Caught in a lab rat race: What can be done to improve conditions for academic researchers?

With a lack of career structure, low pay and little job security, it's no wonder academic researchers are disillusioned. Suzanne Lynch discovers what can be done to improve their lot
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The Independent Online

Claire had always wanted to be an academic. After finishing a PhD in engineering in 2001, she was thrilled to secure a three-year postdoctoral position at a top university. But as her contract came to an end, things started to go downhill. "As I came to the end of my postdoc, I realised that securing my next post wasn't going to be that easy. I applied for lots of research jobs but got nowhere."

Claire's department finally offered her a six-month contract that was renewed on a month-by-month basis. "It got to the point where I literally did not know until the last day of my contract whether it would be renewed the following day," she says.

Things got worse for her when she became pregnant. "My department simply did not want to know," she says. "I had no entitlements and no rights in terms of job security. I felt so let down by my supervisor. Now I'm really disillusioned. I can't see myself making it as an academic, but I've gone so far down this road it's difficult to see how I can succeed in any other career at this stage."

Claire's is a familiar story. In theory, a postdoctoral position is supposed to be the first step on the career ladder for aspiring academics, an opportunity for PhD graduates to strengthen their research skills and gain experience before securing their first permanent academic position. But the reality for many postdoctorates is very different.

A recent report commissioned by the Council for Science and Technology has confirmed what many in the academic community have long suspected: that many young researchers are profoundly disillusioned with the UK postdoctoral experience. Lack of career structure, low pay, little job security and a sense of being undervalued: these are the main complaints being levelled by postdoctorates at a system that many believe is out of date.

The major issue facing the sector is the shortage of academic jobs. Although the numbers enrolling on PhD programmes and continuing as postdoctorates have increased in recent years, there has been no related increase in the number of permanent academic positions being created. It is estimated that only 15 to 20 per cent of postdoctoral researchers will secure a lectureship. As a result, many young researchers emerge from postdoctoral research positions with a string of short-term contracts under their belts. They have highly specialised knowledge and experience but face employment uncertainty.

Dr Charlie Ball, labour market analyst with the Higher Education Careers Service Unit, explains that 10 or 15 years ago most postdoctorates expected to have a good chance of securing a full-time academic post. But this is no longer the case. "With as few as one-in-five postdocs getting to pursue a full-time career in academia, they need to face up to the reality that they may need to embark on a non-academic path," he says. "The challenge is for universities and research institutions to help young researchers make this transition from academia into other fields."

But there are signs that research councils and universities are taking notice of the needs of their postdoctoral employees. Support for postdoctorates became formalised after the 2002 Roberts Review, a government-funded report that pointed to serious problems in the supply of high-level scientists and engineers in the UK. It recommended that young researchers be given improved training in transferable skills. Now many universities are funding career-support services for postdoctoral staff.

Cambridge University is one institution that has introduced career-development resources for postdoctoral staff. Fifteen months ago, Anne Forde was appointed as a careers adviser for life-science postdoctorates at Cambridge. Along with her colleague Liz Simmonds, who is responsible for postdoctorates in physical sciences, Forde has developed a comprehensive and specifically tailored career-development service

As well as offering one-to-one career-advice sessions, the pair run conferences, workshops and training programmes. While they offer support for those intending to pursue careers in academia (such as workshops on how to secure independent funding), a large part of their remit is providing career advice to postdoctorates who will move into other sectors.

The job market has changed for postdoctorates over the past few decades, Forde believes. Academia is still an attractive option for postdoctoral researchers, but the intense competition for academic posts means that the majority of will leave academia for careers in other sectors. "Postdocs have a huge range of transferable skills, which are attractive to employers outside academia," she says. "Part of our job is to help postdocs identify and articulate these skills so that they can make the transition into a fulfilling science-related career."

Julie Carlisle successfully made the transition from scientific research to a non-academic career. After finishing a PhD in chemistry at Cambridge, she completed a one-year postdoctorate at Louvain-la-Neuve in Belgium, followed by a 10-month contract at King's College London. She then started working for the patent agency Mewburn Ellis LLP and is now training as a patent attorney.

"Like many people, after my PhD I wasn't sure what I wanted to do," she says. "A postdoc was an ideal opportunity for me to stay involved in chemistry and to broaden my experience of scientific research without committing to a long-term contract in academia."

Carlisle believes that her experience as a postdoctorate was helpful when it came to looking for a non-academic job. "During my two postdocs, I gained a better perspective about what I wanted from a scientific career, and decided to quit the lab without worrying that I would regret it. Doing two postdocs, as well as my PhD, also meant that I was familiar with more diverse research areas, and had experience of working independently, which enhanced my CV."

Rachel McLoughlin is another postdoctorate who is very positive about her experience. She finished a PhD in immunology at Cardiff in 2002, and continued as a researcher in her lab, and embarked on a three-year contract.

"I fell into a postdoc but it turned out to be a great decision for me," she explains. "By continuing my research in the same laboratory, I capitalised on the research I had done during my PhD. During my postdoc, I produced three first-author papers and was involved in five other publications. I doubt whether this would have been achievable had I undertaken my postdoc in a new field."

In 2005, Rachel left Cardiff to take up her second postdoctorate, this time at Harvard Medical School, an experience she has found equally rewarding. "It was the right time for me to move and it has been great to gain research experience in a different academic environment."

For PhD students thinking about their next move, is a postdoctorate a good option? "Doing a postdoc can be extremely fulfilling and intellectually rewarding," says Oliver Jones, president of Cambridge's postdoctoral association. "The problem, however, is often the ad-hoc nature of the job. The experience you have as a postdoc can vary greatly depending on factors such as the lab you work in and the relationship you have with your supervisor and with other members of your research group. Because of this, I'd recommend that anyone considering doing a postdoc thoroughly researches both what is involved in the project and who you'll be working with."

Anne Forde agrees. "A postdoc offers excellent preparation for academic and non-academic careers," she says. "The key is not to passively fall into a postdoc position after a PhD just because it seems like the most obvious or only option. It can then become easy to slip into a cycle of short-term contracts, and suddenly, seven or eight years have gone by. My advice to postdocs is to always keep thinking about your career needs."

Whatever the pros and cons of undertaking a postdoctorate, it seems that the needs of postdoctoral researchers are beginning to be taken seriously. The Council for Science and Technology report has warned that unless research councils and universities act now, they will fail to attract high-calibre candidates to academia. Perhaps this will be the wake-up call needed to reinvigorate the sector and ensure that the concerns of postdoctorates are finally addressed.

'Most postdocs end up doing someone else's research and not getting credit'

After graduating with a DPhil in biochemistry from Oxford University, John Bothwell took up a postdoctoral position at the Marine Biological Association. But after two short-term contracts, he became disillusioned. "The more specialised my research, the more limited I was in where I could work – there are about three places in the world."

Bothwell became so disenchanted that he set up the National Research Staff Association with some colleagues. "Lack of a long-term career structure and job security are the main issues. This is particularly the case for older postdocs, who have family or financial commitments. The other issue is independent research. Most postdocs are tied to a project or department, which means they end up doing someone else's research and not getting credit. Postdocs should apply for their own funding at an earlier stage so they can undertake their own research."

He believes that we need to rethink the function and purpose of postdoc positions. "The job market for postdocs has changed dramatically over the last few decades. Only one-in-five postdocs will end up with an academic job. This isn't necessarily a bad thing. The challenge is for the government and the research community to take advantage of this remarkable economic resource. If the UK is serious about competing in the global economy, we need to tap into this scientific knowledge and ensure that all postdocs are working in high-level research, in academia or elsewhere."