Postdoctoral researchers need a “much stronger identity” in the academy, according to the man charged with boosting the visibility of this often overlooked group at one university.
Chris Abell, who last year was appointed director of postdoctoral affairs at the University of Cambridge, said a “historical accident” meant the group were “underrepresented in the university”.
But Professor Abell hopes to give them a voice by establishing postdoctoral representation on more university committees. He added that undergraduate and postgraduate students are represented on “all kinds” of university bodies, but relatively few committees invite postdoctoral researchers.
He is also putting in place a variety of schemes to provide better support, training and access to accommodation for early career researchers.
“Constitutionally and institutionally what we are [taking] is a big step towards assimilating [postdoctoral students] as a community into the university,” explained the professor of chemistry, who now spends at least 30 per cent of his time on postdoctoral affairs since assuming his new responsibilities in September.
“We have had postdocs for about 30 to 40 years, but for an 800-year-old university they are relatively new on the scene,” he explained.
Estimates suggest that there are about 3,500 postdoctoral researchers at the university, double the number 10 to 15 years ago, he said.
The precise head count is not known because some early career researchers are funded by charities and foreign governments and are not on the university’s payroll.
For the first time, this month an email communicating directly with most postdoctoral researchers will be sent from the university.
Jean-François Mercure, vice-president of the Postdocs of Cambridge society, said that in the past little information was provided to postdoctoral researchers about the services available to them at the university. Early career researchers are often too busy to seek out these facilities themselves, he added.
As part of his work, Professor Abell will organise and coordinate the support systems for postdoctoral researchers from the careers service and human resources department, for example. Progress has already been made in setting up mentoring schemes.
Professor Abell is also keen to boost the amount of training postdoctoral researchers receive in areas such as writing grant applications, interview skills and accounting.
Although postdoctoral researchers are not traditionally expected to carry out tasks in these areas, he said the skills would prepare them for the next stage in their careers, when they may be setting up their own research group.
A key reason for establishing better links with early career researchers at the university is the North West Cambridge development – a £1 billion project to build new housing, research and academic facilities on the edge of the city.
The first phase of the project, which is due to start early this year, will provide accommodation for “key workers”, a group that includes postdoctoral researchers.
The development will triple the amount of accommodation available to this group of staff, and systems need to be put in place to manage this housing, said Professor Abell.