A Career ‘Framework’: Guiding Light or Empty Words?

The academic ladder, from Ph.D. to research fellow to lecturer on up, is fairly well established. The problem with that traditional career progression is that postdocs often find they can’t climb into one of the precious few available lectureships, and they may think their only options are to stay in the cycle of fixed-term contracts or jump off the ladder altogether. “They exist in limbo state,” says Wendy Hall, head of the School of Electronics and Computer Science at the University of Southampton, U.K., and a member of the United Kingdom’s Council for Science and Technology. “There is no career guidance given to them about whether they should stay in the university or move out and when that should happen.”

To address this concern, the council, which advises the U.K. government on science and technology issues, recommended last month that universities, industry leaders, and funding agencies develop a national framework for research careers–a conceptual flow chart that describes paths researchers can and do take. Such a framework should cover the whole range of career possibilities in various sectors, describe ways of moving among them, and outline responsibilities and skill requirements for each position. “We want to agree on a way forward that considers the careers of researchers,” Hall says.

Among the experts Science Careers talked to, opinions varied widely on whether such a framework is necessary, what it should look like, and how it should be implemented. But all sides seem to agree on what’s causing postdocs’ woes: the fact that too few postdocs, most of whom are seeking greater career stability, are aware of options outside academia. But deciding how to address the issues effectively continues to be a difficult step.

The problem

Scientists come up through the academic training ground, so career paths that advance up the academic ladder are easy for them to see. But there are far more postdocs in science than there are open academic positions, so many postdocs will move from one fixed-term contract to another. Staff developer Robert Daley of the University of Leicester, U.K., worked as a postdoc for 7 1/2 years before deciding to pursue another path. “It was not very obvious what I could do,” he says.

In other cases, researchers have been trained for a position in academia and don’t have or feel they have the skills they need to compete in industry. “It’s like training someone to be a pole vaulter for 15 years and then saying, ‘You haven’t made the Olympic team but have a go at shot-putting,’ ” says chemistry lecturer Lee Higham of Newcastle University, U.K. Still, others are just determined to pursue an academic job even though they know how hard they’ll have to compete for a permanent position.

The council’s report found widespread dissatisfaction among the country’s early-career researchers. The council attributed this dissatisfaction to researchers being given inadequate responsibility, a failure to see the relevance of their work to the wider society, and a sense that they are being used by the system. The council’s proposed framework is largely an effort to address this often-discussed problem. “Some may stay in research forever,” Hall says, “but for others, it is a holding pattern.”

Anthony Hyman, a research leader at the Max Planck Institute of Molecular Cell Biology and Genetics in Dresden, Germany, says the problem is not specific to the United Kingdom but affects all of Europe: “What is missing completely is a career structure of any sort.” He says such a structure does exist in the United States, and it “allows people to see where they are going. It allows people to move around within the system.” Hyman adds that a better defined career structure would allow people to move more easily between European countries and overseas. But not everyone shares Hyman’s enthusiasm.

The framework

Daley notes that the Roberts money, allocated by Research Councils UK for transferable-skills training and career development for Ph.D. students and research staff, has improved the situation. Universities have used this money to hire career developers who have introduced courses to promote skills development. But although the Roberts money was intended to make workers more versatile, “there has been very little support in place for those who do not carry on in an academic career,” Daley says.

Whatever form the framework takes, Hall suggests, it should identify those researchers who are better suited for industry or other positions outside academia and encourage them to move in that direction. “They hang around because they are invaluable, even though the professor managing them knows they will never be academics,” she says. Researchers, she adds, need to look not just in front of them on the academic path but also all around them at the job options in other sectors, making the best choice for themselves rather than the best choice for their labs.

At the same time, Duncan Connors, general secretary for the National Postgraduate Committee in London, says the framework should not dissuade the best and most passionate researchers from pursuing lectureships, because science, and academic science specifically, needs to remain competitive. The framework, he adds, has to include a standard of excellence, attracting and funnelling the best people through the system. “There will need to be a series of progress points,” he says. “If a person gets to position X and achieves Y result, then they can move on.”

Connors’s view is not dissimilar from the views of many people who want to pursue a career in academia. Jobs outside academia are often considered inferior, and people who accept them can sometimes be viewed as failures. Hall says this attitude needs to change. “The vast majority of postdocs are not going to be star professors,” she says. “You want to catch people while there is still time for them to make a good career in industry.”

Expediting change

Higham worries that a framework would either be too rigid or too abstract and argues that universities can make more immediate and concrete changes. “If it is just going to be a lot of woolly phrases that don’t help anyone, then there is no point,” he says. Universities should create more academic positions, use 5-year fixed-term contracts instead of shorter contracts, and put young researchers into permanent positions. This, he believes, would change attitudes and be more useful than a framework.

Iain Cameron, head of the Research Careers and Diversity Unit of Research Councils UK, acknowledges that universities need to do more to recognize the importance of research staff. “The impression is that universities employ researchers until the grant ends and then, if they leave, they don’t have to worry about them any further,” Cameron says. He says the 2007 revision of the Concordat on Contract Research Staff Career Management encourages a change in this attitude. The Concordat calls on employers to make research careers more appealing by providing support, offering stability, and encouraging adaptability.

But a bottom-up approach would require cooperation among researchers, institutions, and funders–and that will be a challenge. Cameron says the research councils cannot tell a university what policies and practices it should adopt. At the same time, university officials say they cannot make major changes to their staffing structurewithout funding changes.

“It is the way the money comes to us that will determine what we can do to a large extent,” says Alan Miller, a vice-principal of research at the University of St. Andrews in Fife, U.K. He suggests that funding agencies should offer more fellowships, which give researchers an opportunity to work on an independent project and are more likely to lead directly to lectureships, and give bundled money to an institution rather than assigning it to a specific project. In this way, research staff would be tied to a specific university rather than to a project.

To create a system that works, all parties need to take part, Hall concludes. She says grant reviews need to be person-based rather than project-based, and universities need to employ researchers as researchers rather than as temporary helpers. “The cycle needs to change,” she says. Whether a well-defined career structure will help remains to be seen.

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