From lab gigs to headliners

It’s a long way to the top if you want to make it as a PI, but there are many positives on the path to that big break

July 2, 2015
Paul Jump, Times Higher Education

The audience at the Glastonbury Festival last weekend doubtless included thousands of amateur musicians slogging round the pub circuit and wondering when it will be their moment in the sun (or, more likely, rain).

The odds of getting that turn are, of course, tiny. But while their parents might see that as reason enough to put those instruments on eBay and get a “proper” job, it is not obvious that such advice should be taken. Where would we be culturally if they all did?

Arguably, postdoctoral researchers – the subject of our cover story this week – are in a similar position to those wannabe Daltreys and Townshends.

According to the Royal Society’s Scientific Century report, 30 per cent of doctorate holders in science go on to early career academic research, but just 3.5 per cent land permanent positions and just 0.45 per cent hit the professorial jackpot.

Given those odds, a concerned parent might urge them to give up too. But where would we be academically if they did? In science in particular, postdocs are the driving force of day-to-day research: they are busy principal investigators’ eyes, hands and sometimes even brains in the lab.

But the postdoc’s lot is often bemoaned. The chief bugbear is the insecurity of short-term contracts and uncertain prospects at a time of life when many people are buying houses and having children. There is also mounting evidence that science itself would be better served by funding fewer postdocs and more PIs (for the latest instalment, see “Chasing big bang for bucks might be poor use of funders’ cash”, News, 25 June). And there certainly seems to be a case in the sciences for more permanent postdoctoral positions for those who are not cut out to be PIs but who could take more of the enormous strain off those who are.

The recent emphasis on greater career development for UK postdocs, pushed by bodies such as Vitae, is welcome, not least because those who spend so many years in the academic system can struggle to conceive of where they might fit outside it.

But the fact is that there are places for them. Postdocs have many transferable skills – and if there is an issue of high unemployment among former postdocs, it has yet to come to our attention.

Moreover, while the practical and psychological downsides of uncertain employment should not be underestimated, “postdoc-ing” does have its upsides. Pay levels – typically in the low £30,000s – may fail to reflect level of training, but postdocs earn more than many professionals of similar age and seniority (the average UK wage is about £27,000). Hours may be long, but they are also relatively flexible. Short-term contracts allow people to sample life in several countries without even – in the case of anglophones, at least – having to learn the local language. And, above all, research (and teaching) can bring huge intellectual and personal reward.

The six postdocs who discuss their current lot and future prospects in our features pages are clearly aware that their circumstances are not all gloom and doom. They know that the odds are against them, but they do not see themselves – as is sometimes alleged – as the victims of a giant academic pyramid scheme. Rather, like those unsung axe heroes at Glastonbury, they generally love what they do and are not willing to give up on headlining the Pyramid stage just yet.

paul.jump@tesglobal.com

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