Comment: Nice work, low pay

Unless young academics are paid better, they will be lost to the universities says Sarah Cassidy
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The Independent Online

What bright, ambitious twentysomething would take a job that was uncertain and lacked a career structure, and where the low pay could disappear altogether, requiring them to finish their work for free? Yet that is exactly what PhD students and postgraduate researchers are asked to do.

What bright, ambitious twentysomething would take a job that was uncertain and lacked a career structure, and where the low pay could disappear altogether, requiring them to finish their work for free? Yet that is exactly what PhD students and postgraduate researchers are asked to do.

When their expertise is in maths, science or technology this equation is increasingly failing to add up, leaving university departments short of key staff, according to a long-awaited government report published last week.

The report – by Sir Gareth Roberts, the president of the Science Council – found that fewer school leavers are choosing to study science or maths degrees and more would-be academics are leaving UK universities having failed to secure permanent jobs, while a population of ageing academics threatens to create a demographic timebomb for science departments.

Although overall student numbers rose by 12 per cent between 1995 and 2000, the number of undergraduates starting chemistry degrees dropped by 16 per cent, while physics and engineering starters fell by 7 per cent. One in four university science and maths staff is now aged over 55, compared with an average of 16 per cent in this age group across all subjects.

Although PhD students have traditionally received three years of funding from research councils, the average doctorate takes significantly longer – about three and a half years. The prospect of six months without funding has deterred students from taking PhDs, while the time pressure has led to students choosing "safe" rather than ground-breaking projects.

However, graduates who continue in academia do not find their situation improves. More than a third of graduates who are awarded PhDs stay on as postgraduate researchers in university departments.

This, the report concludes, is a "crucial phase" in the life of a young academic, as it is as a postdoctoral researcher that they can make names for themselves through "ground-breaking innovative research".

Yet, although the majority of postdoctoral researchers remain intent on a career in academia, less than 20 per cent are thought ever to secure a permanent academic job.

The report calls for PhD funding to be extended to at least three and a half years, while the average stipend should be increased over time to the tax-free equivalent of the average graduate starting salary (now just over £12,000).

It also recommended a minimum wage of at least £20,000 for postdoctoral researchers (more in shortage subjects such as maths), and a better career structure to smooth young academics' progress into permanent academic lectureships.

s.cassidy@independent.co.uk

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