Report: UK postdocs need more skills

Interdisciplinary skills, statistical and computational methods, and a holistic understanding of the physiology of animals are lacking among early-career researchers in the United Kingdom, according to a national review of vulnerable skills and capabilities published earlier this year. It might make sense, then, for early-career scientists to seek out those skills to gain a leg up in the job market.

The survey, which was carried out in the summer of 2014 by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) and the Medical Research Council (MRC), in collaboration with the Society of Biology, asked U.K. universities, research institutes, companies, and professional societies what strategic skills and capabilities they believed were endangered or would soon be. More than 120 institutions responded, the vast majority of them from the academic sector, and together they identified 242 issues.

Even in the midst of a widely perceived postdoc glut, the respondents felt there weren’t enough postdocs with these skills.

Respondents reported many reasons for believing a skill shortage exists or is imminent, but the reason most often cited was the difficulty—or the belief that there would soon be difficulty—recruiting young candidates with those skills. Even in the midst of a widely perceived postdoc glut, the respondents felt there weren’t enough postdocs with these particular skills. Postdocs were perceived to be the most serious problem, but neither graduate students nor principal investigators were exempted.

Among the areas considered vulnerable, interdisciplinary skills ranked first. This result reflects “a changing need for cross-disciplinary working in the biosciences and medical sciences,” the report says. The ability to interface with chemistry, physics, and engineering was most in demand, followed by the ability to collaborate on imaging technologies, clinical care, and the social and economic sciences.

Mathematical, statistical, and computational capabilities ranked a close second. Here, data analytics and bioinformatics were the vulnerable skills most in demand, followed by statistics. A few respondents reported insufficient skills in core research areas including numeracy, experimental design, research ethics, science communication, team work, and entrepreneurship.

A few fields were identified as in decline, including physiology and pathology. “There were concerns about the future supply of individuals with skills to work with whole animals and with [a] holistic understanding of the physiology of laboratory and farmed animals,” the report says. Several respondents also deplored “a general lack of expertise, capacity and career structure in the UK and worldwide in many aspects of microbiology, including physiology and taxonomy.” Concerns were also raised about agriculture and food security, where “[t]he skilled population … is ageing and there is a lack of succession planning.”

BBSRC and MRC, which carried out similar surveys in the past, are now considering how to address these perceived shortages. Already, “MRC has used the outputs of the report to develop the MRC Skill Priorities which apply across all existing support mechanisms, with further discussions on improving support for skill priority areas underway,” write Joanna Robinson, a program manager at MRC, and Clare Bhunnoo, strategy and policy manager at BBSRC, jointly, in an e-mail to Science Careers. “Both MRC and BBSRC are in discussion with a range of relevant partner organisations and further information will be announced later this year.”

In the meantime, the survey may help early-career scientists identify skills they should focus on developing. “While it is not intended to provide a guide to skills for individuals, the identified areas do highlight where there are current and possible future shortages of talented scientists and therefore potential job opportunities,” Robinson and Bhunnoo write. “[E]arly career scientists might consider how they could use the report to proactively manage their career [and] align their future scientific training to these areas … by using all possible routes, including specific training courses, placements or seeking a PhD or postdoctoral position.”

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