Most postdocs I know agree that, in terms of lack of pressure, they are at the best stage of their academic careers, with no thesis or grant deadlines. However, it is not all sweetness and light. The financial uncertainty of academia means that postdoctoral fellows face an enormous uphill battle to find funding and positions that will allow them to start on their chosen career paths. Although many would like a permanent academic job at the end of their contract, the reality is that there are not enough academic jobs to go round. This bleak prospect has plagued postdoctoral fellows in the arts for years. Now, many postdocs in both science and the arts face an undefined future with little or no help in developing an alternative career plan.
One goal of Post-Docs of Cambridge (PdOC) is to help postdocs and other contract research staff members think realistically about their careers, whether in academia or elsewhere, and to provide help and information about career options and training. PdOC formed a subgroup to achieve this goal and to focus on specific issues pertaining to career development. Since its inception in August 2001 the PdOC careers team has initiated a number of projects.
Our most ambitious undertaking to date has been to develop a new seminar series designed to introduce postdocs and other contract research staff members to a number of potential career paths. With facilities provided by our University Centre and funding from NW Brown and the Cambridge Gateway Fund, we invited a number of ex-postdocs to talk about their professional lives both inside and outside academia. This forum has allowed current postdocs at the University of Cambridge to interact with professional people and discuss career development.
One of our main objectives was to ensure that speakers came from a variety of different professions to cater for the diverse disciplines of postdocs. The first seminar series kicked off in October 2001 with a talk by Kathryn Phillips, the News and Views editor and writer for the Journal of Experimental Biology . The series continued with seminars from Luis Martin-Parras (a senior scientist at Amersham Biosciences, Fiona Bor (a European patent attorney for GlaxoSmithKline), and Doug Huggins (the head of Relative Value Research, ABM-AMRO Investment Bank). Although this series was a huge success, we noted that the majority of the audience were bioscience postdocs. This was not surprising because approximately 54% of all contract research staff members are in the School of Biological Sciences (compared to ~23% in the School of Physical Sciences, ~10% in the School of Technology, ~10% in the School of Humanities and Social Sciences, ~2% in the School of Arts and Humanities, and ~2% other; statistics from the University of Cambridge personnel database, as of 31 July 2001).
Consequently, the second series was designed to cater for postdocs who wanted to remain in biological research. This time around we heard talks from Jonathan Milner (the founder of the biotech company Abcam Limited), Torsten Krude (a lecturer and researcher in the Department of Zoology, University of Cambridge), Graeme Smith (head of drug evaluation at KuDOS Pharmaceuticals Ltd.), and Linda Ko-Ferrigno (a former editor of Cell and current information specialist for the Medical Research Council).
Shortly after initiating the first seminar series, it became clear that there were a number of other well-established societies at the University of Cambridge with goals similar to those of the PdOC careers team. We now have strong links with the Biology in Business group, whose main aim is to forge links between U.K. business and academia to promote opportunities for recruitment, collaboration, and commercialisation of research in the life sciences. Collaboration between our two societies has allowed us to disseminate information about various seminars to a larger number of people and has ensured a minimal amount of overlap and conflict between the seminar programs of each group.
In addition to providing current postdocs with information in the form of seminars, we were also keen to establish a link between the PdOC careers team and the University of Cambridge careers service. After a few meetings we realised that there was a definite need to share information and cooperate wherever possible. PdOC has now extended an invitation to all final-year Ph.D. students to attend our seminars, because their career-planning needs are much the same as those of postdocs. In return, the careers service has given PdOC increased access to its resources, allowing us to obtain detailed profiles and contact information for potential seminar speakers that will be of great value in planning future seminar series. Although the careers service is more than happy to help, its resources are limited. This limitation is echoed in the absence of any qualified person able to deal with the needs of postdocs. With the help of PdOC, the careers service has applied to the University of Cambridge for funding to appoint a staff member who would be responsible for dealing specifically with postdocs and other contract research staff.
Postdocs are familiar with the feeling of being in limbo: not really belonging to either staff or student bodies. We come from all over the world and often from very different educational systems, so the isolation feels all the worse. We at PdOC are trying to provide a support network for postdocs and contract research staff that will enable them to enjoy their time at Cambridge, but more importantly to lend advice on how to achieve their goals when they are ready to leave.
Acknowledgements: Many thanks to Elizabeth Mackie (Information Officer, Personnel Division, University of Cambridge) for her help in compiling the statistics on contract research staff departmental affiliations.