The postdoc experience: hopes and fears

Six early career researchers reflect on their experiences

七月 2, 2015
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A PhD is not the ticket to an academic career that it once was. As the number of doctorate holders worldwide grows, many PhD graduates find themselves funnelled into the world of postdoctoral research, where researchers are pitted against one another on an increasingly competitive stage. Only a small proportion will make it through to a permanent academic role.

Postdoctoral jobs are, in essence, a training contract for academic work. They tend to be short term and, especially outside the sciences, in high demand, and successful candidates are often required to move miles away from their family and friends – or even to another country – to find them. Indeed, in the sciences, experience in a number of labs, ideally in a number of countries, is a prerequisite for landing a permanent position.

To find a path towards a more stable academic position, postdocs must produce a solid set of publications, network to find opportunities and often secure research funding of their own. Some researchers spend years on fixed-term contracts with no certainty about whether they will be able to secure another or where in the world that might be.

To add to the pressures, the postdoctoral period usually coincides with the time of life where most people begin settling down, taking out a mortgage or starting a family, for example.

Janet Metcalfe, chair and head of research career development organisation Vitae, says that the pressures postdocs face are harder now than ever before, in part because of the lack of research funding. “Research funding has been flat cash with no inflation in the UK, so funding is tighter and I think the environment is much more competitive,” she says.

“Across Europe we have seen a huge expansion in the number of PhD graduates, so there are an increasing number of doctoral graduates coming through the system who are looking for postdoctoral positions,” she adds.

While funding from research councils or charities to support postdocs often comes with guidelines emphasising the importance of career development for the researchers, these expectations are not always “translated into practice”, says Metcalfe. This is because some line managers, or principal investigators, do not want staff’s time taken up with career development activities that could take them away from their research.

But Metcalfe says that this is beginning to change. The latest results from Vitae’s Careers in Research Online Survey, which is undertaken every two years, show a big increase in the number of researchers engaged in appraisal systems, for example. The 2013 survey found that almost 60 per cent of respondents had taken part in an appraisal or review, compared with just over 30 per cent in 2002.

Postdocs are now “more likely to have an institutional induction so they are aware of their rights, responsibilities and entitlements”, she adds.

So just how difficult is it to progress from a fixed-term postdoctoral position to a permanent post? A recent study by the European Science Foundation, which tracked the careers of doctoral holders from five research organisations up to seven years after graduation, found that just a third ended up in a tenured position.

The report, Career Tracking of Doctorate Holders, warned that the current system was unsustainable, with most PhD holders wanting an academic position in a jobs market that is “oversupplied”. The consequence is insecure employment that causes “considerable dissatisfaction and stress” among the postdoctoral population.

The situation is similar in the US, where Keith Micoli, postdoctoral programme director at New York University School of Medicine and chairman of the US National Postdoctoral Association, says that the system is training “seven times more people for the same job than could ever get it”.

In industry, many scientific employers in the pharmaceuticals and chemicals sector are eliminating research posts as they consolidate after the economic crisis, thus reducing further the positions available for researchers, he adds.

Postdocs “are having to spend longer in a training period where they are making less money than they probably should, they are not saving money for retirement, they are putting off having a family and it is a very unsettled time in their lives that creates a lot of anxiety”, he explains.

Micoli believes that the ramifications of this are felt across society. “The idea of a career in science is less attractive so we are losing out on the truly best and brightest who go on to do something that is more rewarded and where it takes less time to get into a permanent job.”

He also believes that the situation has made science a “more conservative enterprise”: the funding crunch in the US means that researchers are taking fewer risks because they need solid results to stay afloat. “We are probably missing opportunities to really move fields forward in really big ways because there is just too much pressure to get publishable data that will get you your next grant…It is that rise in incrementalism in science rather than great leaps forward where there is high risk of failure,” he says.

Yet postdoctoral researchers are critical to universities. With most principal investigators in science too busy to carry out experiments themselves, they rely on postdocs to drive research projects and to help guide PhD students’ research on a day-to-day basis.

But what is it actually like to work as a postdoc in a UK university today? Do the pressures to publish and secure their own funding keep them awake at night or do they relish the challenge of striving to succeed in a highly competitive environment? Times Higher Education spoke to six postdocs who work in a range of disciplines at UK universities about their hopes and fears, and the reality of life in the choppy waters of the academy immediately after completing a PhD.

A person taking a canoe down a waterfall

‘Some people have a plan B. I don’t. I am not going to make a plan B until I feel myself not getting what I want’

Dreadful”, “horrible” and “very difficult” are the words with which Filippo Contesi sums up the postdoctoral job market.

After finishing his PhD in philosophy at the University of York last year, Contesi initially secured a one-year £1,100 research allowance from York’s Humanities Research Centre and made his living doing “bits of teaching”. This autumn, he starts a six-month part-time teaching fellowship at York.

But what he really wants is to secure a permanent post at a good university. So far, he has applied for nine jobs, roughly a third of the suitable positions that he has seen advertised. “I have restricted myself to places where I don’t have to teach too much and where there is time to research because ultimately I would like to stay in research,” he explains.

Jobseeking can be a frustrating business. “People get postdocs with my publication profile; people even get postdocs with less than my CV and my publication profile – but they are usually people who are well connected and I am not,” says Contesi. While he knows people in his field, he does not feel that he is in a position to “pull any levers”.

The answer, he believes, is that he needs to publish more. He currently spends about half his time working towards publishing research from his PhD on the philosophy of disgusting art.

Contesi, who is originally from Italy and came to the UK in 2006 after finishing his undergraduate degree, says that his research has suffered as a result of juggling the demands of teaching with writing job applications. He now plans to give himself four or five months to focus on research until the autumn, “when there will be a lot more jobs” advertised.

If he has not managed to secure a position by the end of the year when his post at York runs out, he will turn to his savings. While he believes that he could live off this money for another 18 months or so, the prospect of eating into this hard-earned cash is not welcome. “But there is not much I can do,” he says. “It is more important that I get the career that I want and that I get a chance at doing it.”

Contesi is prepared to pull out all the stops and move almost anywhere in the world in order to achieve the next step in his career. “I don’t feel integrated [into the UK] really, so…for me I don’t see the problem in leaving. The big problem is just having to work all the time and not really having a social life at all.” Contesi says that he works pretty much every weekend and evening, usually taking one day off per week through sheer exhaustion.

Although he feels confident in some respects about his ability to succeed in academia, “until you get something stable, some department gives you a permanent post or even a decent temporary research post, you always feel like a fraud”, he says. While colleagues have given him reassurance, the difficulty of securing a position “chips away a bit” at his confidence.

If a career in the academy does not work out for Contesi, he says that he would “feel horrible and have a major existential crisis” but he would move on and find something else to do.

“Some people have a plan B. I don’t. I am not going to make a plan B until I feel myself not getting what I want, and right now, although it is starting to be difficult, it is still early days.”

A woman and a child in an aquarium

‘The baby changed my life quite a lot…I loved research but when you find something that makes you happy, you follow it’

When Elena Riva became pregnant part-way through her second postdoctoral position – a three-year research post in chemical biology at the University of Warwick – she worried that her career in academia would slow down compared with peers who had not started a family.

Her fears proved unfounded. One year into a three-year research contract, while pregnant, she secured a fellowship from the Institute of Advanced Study in Warwick.

She began the post in January last year, having postponed the start date so that she could complete six months of maternity leave. With this post Riva takes her first step towards becoming an independent researcher because although she is still “hosted” by a principal investigator, her fellowship covers her materials, expenses, travel and salary, rendering her more independent than the average postdoc. The fellowship will also give her a considerable advantage in terms of prestige when applying for permanent positions.

Riva, who is from Italy, initially came to the UK during her PhD in chemistry at the University of Milan, spending four months at the University of Birmingham working on a collaborative project. It was during this time that she met her future husband and after completing her PhD in December 2010, she began looking for jobs in the UK. Within months she had started a research associate position in the department of chemistry at the University of Cambridge and she spent just over a year there before securing the Warwick post in mid 2012.

Having her son, Joshua, in July 2013 brought a new set of challenges to her life as a postdoc. “I found it very difficult to balance everything with a family. Before [my son] I did very long hours in the lab and sometimes that is very difficult to couple with family life,” she says of her research on the synthesis of antibiotics. The change in her circumstances led her to change her career path: she has now converted her fellowship to include outreach work. Riva now spends half her time in the laboratory working on her research and half her time working in schools in underprivileged areas of Coventry and Birmingham. She also teaches at the university.

“I always loved teaching very much and we have a fantastic outreach programme at the chemistry department here,” she says. She initially got involved in these activities as an experiment, to see whether she would like to take her career down a teaching and outreach path. “I absolutely loved it…​I started to do more and more and more and I arrived at the conclusion that I definitely wanted to couple it with my work of research,” she says. The IAS was “very supportive” of the conversion because her research results are “excellent”, she adds. “I had several publications so they were happy to allow me to explore all these outreach and teaching sides,” Riva says.

With about one year left of her IAS fellowship, she now hopes to progress in the teaching and outreach side of academia because she has found that she enjoys it more than research. “I am happier when doing teaching and outreach…It is much more compatible with my family life which is a priority for me,” she says, adding that nothing in particular put her off research.

“The baby changed my life quite a lot…Your priority changes. I absolutely loved research and I have been very happy up until now. But when you find something that makes you happy, you follow it.”

Egg timer and clock showing deadlines

‘Sometimes all the deadlines from both universities come at the same time’

Özlem Edizel’s time as an early career researcher in the UK has been marred by immigration issues.

Originally from Turkey, as a PhD student sponsored by London Metropolitan University she got caught up in the institution’s visa woes in 2012. Edizel was one of thousands of students potentially facing deportation after the UK Border Agency temporarily revoked the university’s licence to sponsor students from outside the European Union in 2012.

At the time, Edizel had to find somewhere else to finish her thesis. Luckily, an academic she had worked with early on in her PhD had taken a job at Brunel University London and was able to help her move to the institution. She completed her PhD about the regeneration that came out of the London Olympics in mid 2014. “It was very stressful,” she says of the experience, describing life as an international student as “sometimes challenging. It is hard to find your way around.”

But Edizel’s visa problems did not stop once she secured her first postdoctoral position as a research fellow in the art and design department at Middlesex University. She took this position on a 0.5 fractional contract in May last year alongside work as a part-time senior lecturer at the University of Westminster, where she has worked since late 2012. But as a non-EU citizen, she needed a sponsor. Even though both her part-time positions added up to the hours of a full-time role, neither institution paid her enough to entitle it to sponsor her visa.

“If I was working full-time at one university it would have been straightforward,” she says. In the end, Middlesex upped her contract to the fraction of 0.6, which pushed her above the earnings threshold.

Facing these extra pressures on top of those of an early career researcher in a competitive jobs market has been “frustrating” and “stressful”, she says, especially since “I work very hard and I have two posts that I worked hard to get”.

At Middlesex, Edizel is working on an Arts and Humanities Research Council project looking at how individuals relate to water. Edizel’s role is to complete literature reviews, research, liaise with external research partners, write reports and do administrative tasks for the Lee Valley case study, one of four in the nationwide project.

So how does the job of a postdoc compare with life as a PhD student? “In the PhD you are mostly responsible for yourself – you decide how you want to lead the project,” she explains. “You are responsible for everything – you do the fieldwork, you do the surveys and you write the reports.” As a postdoc, “you take the decisions with other members of the team – you exchange ideas more”, and there is more of a division of labour.

Deadlines are also more clear-cut. “It is, in a way, easier because you have the goal and you work for it and at the end, putting it all together, you do it with the team and not by yourself alone. But sometimes keeping to those deadlines is hard because my position is part-time.”

Holding two part-time positions has its advantages and disadvantages. While “sometimes all the deadlines from both universities come at the same time”, piling on the pressure, the two positions offer her a “very good balance” between different types of work. “If I had a full-time research position I wouldn’t be able to do much teaching, or if I had a full-time lecturing position I wouldn’t be able to do much research,” she says.

In the long term, Edizel hopes to stay in academia and generate some research funding of her own. “I feel like I need to take it a step further,” she says. “Maybe in science it is a bit different, but in arts and humanities, and social science, there are not so many posts and it is very competitive. I am being very idealistic saying that I am going to find my own funding or try to, as realistically I am aware about the pressure and it is hard to do it.” That is why, just one year into a three-year contract, she is already starting to think about her next career move.

A rower resting

‘I have moved around a lot already. It is nice to move around but you cannot keep on doing it for ever’

Social scientist Bert van Landeghem says that he has reached the point in his career where he hopes to settle down and build something permanent. As a postdoctoral researcher with two part-time posts in different countries, Van Landeghem understands what it means to live a transnational lifestyle better than most. Since completing his PhD at KU Leuven in Belgium, he has worked in a further two countries. “I have moved a lot already and moving means a lot of fixed costs,” he says. “It is nice to move around but you cannot keep on doing it for ever.”

Van Landeghem now spends the majority of his time at the Institute for Economic Analysis of Decision-Making at the University of Sheffield where he has a research fellowship looking at the economics of well-being. He also works as a researcher on a project about career coaching at the Research Centre for Education and the Labour Market at Maastricht University in the Netherlands, which is run with the Flemish employment agency in Belgium.

He says that it is “difficult to say” what effect all this moving around has had on his personal life but he does not regret it. “It is good to be connected to two places because you never know until you go there how it will be. Some universities are nice, others are not, so it is always good to have diversified contacts and to keep them warm for later jobs,” he says, adding that “every university has its own strengths”.

Juggling research projects in different countries sounds like a challenge but Van Landeghem says that he manages “OK”. When he is in the UK, he stays in contact with Belgium and the Netherlands by Skype and email. When he travels to the project he tries to do it in blocks of about a month to avoid too much toing and froing. With modern communications technology, “it doesn’t really matter where exactly you do your work”, he observes.

But Van Landeghem should not have to move around much in the foreseeable future – he has secured a Marie Skłodowska-Curie individual fellowship that will start in Sheffield once his current contract there ends in 2016.

Van Landeghem is originally from Belgium and the two-year fellowship is designed to promote mobility between researchers in Europe. He says that he did not expect to be awarded the funding and feels that it will be “very important” to his future in academia as it provides a “good signal” about his scholarship.

As well as giving him the chance to produce more research outputs, the fellowship will “open up a lot of doors” at policy organisations and help to “expand the horizon” of his academic work, he believes.

“I don’t have to look for another job yet,” he says. Nevertheless, he is trying to find a tenure-track position in Sheffield to start after the fellowship.

For Van Landeghem, life as a postdoc is always an “equilibrium exercise”. “If you want to publish and you do an ambitious project that might get published in a high-rank journal…it might get rejected and you have to try another [journal],” he says.

A radar image

‘You can’t keep carrying on being a postdoc without trying to progress in some way’

David Loudon, a research fellow in the School of Design at the Glasgow School of Art, has spent his academic career working on the visualisation of health data.

Armed with an MEng in electronics and software engineering from the University of Glasgow, he joined Glasgow School of Art as a part-time PhD student in 2003 and has remained there ever since. During his doctorate, awarded in 2010, Loudon had the opportunity to work in several research assistant posts at the school and he began his career as a postdoctoral researcher immediately afterwards.

“I wouldn’t say it was a usual path through,” he says of his progression through his PhD to postdoctoral posts. “I ended up getting quite a lot of experience on research projects during my PhD due to opportunities that came up during that process.”

So far he has held postdoctoral positions on two different projects and he is currently co-investigator on a third, an Arts and Humanities Research Council grant. He took a leading role in writing the bid and the one-year knowledge transfer project will see Loudon and colleagues work with an industrial partner to create a training tool for NHS staff, building on one of his earlier research projects on visualising hospital pathogens.

He says that there is an “inherent” expectation that over time a researcher such as himself brings in more funding “as a leader rather than a follower”. “When that line is crossed I don’t know but you can’t keep carrying on being a postdoc without trying to progress in some way.” But Loudon says that he is driven by the desire “to get some good projects in and take a leading role or a strong shaping role [on them] because that is what I want to do”.

As his role at Glasgow School of Art is part-time, he also works as a researcher for a local medical technology business that has funding from the European Commission to develop physical activity monitors. With one foot in industry and one in the academy, Loudon concedes that he has taken a “slightly different path” to most academics.

At the Glasgow School of Art, he spends two days on his current research project and half a day, funded by the school, working on other activities, such as forming ideas for future research projects, talking with potential research partners and writing grants. Looking for funding and completing grant applications in academia is “hugely time-consuming”, he says, adding that he is “trying to safeguard [this time] as much as possible”.

Although he is only two months into his most recent project, he is already looking for where his next round of funding will come from. Becoming the named applicant on a grant is “very important” to the future of Loudon’s career, and he hopes to become the principal investigator on a small grant or co-investigator on a larger one.

“You constantly have to look six months [to] a year ahead. Already now we are looking at ways that we might take the visualising hospital pathogens work forward because we have got a number of ideas,” he explains.

The constant requirement to think about where the next research cheque is coming from has both pluses and minuses, he says. On the one hand, it “forces you to think in the longer term” but it also brings a constant “sense of uncertainty”. However, he adds that the Glasgow School of Art has been good at providing bridging funding in any gaps between specific research projects.

It can also be difficult to juggle project work with the need for good quality publications and finding research funding. “If you want to achieve good publications then you do end up taking up some of your personal time…if you can’t clear your diary at a particularly busy point on project work,” he says. But he adds that “it is personally driven motivation to do that extra work. It is not like someone is asking you to do it…There is a personal interest in doing well.”

Away from work, Loudon has two young children but he says that he is lucky to have an understanding line manager. With some flexibility in his working hours, he can get home to see them at night and pick up any work after they have gone to bed.

Syncronised swimming

‘I know that there are problems with academia but there are also good things. I like the flexible work environment’

Adina Feldman’s first postdoctoral position led to her decision to move into a new research area.

Feldman has been working at the University of Cambridge since completing her doctoral studies on the epidemiology of Parkinson’s disease at the Karolinska Institute in Sweden.

When she arrived at Cambridge in October last year, she began research on the epidemiology of strokes. But she soon decided that the role as a postdoctoral research associate in the department of clinical neuroscience was not for her. “You never know for sure until you start,” she explains, adding that “it wasn’t a good match”. So, six months in, she applied for another position at Cambridge.

Luckily, she managed to secure a three-year postdoctoral career development fellowship in the Medical Research Council Epidemiology Unit, at the Wellcome Trust-MRC Institute of Metabolic Science, Cambridge, where she now looks at new ways of preventing diabetes. Changing topic between PhD and postdoc was a “natural step change”, she says. After completing a doctorate, “many people encourage you to try something else – it is not unusual to do so at this point”, explains Feldman.

Feldman first came to the UK from Sweden because she had decided that she wanted to live abroad after enjoying an exchange programme as a student. Although she misses her friends and family a lot, she says that Sweden is not too far away for visits home.

Although she does not have direct experience of the postdoctoral jobs market in Sweden, she understands that the situation is similar to that of the UK. “Most opportunities are short contracts and many people jump between short contracts,” she says. But she believes that the jobs are there “if you are willing to try different things and be a bit flexible”.

Feldman’s current role is computer-based, involving the analysis of data on the different factors that can affect a person’s risk of diabetes. She works as part of team of 10-12 people and describes the job as “intense”, feeling the pressure to publish good research. This pressure is heightened by the type of epidemiology she does, where data do not come from new experiments but already exist in large-scale datasets or administrative records. “You are expected to publish more than in fields when you collected data or generate data yourself even though it is not necessarily faster,” she says, although she does not think that this is “necessarily a bad thing”.

In her role as a postdoc, she says that she feels “a bit more empowered to take the initiative and make decisions compared to when I was a PhD student”. However, she cannot put her finger on how much of that is due to her progression to a postdoctoral position and how much of it results from her move to another country where “everything is different”.

While Feldman is only six months into her contract, she is already thinking about her next move, although she is still uncertain whether her future lies in academia. “The more I work with research, the more I realise that there are so many other things that you can do,” she says.

If she does decide to stay, the nature of academic life does not worry her. “I know that there are very many problems with academia but there are also many good things. I like the fact that it is usually a very flexible work environment,” she explains.

“Of course it is a very high-pressure job and a lot of people talk about how if you are a researcher, you are an academic all the time, it is not just something that you can turn off. I think that you can learn to handle it and many people do – I see it all the time so I am not really worried.”

Nor would Feldman see herself as a failure if she left the sector and went to work in industry or elsewhere. Whatever she does, “I feel it is going to work out – as long as I make a decision and figure out how to get there”.


Article originally published as: Staying afloat (2 July 2015)



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Reader's comments (2)

As ever another article re post docs that continue in academic careers, which is great for those that wish to keep on that (too) well trodden path. My understanding is that the pd is a training period where one is mentored and finely honed by your PI to become an stand-alone expert in your field. In my experience however, it is the same old at each pd, .i.e. writing grants, papers and presentations - is this n years experience or one year repeated ad nauseum? Aside from an esoteric writing style, are such experiences even transferable to other spheres? So, when you realise academia is not for you, pds (in my experience) do not help you move to something else. My advice, if the pd you are interested in does not include considerable 'continued personal development' (or what ever else it is called i.e. useful courses and experiences), DO NOT APPLY!
As an older woman artist who entered Academia late in life in order to complete a practice based PhD, the above examples feel almost irrelevant but none the less, very real. I envy them their youth and time available to evolve. Being older, a career in Academia is not the goal, or so I told myself. But now, just finished, I've no idea who I am; pensioner, artist, writer, researcher.....independent...financially poor. I'm currently struggling to get back into my creative practice and just think as an artist. But I can't unknow what I have come to know. I hadn't anticipated the challenges this would bring. I wonder though, regardless of age, is this all about identity and how we relate to the world?