Postdocs Back to School

Feeling like cannon fodder in your supervisor's pitched battle for scientific fame and fortune? Perhaps you should consider taking some time away from the research trenches and enrolling in one of four new schools designed to help postdocs across the U.K.'s universities take control of their career development. The price is certainly right: Places in this year's pilot programmes are available free of charge to researchers employed on EPSRC-funded fixed-term contracts, thanks to financing from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC).

With little hope of ever obtaining a faculty post, many among the swelling ranks of postdocs see themselves as exquisitely trained cannon fodder. Work like a dog for 3 years to pad your supervisor's CV, then hit the road, Jack, and don't you come back no more. The numbers support this depressing perception. "In many research-active departments, the numbers of contract researchers matches, or even exceeds, the number of faculty posts," says EPSRC's Mark Hylton. Consequently, argues Hylton, "career prospects for contract researchers need to be seen in the context of the flow of people and knowledge out of academia and into the general workforce."

As signatories to the 1996 Concordat on the Management of Contract Research Staff, universities and research councils are charged with strengthening the provision of career advice for contract research staff (CRS). Although many Higher Education Institutions have staff development schemes, "the problem," says Hylton, "is that many CRS do not qualify for these and also these courses may not address [their] needs."

So, as part of its commitment to implementing the Concordat, the EPSRC asked the Careers Research and Advisory Centre (CRAC) to find out what postdocs need in terms of personal and career developmental skills training, and how this compares to what is currently available. From a series of one-on-one interviews and group discussions with current and former postdocs, "it was clear," says Hylton, who was responsible for the pilot project, "that there was a need to establish a programme specifically designed for [postdocs'] training needs. The main recommendation was that the programme should focus primarily on business awareness, self-awareness, and managing one's own learning and career development."

This recommendation is now being taken forward in four pilot career development schools. The first school will convene in London this coming March and will be run by University College London. Three further schools will be delivered by CRAC and will meet in Manchester in April, Strathclyde in August, and Cardiff in September.

Each of the four programmes will be split into three phases. During the first phase, each of the four schools will bring together up to 40 participants for 2 or 3 days, who will be split into six or seven groups. Under the guidance of a tutor, each group will take part in group learning and role-playing exercises. "The course leaders are not there to teach," explains Julie Groome, CRAC's project manager, "but to facilitate." What participants get out of the course will very much depend on their needs, and a key objective of phase one will be for delegates to identify what they want to learn during the rest of the programme.

Students return to their home institutions for phase two. In addition to their normal research work, they will spend the next 6 weeks on individual "fact finding missions," explains Groome. Each group will investigate a range of career possibilities. With the support of the course leaders and their entire group's networks, individuals will find out about one option and then undertake a 2-day placement, shadowing someone in the chosen field. Groome hopes that this phase will help the participants "find new ways into networks and illustrate that we all have access to much wider networks than we sometimes realise."

Finally, in phase three, everyone will return to the school for a 1-day debrief to share what they learned. Overall, Groome hopes that by the end of the course participants "will realise they have a role to play in managing their own career. Even though they might want to continue doing what they do, we aim to broaden their career horizons."

It sounds time consuming--will postdocs want to make the effort? Joanne Goodall, project coordinator at CRAC, has no doubts. Despite having done no other marketing so far besides putting up the Web site at the beginning of February, she says, "we're amazed by the number of hits. We've already received 22 bookings--people will find the time."

If you would like to take advantage of a free place in one of the courses, the relevant dates and venues are:

  • London: 9-10 March with follow up day in May

  • Manchester: 5-7 April and 7 June

  • Strathclyde: 22-24 August and 11 October

  • Cardiff: 12-14 September and 15 November

Postdocs who are not funded by EPSRC can register an interest in the courses by visiting the Web site.

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