Postdocs embittered by lack of career prospects

October 26, 2007

Only one in seven research assistants progresses to a principal investigator post. Melanie Newman reports. More career support is needed for the "embittered lost tribe" of postdoctoral researchers who are often kept in the dark about their limited job prospects, a conference was told last week.

Delegates at an Academy of Medical Sciences conference were told that universities had a duty to inform postdoctoral research assistants that only one in seven of them will go on to become principal investigators.

Peter Downes, dean of the faculty of life sciences at Dundee University, told the conference on careers of biomedical scientists that the status of early stage researchers was "an elephant in the room".

"We need to tell them the numbers and encourage them to develop their skills in the most appropriate way," he said.

European employment regulations that came into effect last year give those on a string of fixed-term contracts the right to a permanent post.

But Professor Downes said that while this had reduced the number of researchers on fixed-term contracts open-ended contracts were "not an answer to their career development needs".

A cultural change is needed if universities are to widen the career options available to their research assistants, the professor said.

Postdocs who take jobs in industry are not perceived as a success, he said. And academics judge their success in training by how many of their former students and assistants are leading research groups in other universities.

"That isn't the way to influence a knowledge-led economy," said Professor Downes. "Academics put out a strong message that success is 'doing what I do'."

The Roberts review of 2002 recommended additional training, mainly in transferable skills, for PhD students and postdoctoral researchers.

Professor Downes' faculty is using Roberts funding to give researchers generic skills training at each stage in their progression from science graduate to principal investigator, he said.

Christopher Buckley of the Arthritis Research Campaign described an "embittered lost tribe" of postdoc researchers.

He compared the situation to that of senior house officer posts in the NHS, where young doctors could languish for years without hope of progression.

"Only one in 20 PhD students will end up running their own laboratories. Should we keep pushing people to fail? If you cannot obtain a fellowship you're not going to get a principal research investigator post," he said.

Andrew Lloyd, dean of the faculty of science and engineering at Brighton University, said his department had progressed from obtaining a two-star rating in the research assessment exercise to a top five-star rating after it made improvements in its support for postdoctoral researchers.

Postdocs are mentored and given support with grant-writing and are considered for "re-deployment" when the funding for their research runs out, he said. The best fellows have been moved into permanent jobs.

Professor Lloyd said that job-share arrangements and flexible working have been introduced, and those who left to have children, for example, will be followed up after five years and invited back.

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