Postdoctoral researchers in the social sciences and humanities are twice as likely to secure permanent posts in their universities than those in the biological and physical sciences, official figures reveal.
The first attempt to provide a detailed map of the career prospects of research assistants in fixed-term posts shows that 3 per cent secure a permanent lectureship a year after they start on the temporary contract.
Moreover, the report exposes differences between disciplines. In the biological and physical sciences, one in 50 of those surveyed obtained a permanent post at their institution one year on. In the social sciences and humanities, the figure was as high as one in 20.
Peter Main, education and science director at the Institute of Physics, said the high number of postdocs in physics and chemistry meant that a smaller proportion could get jobs.
Ian Haines, president of the UK Deans of Science, said the figures were a considerable worry because of what they said about the large number of researchers in the sciences who remained on non-permanent contracts.
Phil Sooben, head of strategy at the Economic and Social Research Council, said the figures may reflect the fact that young social science researchers work and publish individually. Crucially, postdocs may apply for grants from the ESRC, unlike other councils, and a high proportion of researchers on postdoctoral fellowships established by the ESRC five years ago have obtained academic jobs.
The study, part of a report on staffing trends by the Higher Education Funding Council for England, found 96 per cent of 22,000 research assistants were on non-permanent contracts in 2002-03 in the UK. The following year, 3 per cent had permanent posts at their institutions. More than a quarter of postdocs -6,500 - were in the biological sciences, while 1,500 were in social, economic and political studies.
In the biological sciences, physics and chemistry, 2 per cent had permanent posts one year on, versus 5 per cent in the social sciences and 4 per cent in the humanities. The study did not track postdocs securing posts elsewhere.
Matt Waddup, assistant general secretary at the Association of University Teachers, said: "This report lifts the lid on the job insecurity felt by contract researchers. Apart from the catering industry, no sector relies more on temporary labour than academia."
The position for postdocs may improve in July 2006 when European laws on fixed-term contracts come into effect. Those on contracts for more than four years in one university will be entitled to a permanent contract.
Iain Cameron, head of the Research Councils UK's Research Careers and Diversity Unit, said: "The fixed-term directive will ameliorate a problem we've had in the UK for a long time."