The 2014 Vitae conference

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND—At the Vitae Researcher Development International Conference held here last week, much was said about the training and employment of early-career researchers. Science Careers attended the event and took notes on some of the more interesting bits. 

What do higher education institutions look for in prospective Ph.D. students?

“All doctoral graduates should take opportunities to develop networks of colleagues both in their own country and in other countries.” —Gill Clarke and Ingrid Lunt

A new report commissioned by the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) and presented by Robin Mellors-Bourne, director of research and intelligence at CRAC: The Career Development Organisation (which runs Vitae), shed light on how English universities recruit Ph.D. students and how they expect supply and demand to develop in the next few years.

Based on a national survey, to which 60 universities responded (about half of the higher education institutions in England where postgraduate research may be undertaken), the report concludes that English institutions are seeking, above all, good research ideas, good grades, and evidence of research skills. Furthermore, increasingly, Ph.D. programs seek students who already have a master’s degree. “Personal attributes are rarely addressed,” Mellors-Bourne said during the presentation.

What are the enrollment trends?

Most institutions responding to the survey expect the number of students seeking postgraduate study in England to plateau or even decline as a result of the high undergraduate fees introduced in recent years and increasing global competitiveness. Institutions, meanwhile, are hoping to increase their postgraduate enrollments by an average of 5% per year. That should increase competition for U.K. (and other E.U.) graduates, which could be good for graduate students if it translates into better stipends, working conditions, and training opportunities, but to fill the gap, institutions will also recruit non-E.U. nationals who may be less demanding. Mellors-Bourne described the plans to increase enrollments as “very ambitious,” noting that funding, support, and the need to supervise the new students are likely to constrain growth.

Comparing doctoral education across countries

Gill Clarke, vice chair of the UK Council for Graduate Education, presented the results of another HEFCE-funded report, “International comparisons in postgraduate education: quality, access and employment outcomes.” The study compares master’s degree and Ph.D. programs in Australia, England, Germany, India, Norway, Scotland, Spain, and the United States. After the event, Science Careers caught up with Clarke and asked her to advise aspiring scientists on how to decide where to study for a Ph.D., in line with the report’s conclusions. Clarke and coauthor Ingrid Lunt, a professor emeritus in the Department of Education at the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom, prepared a response:

The most important factor is that you choose a university where there are international experts in your subject. That should be the priority. After that, we suggest, it is always useful for researchers to study outside their home country, to broaden their experience and to increase their knowledge of the international field. … Postgraduate degrees in Norway and Germany are currently free of tuition fees, so [they] have a financial advantage, and from our study, they also seem to be of high quality. Degrees in mainland Europe may be structured differently from [degrees] in the U.K., yet most European countries have moved or are moving to a structured training model and contain research methods and professional skills training. … Other sought-after destinations for postgraduate study are Australia and the United States, but study in those countries is not free, and if you are a UK student, it is more costly to visit home.

Asked what early-career researchers who are unable to go abroad should do to make the most of what their country has to offer, Clarke and Lunt replied:

All doctoral graduates should take opportunities to develop networks of colleagues both in their own country and in other countries. This may be achieved through participating in seminars and conferences, and taking advantage of opportunities for shorter travel and visits to other centres. All countries now invite scholars from other countries to give lectures and seminars, providing a forum for early-career researchers and other scholars to gain wider insights. The time of the ‘lone scholar’ approach to the PhD is long past, and it is important for all researchers to be able to collaborate with colleagues both within their own country and in other countries.

A European retirement savings scheme for researchers

Fabienne Gautier, head of the European Research Area policy and reform unit in the European Commission (EC), discussed the long-awaited, pan-European pension fund for researchers. “Mobility is good,” but up to now European researchers have found it “difficult to preserve pension benefits” as they hop from one European country to another, Gautier said. The EC has been working with a consortium of employers to put in place arrangements that will allow researchers to contribute to a savings plan and preserve pension benefits as they move around Europe. The new scheme, called RESAVER (Retirement Savings Vehicle For European Research Institutions), is expected to roll out in 2015. More information on the scheme may be found on the EC website.

Moving on

At the conference, Vitae released the preliminary results of a Europe-wide study of why European research staff (mostly postdocs) leave academia and what they do next. So far, the survey has drawn nearly 1700 responses, 600 from former European and U.K. postdocs who have left academia.

Why did they leave? They were seeking better long-term prospects, more job security, higher salary potential, better work-life balance, and a better working environment, respondents said. The responses included some “quite hard messages,” including “disillusion” and “the way they were treated personally” in academia, said Janet Metcalfe, head of Vitae, as she presented the results.

What challenges did research staff face in making the transition out of academia? Respondents mentioned navigating a new organizational culture, being managed by others, and meeting deadlines. Some missed research and academia. Self-image and how other people viewed them in postacademic research roles were also difficult issues for many leaving research. In meeting these challenges, these former postdocs said that they were well served by their transferable skills, the broader professional experience that they gained as a postdoc, resilience, and adaptability. Also useful was the motivation that comes from needing their new job or recalling a poor experience in academia.

Respondents made it clear though that “you are not on your own making that transition,” Metcalfe said. Postdocs leaving academia felt supported by their new colleagues, family and friends, and broader networks; they also highlighted the importance of seeking career advice and mentoring.

Asked to offer advice to other research staff who want to leave academic research, respondents suggested investing time in preparing for the move, talking to people who had made the transition, and seeking their (and others’) advice. Also important, they said, is to be positive and brave, and to just get on with it.

The survey is ongoing and recruiting participants.

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