The joys of being a post-doc

Post-doctoral scientific work is traditionally an ungrateful business, but the Government is hoping to give it new life

The path between the world of the science undergraduate and that of a full-time academic is a winding one, along which many talented students have lost their way. At worst, they have to struggle through a doctorate with inept or half-hearted support, only to face years of job insecurity on short-term contracts working in poorly funded laboratories. But things, at last, are changing.

The path between the world of the science undergraduate and that of a full-time academic is a winding one, along which many talented students have lost their way. At worst, they have to struggle through a doctorate with inept or half-hearted support, only to face years of job insecurity on short-term contracts working in poorly funded laboratories. But things, at last, are changing.

The Government's obsession with the knowledge economy has brought an injection of investment into building better careers for research students and post-doc contract staff. Gordon Brown, the Chancellor, appears determined to try to match the entrepreneurial flair and commercial spin-offs achieved in US universities.

"Twenty years ago the experience was a very variable one. In some institutions students just muddled along in the lab beside the permanent staff," says Dr Ian Lyne, head of training and research fellowships at the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC). "But things have improved for both research students and post-docs. It has been recognised, for example, that a PhD project often takes more than three years. Many projects are interdisciplinary, and the science is so advanced that students really need more than that." The Government now funds studentships on an average of three and a half years, while the BBSRC increasingly offers four-year fellowships.

Underlying many of the reforms is a code of conduct which universities follow when offering PhDs. It tries to tackle three issues. "First of all, the extent to which students were given transferable skills beyond the analytical - such as business skills, enterprise skills, communication and so on," says Dr Rama Thirunamachandran, for the Higher Education Funding Council for England. In response, universities now get funding for 10 days' training a year.

"Then there was the extent to which the students got the level of support and supervision which they needed," says Dr Thirunamachandran. Here the code makes best practice clear, for example requiring set timeslots for each student to see supervisors and the qualifications those supervisors need. "Finally there was the cultural environment in which they worked. Sometimes they felt isolated from the rest of the university, in a minority outside the mainstream. At best, they should be part of the institution and plugged into networks so that, for example, they can make the best of research contacts."

Professor Tim Birkhead, at Sheffield, praises the way his university has handled the code of practice, particularly elements such as training students to deal with the media, but says there are worries nationally that it could be prone to red tape. "Basically this is a safety net for poor PhD supervisors. We are paying the price for renegade supervisors who didn't do their job."

One undeniable improvement has been in the financial position of doctoral students: the research councils' stipend is £10,500 a year, and will be £12,000 in 2005-06. Big efforts are also being made to improve career prospects for those working in research after completing their doctorates. The government is funding 1,000 "academic fellowships" - each one worth £125,000 over five years. Fellows will get five years' job security and training and - in most cases - a staff post at the end. Universities are also under pressure to reduce the number of short-term contracts they award, and to follow EU rules and give permanent jobs to those with extended contracts.

Meanwhile, universities are trying to modernise facilities - a major concern for the researcher in the lab. A fund of more than £500m is available each year for investment, while proposals to pay universities close to the full economic cost for the work they do will allow them to use their own resources to improve facilities, as will the income from top-up fees from next year.

Bernard O'Hara is a post-doc researcher in crystallography who has worked at both University College London and Birkbeck College. He praises the support of both - academically and financially. Now aged 47, he admits to becoming a "serial post-doc", although he points out that he may not have a job in the new year because funding for his current project is uncertain. "There is no career structure really, there's no big plan." Landing a position on the faculty is very difficult. "It's a bit like a flightpath - if you miss any of the crucial points then you've missed out completely."

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