The Trouble With Postdocs

Holiday camps and the outdoor pursuits industry are the only areas of employment which offer less job security than postdoctoral research, claimed David Triesman, general secretary of the Association of University Teachers ( AUT). He was speaking at a forum organised by the Institute of Physics ( IoP) in London on 17 November. The forum brought together postdocs and policy-makers to debate the issues raised in the Institute's recently published report Career Paths of Physics Post-Doctoral Research Staff.

The report summarises the results of a survey of physics PhDs who began their first postdoc contract between 1988 and 1993. It sometimes makes for depressing reading. Over 60% of those surveyed went into postdocing with a view to securing a permanent academic post, but slightly less than 20% had actually achieved that goal. The messages from the Career Paths report were not all bad. It also found "essentially full employment among individuals who have spent time as PDRs." And interestingly, of the 14% of individuals still employed on short-term contracts in Higher Education, half had actively chosen this route because they enjoyed the work and in spite of the associated insecurity. Given these findings, asked IoP Chief Executive Alun Jones, who chaired the meeting, "is there a problem [at all]?"

"Well, yes!" was the overwhelming response from the postdocs present. Their opinions were backed up by the statistics. David Clark, director of research and innovation at the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, showed that the demand for contract research has increased dramatically in the 35 years since the Research Councils were formed in 1965. At that time, there were only 5000 contract research staff (CRS) employees, and those who wanted a permanent academic job could reasonably expect to get one. Today there are 35,000 CRS. "It's a national disgrace," said Clark.

Is there a way in which academic research careers can be put onto a firmer footing? In Clark's personal opinion, the answer is a qualified yes. Undertaking commissioned research is one of the universities' core business activities, and yet "for some strange reason, universities employ people only to do that bit of research, as if they're never going to get research funding again [when a given contract ends]," he exclaimed. Because most research grants don't include funding to cover overheads, "somewhere in universities there's money which can be moved around," he suggested. University finance officers regularly work miracles, he said, "but the miracle they haven't faced up to" is finding a way to offer stability of employment to contract staff. He suggested that the first vice-chancellor to make the commitment to career progression "will be onto a winner"--having the leverage to attract the very best researchers away from Oxbridge.

So, if the will is there, a way could be found. But CRS should not expect transportation to nirvana under Clark's proposal. He stressed that stability of employment does not mean permanent employment in his view. And, he urged that for his plan to work postdocs would have to play their part too, being flexible enough to change fields as varying contracts demanded. And he would be unhappy to see too many researchers spend their entire careers in the HE sector. "If people are locked up in universities, the universities are not doing their job," he asserted. "Universities are in the business of producing knowledge and highly skilled people," he explained, so "the flow of people [out of universities] should be given attention at all levels," not just at the graduate level where they already perform well.

Too much emphasis on moving postdocs into nonuniversity jobs, and not enough placed on improving the lot of CRS still there, is a criticism which has been levelled at the Research Careers Initiative ( RCI), which monitors institutions' progress on implementing the Concordat. Professor Sir Gareth Roberts, chairman of the RCI Committee, acknowledged that there is still a long way to go but believes the RCI is "really having an impact." But "supervisors are absolutely key," he suggested, "those who look after their CRS also look after young lecturers and research students," so a change of culture would be good for everyone.

How to achieve that? "As far as I'm concerned, money talks," he said. The RCI Committee is trying to develop a carrot-and-stick approach, and it appears that the message is starting to get through. Roberts welcomed statements in the recent Higher Education Funding Council for England Review of Research, which aims to link receipt of research funding to proper career management of CRS. The review is under consultation until 8 December and he urged that universities and others should try to strengthen this element.

Triesman pointed out that, quite apart from the social justice issue, employing researchers on a series of short-term contracts is an "inefficient mode of employment." Unlike Clark, he believes that there is "a strong argument for core staff being on permanent employment contracts" and agrees that universities could manage the funding gap much better. He warned that providing a career structure for researchers is a necessity, not a luxury, if universities are to compete for numerate graduates in an ever-tighter labour market. The financial sector offers starting salaries of between £25,000 and £40,000 and would take every physics graduate with a First every year if it could, he asserted.

Whilst he welcomed the work of the RCI, he felt there were problems, particularly the "working assumption that there won't be a long-term career for most." He identified a three-point strategy for improving the career management of CRS: (1) Identify those researchers who are the best and will make it in long-term research careers and retain them; (2) identify those who are not going to make it and advise them appropriately about making a career outside university research; And (3) ensure that both groups are provided with proper employment conditions, including the opportunity to take a full part in the life of the university. He acknowledged that this was often easier said than done given that "building a very good science career actually takes a long time and can't be judged too rapidly." Clark's solution to this dilemma was that the first postdoc appointment should be fixed term, only moving to a more stable, rolling basis after successful survival of that "proving ground."

The outlook is certainly not all doom and gloom for postdocs. The full employment enjoyed by those surveyed shows that the skills gained by postdocs are valued by employers outside HE as well as in. "After 3 years of a postdoc, the world's your oyster," affirmed Clark. "There's still a dramatic shortfall" in the number of trained scientists the country needs, he claimed, and he would like to see more physicists and engineers going into Whitehall, for example. What is needed is much better "management of expectation" with regard to the likelihood of obtaining a lectureship and more "high kudos exit routes" for those who don't, according to Roberts. For Clark, doing one or two postdocs and then moving on to something else "needs to be seen as healthy and productive," not a failure as it is so often perceived at present.

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