A WakeUp Call for Postdocs

Last Thursday, Vitae—an organization supported by research funding bodies, that promotes the professional development of early-career researchers in the United Kingdom—released two reports exploring the working conditions and career development of research staff (mainly postdocs) and principal investigators (PIs) in higher education. Together, Vitae’s biennial Careers in Research Online Survey (CROS) and Principal Investigators and Research Leaders Survey (PIRLS) aim to keep track of the progress made by higher education institutions toward implementing the Concordat to Support the Career Development of Researchers. Launched in the United Kingdom in 2008, the Concordat lays out seven key principles for improving the employment conditions and professional development of postdocs in particular.

The picture that emerges from the 2013 surveys is that, while institutions have greatly improved their policies for the recruitment of postdocs, postdocs need to take more responsibility for their career development and their advisers need to be more supportive. “What we’re seeing is that … some of the easier things to change have changed and improved, some of the more difficult things, which maybe you need a bigger cultural change, … are taking more time,” Vitae’s Research and Intelligence Director Robin Mellors-Bourne tells Science Careers in an interview.

Not all of these people are going to make it in [higher education], and probably there are some unrealistic expectations.

More professional treatment

Compared to 2009, this year’s CROS showed improvement in many areas, particularly those that can be affected directly by human resources policies, Mellors-Bourne says. In line with the Concordat’s principles, the 2013 CROS respondents reported more open and transparent recruitment and appointment procedures. About 75% of survey respondents reported having been offered some kind of introduction to their new working environment. The institutional practice of running staff appraisals for postdocs has also become more common, with almost 60% of respondents having had an appraisal in the last 2 years, compared to 55% in 2011 and 50% in 2009. “Generally speaking, they’re being recruited more professionally, and they’re being managed more professionally” than they were 4 years ago, Mellors-Bourne says.

Sluggish professional development

There has been some improvement—although not much—in the development of postdocs’ peripheral skills. Compared to 2011, a larger proportion of research staff reported working as part of a cross-disciplinary team (59% versus 54%) or in an international collaboration (66% versus 61%). Slightly more postdocs also reported having managed a budget (38% versus 35%) and written grant proposals (54% versus 49%).

Formal training is still rare. The number of days that this year’s respondents spent on professional development in formal settings over the last 12 months mirrored almost exactly the 2011 results, with 21% not having undertaken any formal training at all. Only about 10% dedicated 10 days or more to such activities. Training in leadership and management was the only area where a significant increase could be seen (from 16% in 2011 to 19.3% in 2013).

Stagnant career development

While the Concordat aims to improve the working environment for postdocs, it also states that postdocs must take responsibility for their own personal and career development. Here, the CROS report offered a mixed picture, with marginal progress. While 87% of the 2013 respondents said that they took their career development into their own hands, just over half had a clear career development plan or maintained a formal record of their professional development activities—about the same as in 2011.

And while around three quarters of the 2013 respondents had been encouraged to engage in personal and career development, fewer than a fifth reported participating in any formal training in career management, even though more than half said they wished to do so. More than half of the respondents also said that they were interested in training in nonresearch activities such as public engagement and knowledge exchange, but only 18.6% and 14.3%, respectively, had sought such training.

One sign that postdocs are broadening their career training was that a greater proportion of respondents (9%) had sought internships outside of higher education in 2013 (up from 5% in 2011).

“Definitely, there is an understanding from most people that you do need to manage your career … but the amount of time they spend doing it and what they actually do is not really increasing at the moment,” Mellors-Bourne says.

In need of culture change

The slow rate of improvement in postdocs’ attitudes toward their professional and career development point toward the need for a culture change more profound than what has so far occurred, Mellors-Bourne says. “Part of this comes down to the research staff themselves, and part of it comes down to the relationship with their principal investigator.”

But while PIs expressed the belief that good research leaders support the careers of their research staff, they admitted that, in practice, they’re not very good at it themselves, Mellors-Bourne says. What this tells us is “that the PIs are people too, and really you just have to engage and have a personal conversation, maybe an emotional conversation, with your PI about really what’s important for both of us,” Mellors-Bourne says. “PIs actually in their heart do realize that it is important for research staff to be able to progress like this.”  

A wake-up call

Importantly, the CROS asked research staff about their long-term career aspirations and expectations. The published report notes that 78% of respondents said they aspire to stay in higher education, more than half with a job that combines teaching and research. Only about 10% wished and expected to work in a nonacademic research position, while around 5% had no clear aspirations, and 16% had no clear expectations.

A majority of respondents with a long-term academic career were confident: 62% expected to succeed. But, the way the job market looks right now, “not all of these people are going to make it in [higher education], and probably there are some unrealistic expectations,” Mellors-Bourne says. Of particular concern is that “Quite a lot of these people don’t know what else they might do.”

Possible problems ahead were highlighted in the CROS report. While 43% of research staff aged 45 or over had open-ended contracts, a large proportion of those who were still employed on a fixed term had contracts lasting a year or less—even after long service to their institutions. And while postdocs felt well integrated overall, and that they were being treated fairly by their institutions with respect to opportunities for training, conference attendance, and flexible working conditions, many of those who had been on a string of fixed- or short-term contracts felt dissatisfied.

The optimum time to go on from a Ph.D. to a permanent academic position is five to 7 years, Mellors-Bourne says. Postdocs who have been in the circle for much longer than that—some have been postdocs for 15 years—have “got into that bit of a rut where it’s going to be quite hard for them to leave and go and do something different” from academic work, he says. “On the other hand, … it’s going be very hard to make the jump into a lectureship or something like that, particularly as they get older.”

What should those still in the early years of their postdocs do? “Just … recognize the way the system works and to take a wide variety of experiences as early as they can, and look and see what’s around,” Mellors-Bourne says. “They should … not say, ‘oh I’ll do this postdoc and I’ll just do another postdoc, and then I’ll decide after that’. They have to take responsibility perhaps a bit earlier.”

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Elsewhere in Science, 13 September 2013