As many as 200 applicants are chasing every early career post at top universities, an investigation by Times Higher Education has shown.
Despite many universities recently starting their own flagship schemes to recruit top PhD students, competition for a limited number of postdoctoral research posts remains fierce, according to figures obtained under the Freedom of Information Act.
Many of the fixed-term research posts advertised by universities, which are viewed as a stepping stone to a permanent academic job, receive hundreds of applications for a handful of posts, our data reveal.
At Clare College, Cambridge, 230 people applied for a single junior research fellowship in science in 2013-14.
When three posts, including two in the arts, were made available in 2012-13, Clare College received 657 applications from aspiring postdoctoral researchers.
At nearby Christ’s College, there were 417 applicants for two junior research fellowships in 2013-14, roughly the same number (465) of applications as in 2011-12. Three posts in 2012-13 attracted 240 bids.
At Peterhouse, Cambridge, 325 people bid for three junior research fellowships last year, down from just over 150 per post in 2012-13. At Hertford College, Oxford, there were 1 applications when it advertised the single junior research fellowship it offered between 2011 and 2014.
Early career posts at other Russell Group universities attracted considerable interest.
There were 116 eligible applications for five postdoctoral research fellowships at the University of Warwick in 2012-13 and 143 in 2011-12.
At the University of Sheffield, there were 60 expressions of interest for its Early Career Researcher Scheme, resulting in applications and seven awards in 2013-14.
Other universities whose research fellowships lead to permanent jobs have attracted even more interest, with the University of Birmingham’s fellows scheme resulting in nearly 1,400 applications for 50 posts for its first year in 2012-13. In the second year of the scheme, Birmingham attracted 433 applications and six research fellows were appointed.
At the British Academy, 18 people applied for every one of its early career fellowships, which are supported by universities, in the last academic year – with 15 people applying per post in 2012-13 and 20 in 2011-12.
Alison Mitchell, director of development at Vitae, the research career development organisation, said finding a research post was incredibly tough, with UK postgraduates “competing in an international market against highly talented individuals”.
“People need to have realistic expectations of success,” said Ms Mitchell, pointing to 2010’s Vitae survey, which showed that only 19 per cent of UK PhD holders were in higher education research roles three and a half years after getting their doctorate.
However, she welcomed the creation of new postdoctoral research posts, such as those introduced by Birmingham and, most recently, the University of Leeds, which were providing more openings for a research career.
“Institutions are seeing the benefits of bringing all the opportunities together into a branded flagship scheme that attracts more talent and helps to leverage more external funding,” she said.
Support whatever the career path
Elaine Walsh, head of postgraduate development at Imperial College London, said it was important to give PhD students career advice and support for alternative careers, as well as supporting their academic ambitions.
“At Imperial, about 52 per cent of PhDs take up postdoc positions, but there is, of course, attrition and a smaller proportion achieve lectureship,” said Ms Walsh.
Imperial invited alumni from different fields to network and advise students about a broad range of career paths, as well as offering a two-day “finish up and move on” course, she added.
“Awareness that an academic career is tough is high amongst PhD students,” she said, adding that Imperial wanted to ensure their students were “informed and competitive”.