What's up, postdoc?

An international survey of postdocs puts the UK at only No 10 in the world. And only two British universities made it to the list of top institutions, writes Arabella Schnadhorst
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The Independent Online

Two years ago, John Bussell realised that, in order to further his research career, he would need to leave his native Australia and work overseas. He was offered several postdoctoral positions in his specialist area, plant research, and finally accepted a job at the University of Umea Plant Science Centre in Sweden. "I chose to come to Sweden because I had heard of the excellent reputation of this university. It is a world leader in plant biological research, and it also seemed like a great place to bring my wife and children. I haven't been disappointed."

Two years ago, John Bussell realised that, in order to further his research career, he would need to leave his native Australia and work overseas. He was offered several postdoctoral positions in his specialist area, plant research, and finally accepted a job at the University of Umea Plant Science Centre in Sweden. "I chose to come to Sweden because I had heard of the excellent reputation of this university. It is a world leader in plant biological research, and it also seemed like a great place to bring my wife and children. I haven't been disappointed."

One of Bussell's postdoctoral colleagues, Dr Frank Klimmek, has come to the centre from Germany and is equally enthusiastic. "There's a very pleasant working environment here," he explains. "It is competitive but not unfair, and the social surroundings here provide a charming way of life, too."

This combination of excellent research in a relaxed environment is obviously a winning one for the postdoctoral experience. It has earned this centre top position in a recent survey into the best institutions to do life-science research outside the US. And it has also helped to put Sweden top in the overall country rankings, too, above the States, Canada and the rest of Europe.

The survey is the third of its kind to be carried out by The Scientist magazine. Forty thousand questionnaires were sent out to its postdoctoral readership, and 3,500 responded. One of the authors of the report, Maria Anderson, admits that the scope of the survey was limited. "Our respondents were self-selected," she explains, "and we have made no attempt to standardise the results or to conduct detailed statistical analysis." However, she believes that it still provides a fascinating insight into postdoctoral life. "What is clear is that postdocs have an overwhelming commitment to their research, and the institutions that provide valuable training and experience, necessary books, journals and equipment all gain high marks. Pay is an issue," she says, "but not nearly as important as having a supportive principal investigator."

The UK came 10th in the survey, and only two British universities, Bristol and Cardiff, made it into the list of top institutions. Dr Nick Walker, a chemistry postdoc at Bristol, isn't surprised by the result. "There has been a real push among managers here to improve our working environment and to stop us from feeling so isolated," he explains. "We have a new postdoc association where we can share ideas and problems, we have more mentoring and training opportunities, and we've been assigned a career-development officer."

Jim Ewing of the National Postgraduate Committee believes that Bristol is making a good start, but says that the UK will have to do a lot more to sort out the career structure of its research staff if it really wants to improve its international reputation. "All too many postdocs are forced to take on short-term posts only to find themselves with no academic future at the end of it. Some don't even last that long because the postdoc route can involve moves around the country every two to three years and for researchers with families, especially women, this can prove impractical. Many bright hopes are lost to research in this way."

But job security for postdocs in the United States, traditionally seen as the land of plenty in the research world, is no more encouraging. The Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle came second in the list of top US institutions to do research work, but one postdoc there, Dr Michael Schlador, says that life is good but far from perfect: "The science is great but it is a very tough environment in which to work, and very competitive. I found out last year that only 15 per cent of postdoctoral fellows across the States will go on to get a tenured position. That's 15 per cent out of a possible 50,000 postdocs. It doesn't give me confidence for my future."

Maria Anderson of The Scientist believes that one of the more worrying things to come out of the survey for the US is further proof that postdocs are being put off from coming to the country. Respondents were asked to say whether security issues had made a difference post-9/11, and, she says, the results were alarming. "There are problems with our heightened security. Some postdocs are going on holiday and finding that they can't get back into the country. Some can't get visas. Others just don't want to come here. There's a lot of talent out there that we are in danger of losing."

Keith Micoli of the National Postdoctoral Association, a group set up two years ago to be the voice of postdocs in the States, says that if this trend continues it could be disastrous for American research. "We are reliant on imported talent for the future of our science and technology industry. If these barriers aren't resolved then those scientists who would traditionally have come here will work in Europe instead, where the travel between countries is getting easier and the visa process is less antagonistic."

There are already signs that the so-called brain drain is slowing. The latest edition of the UK Biochemical Society's graduate-employment survey showed a net fall in the numbers of PhD graduates wanting to work abroad in 2003. There are also a number of regulations due to come in over the next few years designed to make life easier for European postdocs. New contract rules will mean that universities will have to switch research staff on to open-ended contracts after four years. And in an effort to make a true European employment market for young researchers, the EC is committed to ensuring that research qualifications are recognised across the EU, that salaries and benefits for postdocs are standardised, and that proper training and career development is put in place.

Renzo Rubele, president of Eurodoc, the body set up to represent postdocs across Europe, says that there is still a lot of work to do if America's loss really is to become Europe's gain."There's a huge divide within Europe in the quality of the postdoc experience. Many parts of Northern Europe, particularly Scandinavian countries, are getting it right. But here in Italy and other parts of Europe, researchers are undervalued, and grossly underpaid. We need to learn from the countries that are doing it well. Competing financially with the US will always be difficult, but we certainly don't lack the human capital to do it."

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