On Wednesday 26 October, the Royal Society’s President, Paul Nurse, and the Minister for Universities and Science, David Willetts, hosted a roundtable discussion on research careers. The aim of the meeting was to start a discussion on the issues that affect PhD candidates and postdoctoral researchers in making career choices, and developing their skills to either remain in research, or to take those skills into the wider workplace. The Royal Society asked some of the participants to offer a few thoughts on the discussion; respecting Chatham House rules, below Dame Athene Donald FRS and Dr Jenny Rohn give their take on the issues and potential actions that arose at the meeting. The authors’ comments are their own, and do not represent the views of the Royal Society.

The Royal Society, BIS, and other interested stakeholders will continue to consider how they might contribute to addressing some of the issues identified.

Athene Donald FRS is a professor of physics at the Cavendish Laboratory at the University of Cambridge. Amongst many other roles, Athene chairs the Royal Society’s Education Committee, she sits on the Society’s Equality and Diversity Advisory Network (EDAN), and is the Chair of the Athena Forum.

“Do we need to change the landscape and the culture around career progression for PhD students and postdocs? This formed the heart of the recent discussions led by Paul Nurse and David Willetts.

There is a tension at the heart of such discussions between the needs of the individual researcher and the needs of the PI who are under pressure to produce ‘outputs’.  Despite the Concordat being in place for a number of years, it is clear that not all researchers receive adequate advice, even if many do. We know that some do not automatically get appraised, and if they are it is often by their line manager who may have a vested interest in keeping them on in some useful role or other, rather than encouraging them to spread their wings and try out new things. Much of the debate focussed on what might be needed to improve the overall situation for those in the postdoc ‘pyramid’ and whose responsibility it was to make sure it happened appropriately. If postdocs are going to be released – to spend 3 months in industry, perhaps, or looking at options in policy or teaching so that they learn about the world beyond academia  – then research funders and the contracts individuals receive need to make clear how this will be funded and the expectations on all parties.  It is perhaps easier and more explicit in some of the new doctoral training centres and partnerships now being established to ensure this happens for that particular segment of the PhD student cohort, but such schemes only reach a fraction of all PhD students.

All PI’s need to understand that the development of ‘human capital’ is part of their overall responsibility for a research team, and move on from a mindset which sees students and postdocs as simply fodder for producing papers.  This may be seen, although it should not be, as a radical departure from the current position. We should be doing this now. However, even if this came to pass it cannot in itself solve the problem of recurrent short term contracts for postdocs with no guarantee of permanence, a problem which can be particularly damaging for women starting to worry about their biological clocks.  Solving the job security issue is non-trivial, particularly in times of austerity.  But we owe it to the next generation to move this whole debate forward, whether these individuals are going to stay in science or not.”

Jenny Rohn is an academic cell biologist at the MRC Laboratory for Molecular Cell Biology at University College London. She is editor of the webzine and founder of the Science is Vital organization, which campaigned against cuts to the public funding of science in the UK.

“Unlike most other professions, academic research is a vocation where the vast majority of its practitioners are unable to establish a long-term career: in the UK, 89% would like to, but there is only space for about 4%. The structure has been likened to a pyramid, but its shape is actually more like a spike on a flat plain: it offers very few permanent positions for the legion of temporary trainees and contract workers who perform the vast majority of research. While trained researchers are extremely valuable to society at large, their flow from the academic system into other jobs often occurs many years into highly specialized training, and since this prolonged ‘delaying of the inevitable’ involves a string of short-term contracts, it is difficult to settle down, buy a house or start a family. Women may be particularly affected by this lifestyle. Also, starting at the bottom in a new career later in life can sometimes prove problematic. In the view of Science is Vital, the grassroots organization that I chair, this system is unfair, inherently unstable and, if not improved, has the potential to harm recruitment of young people in the long term. So we were very grateful to have been invited to last week’s roundtable discussion on how the system could be improved.

The was much discussion of the structure of academic research careers being broken and in urgent need of repair. There were also frank admissions that the system often treats young researchers more like a commodity than human capital, and fails frequently in its duty of care to offer proper professional development. The extent of agreement on the nature and depth of the problems I found very heartening: it means that there is broad support for reform. Where participants in the discussion differed was in how to tackle this complex problem. We at Science Is Vital favour (1) thickening the spike from its current 4% level by creating more competitive, periodically assessed permanent research staff positions for trainees to aspire to – a move that also would aid efficiency and provide badly needed continuity in larger teams with high turnover; (2) providing the training and guidance to help those who are destined to leave academia to depart earlier in their career, thereby giving them a better deal and freeing up more resources for those who remain. (While most everyone agreed on point 2, the high value of mature experienced researchers and their role in providing continuity seemed underappreciated by most people around the table, so this remains a point still very much open for vigorous discussion in my opinion.) I predict that, in taking point 2 further, the most controversial area will be how, exactly, to usher out the eventual leavers earlier in their research careers: talk of “seven years [of postdoctoral training] and you’re out” will not sit well with a profession that knows very well the role of luck and slower-germinating potential in research. Indeed, even the current President of the Royal Society took more than seven years to land his first permanent position.

In summary, I was happy with this initial meeting, and I hope that the Royal Society will continue to include early-career scientists in any future follow-on discussions.”

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