Postdoctoral scientists urged to spread their wings

Postdoctoral research scientists should look elsewhere for fruitful careers as the financially stretched academy increasingly cannot accommodate them, delegates at the British Science Festival heard this week.

September 18, 2010

During a session titled “Standing up for Science” at the festival at Aston University on 16 September, it was suggested that, as those receiving PhDs add to the pool chasing limited funding, early-career researchers should look to industry, which is desperate for good scientists.

Participants at the session highlighted the unprecedented numbers of researchers jockeying for position. It was noted that as competition for resources increases and budgets decline, early-career researchers may feel greater pressure than their more established colleagues, as they pursue the often insecure postdoctoral track of successive short-term contracts.

One delegate, Averil Macdonald, professor of science communication at the University of Reading, questioned the number of researchers applying for academic positions.

“Where industry is calling out for scientists, perhaps they ought to be encouraged to go and find their way there, where the short-term contract is less common,” she said.

Other careers that could prove fruitful avenues included teaching, science communication and publishing, delegates heard. At a time when few MPs have a background in science, politics and the civil service were also highlighted as potential areas to consider.

However, there was also acknowledgement that, having put in the time and effort to complete a PhD, a career in research is a common expectation and that moving out of the academy can be viewed as failure.

Stephen Curry, professor of structural biology at Imperial College London, said he would like to see a shift in attitude.

“Students should think more broadly about what a PhD could prepare them for,” he said. “We should start selling a PhD as higher level education but not one that necessarily points you down a tunnel…We should not see moving out of academia as a failure. We need to see it as a stepping stone, a way of moving forward to something else.”

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