[Opinion] When life after school gets in the way of the scholarly mind

While innovation occurs at all levels of society, from citizen initiatives to industrial development, the university remains its primary institution. It is higher education that provides access to research through its resources and environment. Financial grants are awarded there to professors as well as students, and in principle graduates leave with a solid training in research. But what happens to this skill after the training cycle is complete?

Unless you secure a place in a university faculty, there are not many opportunities to reinvest your skills in the development of knowledge. Some private sectors certainly represent an interesting career prospect, especially the tech industry for AI researchers. But for most graduates, life after education is more about soft skills than scientific thinking.

However, should we switch between a university job and a career on the payroll of private companies? In 2021, the University of Montreal awarded 527 doctoral degrees and 3,737 master’s degrees, combining all categories. McGill University, on the other hand, had 10,411 students enrolled in master’s degrees for the same year. It goes without saying that there are very few teaching positions that allow for an academic career beyond the degree to accommodate such a crowd.

Time passes and new minds emerge, but teaching jobs become available in dribs and drabs. Those who want to continue their research can find work in a private laboratory, for example, in a pharmaceutical company. Otherwise, university affiliation is paramount to a researcher’s survival.

Funds that are not readily available

Indeed, major research organizations require you to be affiliated with a higher education institution in order to take advantage of their funding programs. The Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) and the Quebec Social Sciences and Humanities Research Foundation (FRQSC) offer a number of stimulating calls for research projects to commit to this discipline. But ordinary citizens, even those with a doctorate degree and the stamp of authority, are not eligible.

In other words, you have access to generous funding options while you’re still in school, but you lose all of those privileges once the mortar hits the air. Even public-facing journalistic initiatives, such as the media Conversation, only accept paper submissions from professors or doctoral students. What a pity for former university students!

During training on writing grant applications, it became clear to me: without institutional connections, there is no money. Of course, we want to ensure the scientific rigor of the contributions, which is understandable. What would a free spirit actually do without research funding and oversight? In my opinion, this is a false dilemma because mentoring and peer review should not be exclusive to the university campus.

If we look more closely at the role that money plays in research projects, we see that this model can be exported outside the school. The research fund for professors is used to cover project-related expenses, not salaries. But the student community, on the other hand, benefits from scholarships that act as living funds.

This type of funding is similar to operating grants, which allow many organizations and artists of all genres to continue their activities without financial pitfalls. If such valves were opened for the scientific minds of this world, the public welfare of tomorrow would only rise.

Create new resources

Again, there are several resources that show solutions to the problem. The Provincial Youth Volunteer program is a good example. It allows a person between the ages of 16 and 29 to develop a professional project under the supervision of an experienced mentor, regardless of the nature of the project. In theory, this program could fund a research project for a year and offer the opportunity to carry it out outside the university walls. Likewise, the LOGIQ Foundation funds a wide variety of project-related travel for adults 35 and under.

While these avenues are attractive to the new graduate, they are not sustainable. These funds are not specifically earmarked for research and manage to accommodate a scientific project only through rhetorical distortions. Moreover, once you reach your mid-thirties, these resources become unavailable.

Their model is nevertheless encouraging, as one could imagine SSHRC or FRQSC programs designed specifically for qualified graduates but without university ties. This will allow us to stop the transition to the labor market without solving the fact that scientific minds who want to continue their research activities fall into a profession that risks blocking this momentum.

Funding agencies may open research grants specifically for graduate students, but do not require them to be part of the student body or faculty. This would encourage the pursuit of careers dedicated to innovation rather than betting on the “engagement” of future workers. It would also prevent the atrophy of brilliant minds forced to the sidelines under the weight of economic imperatives. Thus, original lines of inquiry and more independent approaches to the hierarchical structures of academia will be facilitated.

However, the university should also participate in this process. As an institution that guarantees the scientific rigor that permeates society, it must deeply reflect the place that science will occupy in the lives of all people who will never be part of a research chair.

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