End ‘Plan B’ talk about jobs outside academia, says minister

Improving the culture surrounding mental health for postgraduates and PhD students also crucial to maintaining a healthy research system, Chris Skidmore tells leaders

May 7, 2019
Chris Skidmore

Higher education institutions must refrain from discouraging postdocs and PhD students from taking jobs outside academia if the UK is to achieve its research and development targets, the universities minister has urged.

Speaking to an audience at the London School of Economics, Chris Skidmore warned of the continuing “stigma…around pursuing non-academic research careers” that was preventing individuals from transferring their skills and talent to industry.

“We should never look down on early career researchers if they opt for a career outside academia,” he told academic leaders. “Rather, we should actively encourage our PhDs and postdocs to see the merits of pursuing an R&D career in other sectors and industries.

“For one, we need to stop talking about jobs outside academia as being ‘second-choice careers’ or ‘Plan B options’,” he warned. “For our 2.4 per cent target to work, we need people to be actively considering research careers across the entire science and innovation system and aspiring to become industry employees or entrepreneurs from the get-go.”

His comments come as the sector faces increasing pressure to boost research outputs in keeping with the government’s aim of investing 2.4 per cent of gross domestic product in research and development by 2027.

While much has been made of the perceived slow rate of productivity in the UK sector, even leaders from elite institutions including the University of Cambridge have spoken of the difficulties faced in attracting collaboration and investment from industry partners.

In order to increase research and development spending at the expected rate, Mr Skidmore reiterated that the number of people working in research would also have to increase, “perhaps by as much as 50 per cent. To put that in figures, that means we need to find at least another 260,000 researchers to work in R&D across universities, across business and across industry”, he said. 

But while universities could “help…researchers and academics connect better with businesses and supporting researchers to develop their own ideas”, Mr Skidmore acknowledged that “the difficulties aren’t just on the side of the universities…Some employers are unused to recruiting PhDs and don’t fully understand the benefits that those with higher academic qualifications can bring,” he added. “This, I feel, is a particular UK problem we need to address.”

He also warned of the continuing “closed culture” around disclosing mental health issues among doctoral researchers. “I am keen that postgraduates and early career researchers do not get lost from current and future policy debates – particularly around key issues like mental health and well-being,” he said.

“Postdocs are increasingly the Cinderella of the academic community – being neither students nor conventional academic staff members. So, their stories often go unheard and their concerns unaddressed.”

These groups were most often susceptible to a poor work-life balance, he warned, thanks to an existing culture reliant on “dominant power structures”.

A study commissioned by Research England last year found that postgraduate researchers faced different challenges to their seniors or undergraduate peers – with financial concerns, feelings of inadequacy and isolation all likely to have a negative impact on the mental health of the cohort.

Mr Skidmore said he encouraged regulatory bodies including the Office for Students, Research England and UK Research and Innovation “to look more widely at how the implementation of current policies affect researchers on the ground”.

While assessments including the research excellence framework “are all integral to the way we govern and fund higher education, science, research and innovation…we need to make sure they are not disproportionately affecting early career researchers and putting extra strains on their work”, he concluded.

rachael.pells@timeshighereducation.com

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