchers and research users together to co-develop research questions, events and tools. We’ve seen exciting work come out of these collaborations; one example is a pilot program called Roots to Thrive that aims to equip health-care providers working in high-stress environments to care for their own mental health while providing quality care for their patients. 

This desire for new and different types of connections also came through when we surveyed our individual award holders last year to understand more about the kinds of networking and collaboration opportunities they might be interested in. As a funder, we’re exploring what we can facilitate in this regard, where we might need to engage other stakeholders to do this work or when it makes sense for others to take the lead.

2. Reimagine research training programs

Universities are being encouraged to modernize their research training programs to better prepare trainees for careers outside of academia,2 and funders like MSFHR are well placed to help them. The graduate students and postdoctoral fellows we spoke with were interested in experiential learning opportunities, including research placements or internships that would give them hands-on experience in community, clinical, policy and industry settings. Some students were also interested in career development training to expand their skills in areas like project management and entrepreneurship.

The National Institute of Health’s Broadening Experience in Scientific Training (BEST) initiative, and UBC’s Engineers in Scrubs program are just two examples of modernized training programs that are designed to prepare graduate and postdoctoral researchers for a range of careers. The Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) has a Strategic Action Plan on Training that lays out a series of actions to better equip trainees as future leaders in research and the knowledge economy. CIHR is also developing a strategy for early career researchers that will be released later this year.

At MSFHR, we’re also responding to this need. We’ve partnered with CIHR on their Health System Impact Fellowship (HSIF) program, which offers PhD and postdocs paid experiential learning opportunities to help government, health authorities and others in the health system address pressing health policy challenges. This is the second year we’ve partnered on this program, and we’re committed to learning about the benefits this innovative training model offers. At a recent networking event, the current cohort of Fellows told us about the opportunities provided by this program to make connections outside of academia and bring their expertise to real, live health policy challenges.

3. Get a better picture of how research careers unfold

While there are many individual stories about shifting career paths, we’re still working with our partners to understand the big picture and exactly how and why these changes are unfolding.  Studies like the University of Toronto’s 10,000 PhDs Project and UBC’s PhD Career Outcome Survey are helping to fill in some of the gaps by generating new insights about where PhDs are bringing their talents post-graduation, and the path they took to get there.

Funders are also getting more sophisticated in how they follow the career paths of the people they support: UK funder the Wellcome Trust has a Career Tracker that gathers data on their award recipients, and features Researcher Stories about the fascinating career journeys of some of their researchers. At MSFHR, we’ve been gathering data to help deepen our understanding of the career choices and contributions that MSFHR-supported researchers make. For example, we’ve learned that over 90% of MSFHR Scholars are in academic roles in BC, five years after their award. This year, we started asking our current award holders about their future career plans to gather more real-time information, and we’re actively exploring other ways to learn how the people we’ve funded are contributing to research today.

It was also evident from our conversations with BC stakeholders that there are gaps in our understanding of what happens to people at specific career stages, particularly for mid-career researchers and those in grant-funded faculty appointments. So far, we haven’t found a lot of published data about what’s happening for either of these groups in Canada. This is a place where we see the potential for funders, universities and others to work together to gather more information to understand the dynamics at play for these researchers and whether more support is needed.

Conclusion

The evolving landscape for health research careers, both inside and outside of academia, offers exciting new possibilities for universities, research funders and others to respond to these changes. To ensure our early and emerging health researchers continue to thrive, members of BC and Canada’s health research community, including funders like CIHR, need to collaborate to develop these possibilities. For MSFHR, this a chance for us to look closer at the career pathways of the people we support, and be open to adapting how we work, on our own and in partnership, to meet the needs of the next generation of health researchers. 


References

[1] Edge, J., & Munro, D. (2015). Inside and outside the academy: Valuing and preparing PhDs for careers. The Conference Board of Canada: Ottawa, ON.

[2] Polk, J. (2018). Addressing the academia-first mentality in PhD programs. University Affairs. Retrieved from https://www.universityaffairs.ca/career-advice/beyond-the-professoriate/...

[3] Advisory Panel for the Review of Federal Support for Fundamental Science. (2017). Investing in Canada’s future: Strengthening the foundations of Canadian research.

[4] Department of Finance Canada. (2019). Investing in young Canadians: Budget 2019.

[5] Pasma, C., & Shaker, E. (2018). Contract U: Contract faculty appointments at Canadian universities. Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives: Ottawa, ON.