The Postdoctoral System Needs Reform

More than 30,000 scientists in the United Kingdom work in higher education institutions on postdocs and other short-term research contracts. Many postdocs take on a succession of short-term contracts, in the hope that a faculty post might eventually turn up--but only 20% succeed in securing such a position and joining the U.K.'s 70,000 permanent academic staff. And the career problems of young researchers are by no means limited to the U.K. In the Netherlands only one in 10 postdocs receives a faculty position. Last year the French government announced a plan to create 10,000 new teaching and research jobs at universities to tackle the unemployment problem of Ph.D.s. In Spain, postdocs recently demonstrated for better jobs.

The postdoctoral system has become a key contributor to scientific productivity in universities and research institutions, not only in the U.K. and the United States, where the system is most developed (in the U.S., the number of postdocs is just below 40,000 *), but also in many other European countries. The main problem with the system, however, is that it has not adjusted to dramatic changes in the academic job market over the last two decades. During this time there has been a rapid increase in the number of Ph.D.s coming through universities, combined with scant growth in permanent academic posts. The system is producing an army of highly specialized academic researchers but is unable to provide the majority of these researchers with long-term career prospects in academia. At the same time it lacks a mechanism to direct the flow of this highly qualified group into the wider workforce. A recent survey by the Institute of Physics, for example, found that nearly 30% of physics Ph.D.s who had started their first postdocs between 1988 and 1993 had spent more than six years on short-term research contracts. Twenty percent are still working in higher education on such contracts ["Career Paths of Physics Post Doctoral Research Staff," A report for the Institute of Physics by DTZ Pieda Consulting (London, July 1999)].

Reforming the postdoctoral system, therefore, should primarily focus on creating a system that provides young researchers with a platform from which to launch long-term careers either in academic research or, more importantly, outside of universities, in industry, business, and the public sector.

At present, universities and funding bodies hire postdocs to perform specific research tasks. It is assumed that in performing these tasks, postdocs will pick up skills and expertise that will help them with the next stage of their careers. These skills, however, are often highly specialized and do not significantly help postdocs compete for jobs outside academic research. There, more general skills in areas such as management, finance, communication, and information technology are important. To change this situation within each postdoctoral contract, a certain amount of time and money should be allocated for career development. Depending on the researcher's career plans, the money and time could be spent pursuing an academic career or acquiring transferable skills that enhance the profile of a postdoc applying for jobs outside academic research. Furthermore, there should be a clear career progression within the postdoctoral system, such that postdocs can develop themselves from research trainees and research assistants into independent researchers and scientific entrepreneurs. This could be achieved by allowing experienced postdocs to apply under their own name for research grants, attract external funding, and supervise Ph.D. students.

Major hurdles face researchers seeking industrial jobs, including their age and companies' reluctance to hire postdocs--whom they consider to be too academic. Industrial placements and industry-based fellowships can provide researchers with the opportunity to make valuable contacts with potential employers and prove their abilities and value to these employers in a period of practice. Such postdocs facilitate the move of researchers to the private sector and at the same time provide a channel for transfer of knowledge from academia to industry.

The suggested reforms to the postdoc system require not only funding and commitment, but also a change of attitude within the scientific community. Postdocs themselves should take a more active role in managing their own futures and looking beyond the confines of academic research. On the other hand, many university administrators and senior scientists still fail to recognize the importance of the career issue to the new generation of scientists--and to the whole scientific community. Some might argue that reforming the system is bound to affect negatively the research productivity of universities and research institutions. This might be true in the short term. In the long term, however, helping postdocs free their minds from the permanent worries of jobhunting would increase their research productivity.

If long-term career prospects in research stay as bleak as they are now and the postdoctoral system does not provide any suitable exit routes, newly graduated Ph.D.s will turn their backs on academic research for fear of becoming trapped in the system. A novel system which provides young researchers with a clear career structure and long-term career prospects will help universities attract the new generation of Ph.D.s to research.

Maziar Nekovee ( is a postdoctoral research fellow at Queen Mary and Westfield College, University of London. He is a member of the Marie Curie Fellowship Association (MCFA), a network of young European scientists who have received a Marie Curie fellowship mobility research grant from the EU. He is the editor of MCFA News, the newsletter of the MCFA.

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