Brilliance and the barrier to a great career

September 5, 1997

This academic life is fraught with difficulty - jobs are scarce, insecure and increasingly clogged up with teaching and administrative duties that prevent our brightest minds from pursuing their first love - research

Research students bent on becoming academics have no one to turn to for advice. But help is at hand. Cath Cotton reports

As the last academic year ended, many final-year research students were scouring the jobs pages of even the most fascinating of the prestigious publications. However, fledgling academics should be aware of the precarious world they may be about to enter. They need specialist careers advice but there is little available.

One of the most obvious pitfalls of academic life is the notoriously low pay. According to Natfhe, the union representing many teaching staff in further and higher education, starting salaries in both research posts and lectureships are low - Pounds 9,462 for a research post in a new university and Pounds 13,100 for a lecturer in 1995. This compares to a median starting rate of Pounds 14,362 for all graduates in the same year.

Other well documented drawbacks include short-term contracts, the specialist's apparent lack of versatility, and an ever-growing tension between two activities once more widely regarded as complementary - teaching and research.

This last point is of some significance. A low rating in the research assessment exercise in April this year, put up to 18 lectureships in jeopardy at the University of Wales's institute of biological sciences in Aberystwyth (THES, May 9). Other universities are trying to "buy in" research excellence to boost future ratings, while some have tried to resolve the conflict by appointing teaching-only staff.

Such moves could have serious long-term consequences for the individuals involved. For the ability to compete for external funding, which forms a common criterion in job specifications for academic posts, is closely linked to the researcher's publications record.

Dai Williams, a chartered occupational psychologist based in Surrey, says that the single-minded researcher risks "going out on a limb", and will prove vulnerable if funding is suddenly cut.

Given the widespread nature of these problems, many academics feel that relevant careers advice is lacking. Jaqueline Bailey, a research fellow at the National Primary Care Research and Development Centre based at the University of Manchester, has experience of the university careers services at both Manchester and Leeds. Dr Bailey says that the services tend to be too topic-based and are not really geared up for researchers.

"If you're doing medicine, it's fine; or teaching - fine again. But if you don't fall into a category I don't think they're equipped. Part of the problem is that people making the appointments (for interviews) have limited knowledge, and can put you in the wrong category."

Paul Honess, a postdoctoral zoologist who is unemployed, is also critical. "I feel very little, if any, careers advice is available. I don't think there is any point in going to the university careers service as it's set up for bachelors graduates. People assume PhDs will just move on."

One recent development which could be good news, at least for those working on short-term research contracts, is the formation of the Concordat Implementation Group in July.

The Concordat agreement was signed last year between the CVCP and the major research funding bodies. It recognises that limited research opportunities and insecurities associated with short-term contracts have led to the loss of some talented and trained staff from research in the UK, and that while morale is low overall productivity also suffers.

It also recognises that improving this situation will require more active personnel and career management of contract researchers, and acceptance by both employers and funding bodies of their roles in the funding and management of such developments.

Diana Warwick, chief executive of the Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals. said: "World-class research demands the best researchers. The creation of this new group is an important next stage in ensuring good conditions and prospects for the increasing number of researchers employed on fixed-term research contracts."

The Concordat Implementation Group, which will be chaired by Sir Gareth Roberts, ex-CVCP chairman and vice chancellor of the University of Sheffield, is to advise on implementing the agreement. He will shortly be inviting nominees to join the group and to set out the vision of its role.

Professor Roberts said: "I want to draw on individual members' experience and enthusiasm, as well as the information which is now becoming available, to identify what needs to be done - and what can be done in practical terms - in areas like personnel, administration, finance and the careers service to improve career management."

"It requires institutions to develop policy statements which satisfy its key objectives," he said. "The research councils are asking contract staff, at the end of grants, to confirm that they are receiving the treatment the Concordat expects," In terms of the practical implications of the Concordat for contract researchers, Professor Roberts highlights three key provisions: terms and conditions of employment should be in line with those for established staff; careers guidance and development for contract workers; adequate opportunities for potential research leaders, and better prospects generally in terms of career and salary progression. "Some of these should be achievable relatively quickly - though to be effective they need to be more than just paper changes," said Professor Roberts. "Other areas, such as careers guidance, are more complex as there is great variety in the needs of contract researchers, and in the opportunities for them."

Several universities have already begun to implement a range of schemes in response to the concordat.

In January, the University of Leeds initiated a professional career development scheme for its contract researchers. Sally Wheeler, director of personnel, said the scheme aimed to identify individual training needs, provide the necessary training, and offer additional training for the managers of contract staff.

Universities in Scotland have also been particularly active through the initiatives of the Scottish Graduate Careers Partnership, a consortium of all the university careers services in Scotland which has been closely involved with careers development for contract research staff.

The Scottish consortium has established career development courses for contract researchers and a number of Scottish universities have adopted them. A self-help book on careers for contract research staff has also been produced for those without access to the courses and a guide to job-seeking on the Internet has been launched.

The consortium is also piloting a destinations survey to find out where contract researchers go. According to Barbara Graham, director of the careers service at Strathclyde University, the destinations study is badly needed since a recent House of Lords paper on academic research careers revealed that the destination of 85 per cent of people leaving short-term research contracts was unknown.

"It is impossible to give contract staff better advice, when the long-term opportunities for such staff are unknown," she said.

This view is reflected in the Concordat itself, the effects of which are to be evaluated on the basis of destinations data, equal opportunies information (such as the proportion of women at different grades) and the views of employers in industry, commerce and the wider public sector.

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