Leader: Let's cherish our postdoc talents

February 16, 2007

Anyone who has slogged through school and university to gain a PhD and get a job as a postdoctoral researcher has already demonstrated their dedication to academic life. But too many promising researchers are being lost at this stage because of poor career support and advice.

Both universities and the country at large need these talented people in research. And their education has cost hundreds of thousands of pounds a head, so plans to improve the career advice they receive and the structure of their professional lives are welcome. These youthful researchers have up to four decades of working life ahead of them. Simple arithmetic shows that not all of them can end up as professors. The career development they receive has to reflect the reality that they will have more diverse professional lives than the previous generation of academics.

In addition, these researchers are likely to be given more responsibility at an early stage in their careers than people ten or 20 years older had to accept. They may apply for research grants in their own names, carry out public engagement work, become line managers of more junior staff or be made accountable for significant budgets.

These are responsibilities for which training and guidance are needed. They are also time consuming, something the principal investigators who employ early-career researchers need to take on board. Although the future shape of university life is not predictable, for many of those involved it is likely to mean working outside academe for significant periods. This calls for training to prepare researchers for the different priorities and ways of working in business or the public sector.

Some of these measures might look like preparation for promising people to quit academic life rather than sticking with it. But working lives are more varied than in the past. A move out of university might not be permanent.

It will become increasingly common for scientists to spend a year or two with a company that is commercialising their research, or for historians to get involved in making a television programme. These options make academic life more complicated, but they also increase its attractions and rewards.

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