Frontload training in first postdoctoral post, says research head

Liverpool pro vice-chancellor says new positions would be step between PhDs and traditional postdoctoral posts

June 21, 2019
Source: Alamy

Universities should create “first-time postdoctoral training positions” for PhD graduates to help prepare them for careers inside and outside academia, according to a sector leader.

Anthony Hollander, pro vice-chancellor for research and impact at the University of Liverpool, told Times Higher Education that there was “room for rethinking the postdoc career structure”.

First-time postdoctoral training positions would be a step between being a PhD student and being a full independent postdoc, according to Professor Hollander, who said that they would be “fully paid-up jobs but [with] more time built in for training than later in the postdoc career”.

At Liverpool, Professor Hollander is overseeing “Prosper”, a £4.4 million project designed to help early career researchers develop the broader skills and attributes needed to succeed in a number of careers.

The initiative aims to respond to concern that most career support for postdocs focuses on academic jobs, even though the proportion who go on to secure a permanent position is relatively small.

Liverpool will work with a range of employers to identify the skills needed and the training required to work in the IT industry, for example, or to run a museum or policy institute.

Some will be generic skills but some will be specific to clusters of career groups, such as life sciences or digital sciences.

An online “toolkit of training opportunities” will then be developed, with the ultimate goal of making it available to postdocs across the higher education sector.

While the first-time training positions are not formally part of the Prosper project, Professor Hollander said that there was a “lot of concern” about how much time postdoctoral researchers could really “commit to training”.

“So what I am suggesting is, it might be a good idea to frontload that to the first postdoc position,” Professor Hollander said.

The intervention came ahead of the publication of the revised Concordat to Support the Career Development of Researchers, the UK’s main sector guidelines for researcher development.

A review of the document proposed that early career academics should be allowed to spend 20 per cent of their time on personal development, including independent research, teaching, organising seminars or undertaking placements in industry or policy organisations. The panel that reviewed the concordat also said that researchers should be encouraged to make use of their annual training allowance, currently set at 10 days per year.

While 84 per cent of individual respondents to a consultation on the recommendations agreed that 20 per cent of researchers’ time should be allocated to personal development, opinion among institutional respondents was more mixed. Forty-seven per cent of institutions backed the threshold, but 24 per cent were opposed, and 29 per cent were undecided, with post-92 universities being particularly sceptical.

Professor Hollander described postdoctoral researchers as “a kind of hidden population” that was “not very visible to employers”. In particular, current approaches failed to help them start careers outside academia and to meet the UK’s need for a highly skilled workforce.

“I think that particularly from an inclusivity perspective we have a process which is out-of-date and which is not supportive; the challenge is to update that process to the modern world,” Professor Hollander said. “We don’t want to damage the academic pathway but we want to open up many more opportunities earlier in a postdoc career.”

Creating a “two-way leaky border between academia and industry” would be “mutually beneficial”, he added.

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Reader's comments (1)

It is not clear why this training is required in the postdoc rather than in the PhD. The postdoc provides academia with a convenient way of soaking up excess labour while also providing cheap labour for academic labs to carry out research. A policy that gets PhDs who aren't interested in academic careers into jobs immediately post-PhD, rather than having to undertake yet more training, would seem more appropriate.

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