Read our COVID-19 research and news.

A Wake-Up Call for Postdocs

Last Thursday, Vitae—an organization supported by research funding bodies, that promotes the professional development of early-career researchers in the United Kingdom—released two reports exploring the working conditions and career development of research staff (mainly postdocs) and principal investigators (PIs) in higher education. Together, Vitae's biennial Careers in Research Online Survey (CROS) and Principal Investigators and Research Leaders Survey (PIRLS) aim to keep track of the progress made by higher education institutions toward implementing the Concordat to Support the Career Development of Researchers. Launched in the United Kingdom in 2008, the Concordat lays out seven key principles for improving the employment conditions and professional development of postdocs in particular.

The picture that emerges from the 2013 surveys is that, while institutions have greatly improved their policies for the recruitment of postdocs, postdocs need to take more responsibility for their career development and their advisers need to be more supportive. "What we're seeing is that … some of the easier things to change have changed and improved, some of the more difficult things, which maybe you need a bigger cultural change, … are taking more time," Vitae's Research and Intelligence Director Robin Mellors-Bourne tells Science Careers in an interview.

Not all of these people are going to make it in [higher education], and probably there are some unrealistic expectations.

Robin Mellors-Bourne

More professional treatment

Compared to 2009, this year's CROS showed improvement in many areas, particularly those that can be affected directly by human resources policies, Mellors-Bourne says. In line with the Concordat's principles, the 2013 CROS respondents reported more open and transparent recruitment and appointment procedures. About 75% of survey respondents reported having been offered some kind of introduction to their new working environment. The institutional practice of running staff appraisals for postdocs has also become more common, with almost 60% of respondents having had an appraisal in the last 2 years, compared to 55% in 2011 and 50% in 2009. "Generally speaking, they're being recruited more professionally, and they're being managed more professionally" than they were 4 years ago, Mellors-Bourne says.

Sluggish professional development

There has been some improvement—although not much—in the development of postdocs' peripheral skills. Compared to 2011, a larger proportion of research staff reported working as part of a cross-disciplinary team (59% versus 54%) or in an international collaboration (66% versus 61%). Slightly more postdocs also reported having managed a budget (38% versus 35%) and written grant proposals (54% versus 49%).

Formal training is still rare. The number of days that this year's respondents spent on professional development in formal settings over the last 12 months mirrored almost exactly the 2011 results, with 21% not having undertaken any formal training at all. Only about 10% dedicated 10 days or more to such activities. Training in leadership and management was the only area where a significant increase could be seen (from 16% in 2011 to 19.3% in 2013).

Stagnant career development

While the Concordat aims to improve the working environment for postdocs, it also states that postdocs must take responsibility for their own personal and career development. Here, the CROS report offered a mixed picture, with marginal progress. While 87% of the 2013 respondents said that they took their career development into their own hands, just over half had a clear career development plan or maintained a formal record of their professional development activities—about the same as in 2011.

And while around three quarters of the 2013 respondents had been encouraged to engage in personal and career development, fewer than a fifth reported participating in any formal training in career management, even though more than half said they wished to do so. More than half of the respondents also said that they were interested in training in nonresearch activities such as public engagement and knowledge exchange, but only 18.6% and 14.3%, respectively, had sought such training.

One sign that postdocs are broadening their career training was that a greater proportion of respondents (9%) had sought internships outside of higher education in 2013 (up from 5% in 2011).

"Definitely, there is an understanding from most people that you do need to manage your career … but the amount of time they spend doing it and what they actually do is not really increasing at the moment," Mellors-Bourne says.

In need of culture change

The slow rate of improvement in postdocs' attitudes toward their professional and career development point toward the need for a culture change more profound than what has so far occurred, Mellors-Bourne says. "Part of this comes down to the research staff themselves, and part of it comes down to the relationship with their principal investigator."

Many universities are offering career management training; postdocs only need to ask their PIs if they can attend. But "are they confident enough to ask that question? Do they think it's a reasonable thing to do, to stop working in the lab and to do something like that?" Mellors-Bourne asks. Approaching your PI can be especially difficult if the culture in the lab is focused on research and publications, or if the PI doesn't see the value in going off to attend a training course or doing an internship in a different area, he adds. "It's a combination of the research staff not having the confidence that it's OK to do that, and some of the PIs also not really giving them permission to do so."

Apparently, most PIs do care about their proteges. When asked to choose the three behaviors that they deemed most important for excellent research leadership, 63% of the PIRLS' responding PIs listed nurturing young researchers' careers; it was the second most popular choice, after advancing the research discipline (84%). PIs saw nurturing research staff as more important than research integrity, generating income, demonstrating impact, and continuing their own professional development.

But while PIs expressed the belief that good research leaders support the careers of their research staff, they admitted that, in practice, they're not very good at it themselves, Mellors-Bourne says. What this tells us is "that the PIs are people too, and really you just have to engage and have a personal conversation, maybe an emotional conversation, with your PI about really what's important for both of us," Mellors-Bourne says. "PIs actually in their heart do realize that it is important for research staff to be able to progress like this."  

A wake-up call

Importantly, the CROS asked research staff about their long-term career aspirations and expectations. The published report notes that 78% of respondents said they aspire to stay in higher education, more than half with a job that combines teaching and research. Only about 10% wished and expected to work in a nonacademic research position, while around 5% had no clear aspirations, and 16% had no clear expectations.

A majority of respondents with a long-term academic career were confident: 62% expected to succeed. But, the way the job market looks right now, "not all of these people are going to make it in [higher education], and probably there are some unrealistic expectations," Mellors-Bourne says. Of particular concern is that "Quite a lot of these people don't know what else they might do."

Possible problems ahead were highlighted in the CROS report. While 43% of research staff aged 45 or over had open-ended contracts, a large proportion of those who were still employed on a fixed term had contracts lasting a year or less—even after long service to their institutions. And while postdocs felt well integrated overall, and that they were being treated fairly by their institutions with respect to opportunities for training, conference attendance, and flexible working conditions, many of those who had been on a string of fixed- or short-term contracts felt dissatisfied.

The optimum time to go on from a Ph.D. to a permanent academic position is five to 7 years, Mellors-Bourne says. Postdocs who have been in the circle for much longer than that—some have been postdocs for 15 years—have "got into that bit of a rut where it's going to be quite hard for them to leave and go and do something different" from academic work, he says. "On the other hand, … it's going be very hard to make the jump into a lectureship or something like that, particularly as they get older."

What should those still in the early years of their postdocs do? "Just … recognize the way the system works and to take a wide variety of experiences as early as they can, and look and see what's around," Mellors-Bourne says. "They should … not say, 'oh I'll do this postdoc and I'll just do another postdoc, and then I'll decide after that'. They have to take responsibility perhaps a bit earlier."

More Details about Vitae's 2013 CROS and PIRLS

Since 2009, the CROS has provided a biennial snapshot of the views and experiences of U.K. research staff regarding employment conditions and career development opportunities. Research staff are identified as higher education staff whose primary responsibility is to conduct research; so, most "research staff" are postdocs.

This year's CROS drew more than 8000 responses from postdocs in 68 U.K. higher education institutions, representing a response rate of around a quarter. A little more than half of the respondents were between 31 and 45 (with 25% under 30 and 17% over 45). A little more than 54% were female. The CROS report shows that 49% work in the medical and biological sciences; 30% in the physical sciences, engineering, and math; and 20% in the social sciences, arts, and humanities.

The PIRLS looks at the professional activities and continuing professional development of PIs, with a view to gaining further insight in the management of postdocs. Run for the second time since 2011, this year's PIRLS drew more than 4800 responses from 49 higher education institutions for a 28% response rate. Just over a third were female, and a little more than half of the respondents had been in a leading role for 10 years or more; 16% had less than 3 years' experience. Respondents were about equally spread among the medical and biological sciences; the physical sciences, engineering, and math; and the social sciences, arts, and humanities.

For both surveys, participating higher education institutions run parallel internal surveys. Vitae aggregates the results and produces two national reports. The idea is that institutions can then assess how well they are doing and initiate on-the-ground changes.

You can find more detailed findings, especially regarding the views and experiences of PIs, on the Vitae Web site.

Follow Science Careers

Search Jobs

Enter keywords, locations or job types to start searching for your new science career.

Top articles in Careers