Ask the panel

September 30, 2005

Worried about your employment, maternity, pension rights? Send your questions to The Times Higher advice panel.

The Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council's David Phillips postdoctoral fellowship scheme is restricted to those with five years' postdoc experience or less. I spent my first postdoc years in a lab with a tyrannical principal investigator who shattered my confidence. I am now in a supportive environment and I am being encouraged to seek independent research funding - but I have already been a postdoc for six years. What can I do?

* The Association of University Teachers panellist says: "It is worth contacting the BBSRC to see if it will alter the five-year rule in exceptional circumstances such as yours. If it will not, it is worth looking for other fellowship schemes to see if you would be eligible. However, the absence of a fellowship should not prevent you from developing your career - talk to your managers about your aspirations and make sure you get support and training.

You may be able to apply for grants, even without a fellowship, under the rules of some research councils and other funders. Alternatively, you may be named as a co-investigator and work collaboratively with a principal investigator. The AUT believes the five-year rule operated by the BBSRC (and possibly others) is potentially discriminatory and will look at forthcoming age discrimination legislation to challenge restrictive conditions."

* Our Research Councils UK panellist offers clarification of the BBSRC rules. "The eligibility limit for its David Phillips Fellowship scheme has been increased from five to a maximum of six years of active postdoctoral experience. The eligibility period is intended to provide targeted support to researchers early in their careers. So that people taking career breaks are not disadvantaged, BBSRC only counts the periods of postdoctoral employment. Research councils wish to be fair and you may want to contact the council directly to discuss whether any period of postdoc work might be excluded. This brief also requires even-handedness; evidence would be sought of a complaint having been upheld against this tyrant.

There are other routes to becoming an independent investigator and you have probably already looked at building evidence of publications, etc. Check with your supervisor about being named on applications to research councils, for example as researcher co-investigator. If your institution believes you have the potential for an academic post, check if it can offer a RCUK Academic Fellowship, intended to provide contract research staff with more stable paths into academia."

* Our resident academic says: "If your PI is supportive, one viable way forward is to write grant applications collaboratively. Regrettably under most rules you won't be allowed to be the PI on your grant - the great advantage of fellowships - but you can be a named researcher.

Make sure your PI acknowledges your intellectual contribution in any reference or appraisal. You need to agree how the project will be managed, since your PI would be responsible to the funder both for achieving the work proposed and the finances. A fellowship would be preferable; one possibility is to explore other non-research council sources of funding. Large research charities and some industries provide money for fellowships with less restrictive eligibility criteria."

* The Universities and Colleges Employers' Association panellist says: "Beyond looking for alternative sources of funding, contact the research council and ask whether there is any flexibility in its eligibility criteria. Now you have a more supportive environment, discuss your career development with your managers and find out what support your institution can offer. While it falls short of what you would wish for, being a named researcher in future applications may help and your intellectual contribution to current projects should be recognised by your PI in your appraisals."

This advice panel includes the Association of University Teachers, Natfhe, the Universities and Colleges Employers' Association, Research Councils UK, the Equality Challenge Unit and Rachel Flecker, an academic who sits on Bristol University's contract research working party.

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