Careers in Turkey

(March 22nd, 2013) Turkey might be a favourite for many globetrotters but for researchers it’s not a dream destination, even though the country participates in EU funding programmes. Lab Times talked to a repatriate about his return.



Can Alkan has been Assistant Professor for Bioinformatics and Computational Genomics at Bilkent University in Ankara, Turkey, since January 2012. Can studied computer engineering at Bilkent University and thereafter joined Case Western University in Cleveland, Ohio, USA, where he received his PhD in Computer Science in 2005 for work performed in the lab of S. Cenk Sahinalp. He spent the last two years of his PhD studies at the Simon Fraser University after Sahinalp moved there. He then joined the Eichler lab at the University of Washington, Seattle, USA, as a postdoctoral fellow until 2011. In the last year, Can not only co-authored three papers published in Science and Nature but was also awarded a Marie Curie Career Integration Award as well as an EMBO Installation Grant. His research focus is on genomic variation and the development of computational methods for handling large data-sets derived from high-throughput sequencing.

Lab Times: What has been your motivation to return after being in the US for more than a decade?

There is a multitude of reasons. First, the economic crisis really hit research in the US hard, causing a substantial decrease in the number of open faculty positions. Many universities went into a hiring freeze, although the number of PhDs is on the rise. Another casualty of the economic problems was obviously the research funds. At the same time, the funds available in Turkey were increased and there is also possibility of obtaining grants from the European Union. In addition, the interest for bioinformatics and genomics in general was flourishing in Turkey, especially for projects that aim to find disease-causing mutations. Another advantage of Turkey is the availability of large and consanguineous families that are perfect for such studies.

Lab Times: What were your first impressions upon your return?

The amount of bureaucracy caused an initial shock but I think this is a common issue all over Europe. There were too much paperwork and many issues to deal with, when I returned. There were (and still are) some very good graduate students in the department. On the other hand, the undergraduate programme has undergone some perceptible changes since my graduation. This is understandable because of the changes in technology but I think the inquisitive side and curiosity of undergrads should be encouraged more and they have to be pushed harder.

Lab Times: What do you miss most with respect to the US?

I miss the lack of bureaucracy and that the research faculty is not bothered much with administrative details. Upcoming issues in the US were in general solved very efficiently and the scientist just has to focus on his research. There is a lot of delay in Turkey, especially if you need to import equipment from abroad, which wasn't the case in the US. Time just flows faster and it is easier to be more productive in the US.

Lab Times: How is your lab currently funded?

My lab is funded by several grants including a Marie Curie Career Integration Award, a grant from the Scientific and Technological Research Council of Turkey (TÜBITAK), a grant I previously obtained as co-Investigator from the US National Institutes of Health (NIH), and, finally, an EMBO Installation Grant.

Lab Times: What are your career perspectives at Bilkent University?

I would like to continue publishing high quality papers in the field of bioinformatics. I have established several collaborations with local scientists to start projects that aim to find genetic causes for both common and rare diseases, using DNA from large and consanguineous families. I hope to obtain good results in both algorithm development and also their application on real data.

Lab Times: What are your duties as Assistant Professor?

They are the same as everywhere. Our teaching duties are relatively taxing in comparison to other countries: we are required to teach four courses a year. There are occasional administrative duties such as helping with the student exchange programme, which provides an opportunity to get to know the students better. And of course, we are required to have a rigorous research programme and train graduate students.

Lab Times: What are, in your opinion, the strengths and weaknesses of the Turkish science system?

The main strength is the people. Turkey has a very young population, with almost a million students enrolling each year. This provides an enormous potential, if managed correctly. Although there are many problems with the Turkish science system, it is also true that it has deep roots in Europe and was influenced by the French system in the late 19th century and by the German system during World War II, when many scientists emigrated to Turkey.

On the other hand, there is very little interest in science shown by this young population. Of the very rare spirits that are interested in an academic career, a substantial number tend to leave after completing the Master degree. They either join a company or go abroad for PhD studies. This severely restricts the number of local PhD applicants, as well as the number of postdoctoral fellows, who are almost non-existent in Turkey. Since Master programmes usually take two or three years, this makes long term planning of research almost impossible, and the PIs end up with spending too much time training new students, who often leave before becoming productive. There are also significant restrictions about grants; the main funding agency TÜBITAK does not fund large equipment. For wet lab researchers, customs laws make obtaining reagents difficult. We also have to pay VAT on almost every purchase we make. I have heard stories about scientific freedom related challenges at public universities. However, this is not much of an issue at private ones such as ours.

Lab Times: What needs to be done to make Turkey more attractive for scientists from abroad?

I would say scientific freedom comes first, especially for the public universities. Then, the reduction of red tape to streamline various administrative processes, especially grant submissions and grant management. Teaching load is high compared to the US and more teaching just means less time for research. Also the other side of the “teaching coin”: Master students are required to take eight courses, and PhD students are required to take an additional eight, which also limits time and energy for research. Since there are many Master but very few PhD students and almost no postdocs, there should be some programmes or incentives to increase their number.

Lab Times: How is the spirit of younger scientists in Turkey?

This depends on the field of study. Engineers and applied scientists tend to be happier about their position. As in many other countries today, the scientific system of Turkey favours applied sciences and short-term returns from science investment. This is sad, of course, since success in applied science depends on success in basic science. There is a general feeling of lack of patience, when it comes to long-term studies in basic research. On the other hand, the main funding agency, TÜBITAK, seems to have an ear for these concerns and a recent visit from the EMBO Directorate to TÜBITAK increased hopes for a better science management. Also, increases in science funding and the introduction of higher budget calls for proposals on specific topics are helping to raise the spirit.

Interview: Ralf Schreck

Photo: Can Alkan

Last Changes: 04.26.2013