Academics ‘not best’ to advise postdocs on leaving academia

Event hears calls for improved careers services in universities to help steer PhD students and postdocs on opportunities

December 1, 2020
Source: iStock/12ee12

Scholars are not the best people to advise early career researchers on their options outside academia, and there needs to be better careers advice on hand at some universities, an international workshop has heard.

The event, organised by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, was also told that more co-funding of PhDs by industry and academia could help to create a more seamless transition between the two sectors.

Held over two days, the workshop on reducing the precarity of research careers discussed issues ranging from the well-being of early career researchers to the impact of Covid-19.

Carthage Smith, a senior policy analyst at the OECD’s Global Science Forum, which is running a project on research precarity, said a prominent topic of the event had been discussion of whether too many people were now studying for a PhD in many research systems.

“I think the answer [the event participants found] is there are too many for academia, but we don’t think…that there are too many for society as a whole,” Dr Smith told the event in concluding remarks summarising the key points from the sessions.

“But that case needs to be made strongly. We need to engage with business and industry, with the public sector and others who use PhD students…and work out how we can really make a strong case [about the need for PhD graduates].”

He added that another theme to emerge was that early career research could still be trapped in an “introverted academic setting” and that there needed to be better links with other career paths that researchers could follow.

Dr Smith said a point that had been raised was that “maybe academics are not the best qualified to mentor postdocs about alternative careers because…many of them have never moved out of academia themselves, and surely that is something we can address if there is a will”.

Making a similar point during a separate session, Anjali Shah, an epidemiologist who also works as a researcher developer at the University of Oxford, said a good careers service at institutions was vital.

“Have a good career service because our academics need someone to signpost to. Academics are not the best people necessarily to talk to about leaving academia,” she said.

Dr Shah – who is also co-chair of the UK Research Staff Association – went on to argue that transitions between academia and industry needed to be made “much, much easier, and as more research funding goes to industry I hope more PhDs will be co-funded in some way to facilitate this”.

She also called for more long-term career opportunities to be created in universities for those with PhDs using specific funding streams.

“There should be more stable block funding, say five-year block funding, where we recognise either senior postdoc levels or staff scientist posts. For example, for lab managers, programme managers, statisticians, et cetera,” she said. “Otherwise, we are losing a lot of talent from academia.”

In his summary of the event, Dr Smith said “several presentations” had emphasised that well-being among the research precariat was a “serious” issue. “It is not just a case of people being a little bit unhappy. There are serious mental health issues.”

The Covid-19 pandemic had “revealed many of the tensions and cracks within the system”, he said, “and those who are suffering most are those in precarious positions” in academia, like those on short-term contracts.

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Reader's comments (1)

Here here - my question is, however, when will we create these kinds of links and support for Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences PhDs? These sorts of endeavours are blossoming in science but we have a rather large stagnancy when it comes to those of us with History or English degrees. AHSS scholars still bring skills in project management, analysis, research, writing etc that are invaluable outside of academia but we aren't given the same specified levels of support as STEM scholars to make those transitions.