Escaping the Postdoc

John Bothwell is obstinate. A postdoc at the Marine Biological Association in Plymouth, England, his funding ran out last year and he has not been paid a salary since. Instead, he has chosen to subsist on his savings while using small project grants from the Royal Society and other organisations to pay for travel expenses and equipment to keep the research ticking along.

It’s a matter of principle: Bothwell refuses to do yet another postdoc. Instead, he is holding out for his own funding, either through a research fellowship or as a ‘named researcher’: a postdoc who helps put together, and acts as a junior PI on, a grant proposal. After 3 years of doing his D.Phil. in biochemistry at Oxford and 6 more years spent in two postdocs at Cambridge and Plymouth, he is looking to break out of the postdoc rut and prove that he is capable of being an independent researcher.

“The priority for most researchers is an independent career in research, not just a long-term one, as commonly assumed,” says Bothwell. “For me, the next step is either another postdoc or getting my own funding. But if the funding doesn’t come through, I’ll probably quit.”

Bothwell’s dilemma goes to the heart of an increasingly vocal debate over the last decade about the career paths open to young researchers–particularly postdocs, or research staff as they’re called in the U.K. On paper, the “standard” academic career progression in most scientific disciplines is straightforward: Do a Ph.D., work 2 to 4 years as a postdoc, then–ideally–get a fellowship that provides up to 5 years of independent funding and hopefully leads to a permanent faculty post. Along the way, fledgling scientists must keep a careful eye on the all-important publication record, remember to network, and be flexible about moving. What could be simpler?

Coping with reality

The problem is in all the things that are left unsaid. According to the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), this ‘old model’ only holds for a relatively small minority. In the United Kingdom, the ratio of research staff to permanent research posts is about six and a half to one, so many able researchers won’t develop a sustainable academic career. EPSRC estimates that the number of researchers on fixed-term contracts of up to 3 years rose from a few thousand in 1990 to 38,000 by 2000, and is probably even higher today. Worse, in some fields, only 10% of postdocs get a lectureship.

“There is a huge discrepancy between the aspirations of most researchers and the realities of the academic world,” says Paul Wicks, a postdoc in the Institute of Psychiatry at King’s College London. “Postdocs need help to prepare effectively for future careers, but it is unclear who should be taking responsibility.”

One problem is that most postdocs are on fixed-term contracts–shorthand for employment contracts of up to 3 years for which postdocs are paid modest salaries. According to the University and College Union (UCU), this describes nearly 85% of research-only staff, a situation UCU describes as “one of U.K. higher education’s biggest scandals.”

“There is the worry of getting a permanent job at the end and, related to that, the slow pressure to succeed academically and produce outstanding research,” explains Steven Gratton, a postdoc astronomer at the University of Cambridge. “The postdoc system runs a risk for academia, as some of the best people may think it’s not worth the hassle. So academia, particularly away from the very top institutions, might get the persistent but not always the excellent people.”

The way out

It’s a bleak picture, but attempts are being made to address these murmurings of discontent. Several universities have made efforts to move postdocs onto permanent contracts that provide career stability, grant eligibility, and a solid foundation for a future lectureship. Notably, over the last 2 years, the University of Bristol has moved 55% of its staff onto open-ended contracts–a move that could be copied by other universities following the implementation of European Union employment laws last July, which state that researchers on fixed-term contracts for more than 4 years can now regard their posts as permanent. “Although employers are legally obliged to follow [the new E.U. employment laws], I suspect they’ll be more use in offering a model for how to support postdocs than in affording more job security,” says Bothwell.

In 2003, the U.K. government adopted the so-called Roberts recommendations, put forth in a 2001 government-commissioned report by physicist Sir Gareth Roberts, to increase the attractiveness of research careers and stem the loss of early-career researchers. The recommendations led the government to provide an additional £20 million a year to universities, some £7 million of it to support the career development of postdoctoral researchers.

Research Councils U.K. (RCUK) is rolling out other initiatives to meet the Roberts recommendations. One particularly welcome initiative is the RCUK Academic Fellowship programme, which started in 2004 and supplements existing fellowships and adds an extra 1000 places over 5 years. Each £125,000 award provides a postdoc with a guaranteed permanent position after the fellowship. The terms of the fellowship stipulate that postdocs be provided career-related training so they can develop the project management, public outreach, and teaching skills essential for a successful academic career.

These and other fellowships provided by various Research Councils and charities “are very attractive, as institutions do not have to pay you and they prove you are capable of bringing in your own money,” says Arttu Rajantie, who recently became a lecturer in theoretical physics at Imperial College London after a 2-year fellowship at Cambridge. This independence gives postdocs a chance to forge their own reputations.

However, even with the additional places, fellowships are fiercely competitive and the selection criteria may not always be clear. Bothwell suggests ways to boost your chances. “Try to squeeze in as the named researcher on a grant,” he suggests. “That’ll get you a few years with a decent publication record and some evidence that you can bring in your own money. Then you can start applying for fellowships with a reasonable degree of confidence.”

Wicks agrees. “A good track record of small pots of money such as travel grants and seed funding can also help,” he says.

Progress has also been made in career counselling. Several universities, such as Bristol and Cambridge, now have careers advisers specifically for postdocs. Others, such as King’s College London, have introduced staff appraisals once a year at which postdocs can sit down with managers and identify personal targets and appropriate training courses for the coming year.

“There needs to be a cultural change within academia, with more emphasis on supporting the development of the researcher as well as the research,” says Janet Metcalfe, the director of the U.K. GRAD Programme. “Academics need to recognise that they are also line managers of research staff and have a responsibility to support and nurture their personal and career development.”

Where next?

Perhaps the most important recent development is postdocs starting to demand more as a group. Last year, Bothwell, Wicks, and fellow postdocs set up the National Research Staff Association, Britain’s first national body representing postdocs and an attempt to replicate the U.S. National Postdoctoral Association. Thanks to a start-up grant from RCUK, they have had a couple of meetings and are now working with U.K. GRAD to set up career-development programmes for postdocs.

Bothwell would love to see league tables published that rank institutions worldwide on how they treat their postdocs. The hope would be that such rankings would put the heat on poorly rated institutions to give more support to young scientists.

“Sensible institutes guide their postdocs to independence through stages, having them write some baby grants a year or two in and building up so they know where to go at the end of their contract,” Bothwell says. “Daft institutes don’t bother, and the postdocs arrive at the end of their contracts with no idea of where to go. They then usually leave science.”

As for Bothwell himself, he’s currently on the reserve list for a Leverhulme Fellowship and has a few more irons in the fire. “The logic behind all this is that if I do get a job, I’ll be able to catch up on the time I’ve lost by being stubborn,” he says. “And if I don’t get another job, then I just get the satisfaction of having tried to do things on my own, rather than riding on somebody else’s ideas.”

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Educated Woman, Postdoc Edition, Chapter 6: Carrots and Sticks