Age Discrimination: A Personal View


I am a very well qualified, experienced, and fairly well-travelled research scientist with a total of 20 years of practical and theoretical experience under my belt ... and I have been unemployed since December 1996. I hold an honours degree and a doctorate in Biochemistry, both from the University of Liverpool. I have completed postdoctoral research contracts at the Universities of Leicester, Dundee, Exeter, Nottingham, Texas A&M, St. Andrews, and Oxford. My main areas of research experience are the biochemistry and chemistry of natural products; steroids, carbohydrates, and lipids; biotransformations; chemical synthesis; microbiology; and mycology.

All of my experience is very relevant to the academic, government, and industrial research organisations of a modern Western country. My varied scientific career demonstrates that I am adaptable, tolerant, and able to communicate with people. I am quite capable of working as a team member, or independently. I enjoy new practical and theoretical challenges and problem solving. I am able to master new scientific equipment and am computer literate. So why do I fear that I will never get another job? The only response I can give is: Age discrimination. It is my belief that academic, government, and industrial employers will not hire me because I am over 40 years old, very experienced and highly qualified.

Within UK universities there are just two, age-related, pay scales for postdoctoral researchers. The lower scale is for new researchers on their first grants, and the upper scale is for those who receive fellowship grant money. As a result, a researcher who reaches the top of either scale then becomes too expensive for that category of grant money. The researcher is expected to find a lectureship, or move out of academia. There is no career structure for those of us who wish to carry on doing bench research. I have direct experience of this. In 1994 I applied for a postdoctoral research assistantship in the department of applied biology at the University of Hull. I received a letter telling me that I was considerably older than the age range in which the Research Council would normally permit the appointment of a research assistant. I wrote to my M.P., and he contacted the then Minister for Employment, Ann Widdecombe. She responded that it was blatant age discrimination. But, since then, no government has dealt with the problems of age discrimination, inside or outside of academia.

This makes no sense when employers and the government are constantly proclaiming that there are not enough qualified people in Britain. The government should legislate against age discrimination, with severe financial penalties for employers who break the law. Such legislation is long overdue. It is good enough for the United States of America and other countries. Employers claim that they do not discriminate on the basis of a candidate's age. If that is true, why do they ask for date of birth on the front page of application forms? On three occasions I have overheard Job Agency staff speaking to employers, by telephone, about an applicant for a job. It was obvious from the civil servants' response just what the first question was that the employer asked. Yes, you guessed! How old is the applicant?

But age alone is not my problem. My experience also counts against me. It seems that industrial employers are more than wary of employing someone whom they cannot easily mould to their mode of operation. Their less experienced, younger managers appear to be so insecure that they think that, if they employ me, I will soon take their jobs. Managers, at all levels, who I know originally from various university research laboratories, and even Job Agency staff, think this is one of the reasons for my continued unemployment.

I have tried applying for jobs for which I am overqualified--as employers and the government suggest. I applied for a technician's job at the University of Dundee, but the chief technician laughed when he heard how qualified I was. Of course, I did not get an interview.

Naturally I did not plan to be in this situation! When I began my so-called research career in 1979, very little attention was given to the career prospects of researchers. No consideration was given to the possibility of someone pricing themselves out of the job market. But since then the number of contract researchers in UK universities has quadrupled. The system is ripe for reform. When a contract researcher is allowed to leave because their contract has finished, all of their experience is lost to the organisation. New people, who are cheaper to employ, then have 'to reinvent the wheel'. This is ridiculously wasteful. I attended a lecture by a French professor of chemistry when I was a postdoctoral assistant at the University of Nottingham. One of his most telling points was made after the lecture. He said that he could not understand why successful academic research teams were broken up by the short-term contract system. Surely, there should be more effort to keep experienced people? They can help to train the new postgraduates and keep hard-won knowledge available. Of course, if a person wants to move on from the bench they can do so. That was in 1984.

And yet, I have no regrets about pursuing a career in science. I still have a deep interest in scientific subjects. I always wanted to be a scientist and to carry out research. In one respect I am lucky. I can look back over my life and say that I achieved my ambition of being a scientist. I went out and tried.

With hindsight there are things I would do differently. I would network more aggressively at meetings and conferences. I would also make a lot more use of my Biochemical Society membership, to network and become more involved in the society, so that I could promote the importance of careers for researchers in science. Since finishing my PhD, I have consistently applied for both academic and industrial jobs. I took the view that it was better to take suitable academic contracts as they came up and so maintain a consistent employment record, than to wait for an elusive industrial position. Having taken a short-term contract I have always completed it--I felt it would be mercenary to walk out part way through. Perhaps these decisions did not serve me well.

At this point it is usual to offer some advice to those people who are just starting out. Well, the only advice I can give is this. Be true to yourselves, listen to your heart and never forget that peace of mind and enjoyment of your job are vital. But think long and hard, and consider your financial future. Finally, join the Association of Researchers in Medicine and Science ( ARMS), which is trying to address the careers problem.

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