Research and rescue: how to make postdoc a career

Warwick v-c tasked with stopping 'smart kids' turning their backs on science tells Zoe Corbyn he 'has form'

August 28, 2008

When Universities Secretary John Denham decided that a review of research careers should be added to the series of reports that he has commissioned to help shape the long-term future of the higher education sector, he turned to Nigel Thrift.

"I have got form, let me put it like that," said Professor Thrift, the vice-chancellor of the University of Warwick, pointing out that his career included lengthy experience as a contract researcher.

The commissioning letter laid out Mr Denham's concern: a "perception" that doctoral and post-doctoral research careers are looking increasingly unattractive to graduates. "I would like to examine whether this is truly the case, understand why this situation exists, and identify what we can do to improve matters," he wrote.

The "perception" is real enough. Comments posted so far on a blog set up to allow people to comment on the reviews include: "The title postdoctoral researcher and career are incompatible" and "one cannot blame young smart kids for choosing something else ... why would one want to work so hard for so little?"

Research careers matter particularly because of their relationship to the economy, Professor Thrift explained, saying: "Quite clearly the UK is dependent on brain power to survive and this depends a good part on getting our research and development capacity right and this means getting research careers right." His basic brief is to help make sure that research careers are attractive enough so that in 20 years' time the UK will still be a world research leader.

Professor Thrift is establishing a "longitudinal profile" starting from when school children first start thinking about their career choices right through to when they become senior scientists.

The aim is not to interfere with the current activities taking place across the sector, which range from the research careers concordat recently launched by Research Councils UK to continuing moves by universities to transfer more researchers on to permanent contracts. "Our job is to find the things that we are not doing at the moment that we could be," he said.

A more holistic way

There are five key areas of focus. The first is what the UK should be doing to attract and retain world-class talent. "There is a lot of competition around the world (for the brightest minds) and I am not sure people fully understand that," said Professor Thrift.

The second is how to improve awareness of research careers. "How many teachers do you know who would stand up in class and (say), 'Why don't you think about going into research?' It is just not something that actually occurs a lot of the time and we need to do something about that."

A third is around making it plain that research careers are not just in academia. "People should be able to switch back and forth between business and industry and academia. (We need to) make sure that there are mechanisms in place to actually attain that," he said.

Another is around what else might be done to improve the post-doctoral experience, something Professor Thrift said the sector still does not seem to be getting right. "We certainly need to look at (it) in a more holistic way than we have up until now ... There are lots of different schemes and we don't exactly know what they add up to."

A final area of focus is whether the widening-participation agenda itself should be "widened" from undergraduates to include masters and doctoral students. "There is a concern that people doing masters and PhDs are disproportionately drawn from particular socio-economic groups. The fear of debt (which impacts on undergraduates) may even be amplified at this level when people already often have debts."

Professor Thrift is reluctant to give too much away about his recommendations - the reviews are all due to report later this year - but one will undoubtedly be around flexibility for researchers to switch back and forth between academe and the private sector. He said that he wants to give people who have left the sector "the option of coming back".

"At the moment (it) would be nigh-on impossible because they would not have the kind of record you need," he said.

He will also be responding to Mr Denham's specific request for advice on whether pay for researchers is enough. "One of the things about research is that the pay is only really one of the rewards on offer (and) people are willing to trade off (lower pay) to a certain (arguable) degree because of the interest of the job." He warned not to expect recommendations that say researchers should get 20 per cent pay rises. No one, he says, would be nutty enough to recommend that.

To have your say on research careers or any of the other areas being covered by the Denham reviews, go to: http://hedebate.jiscinvolve.org

zoe.corbyn@tsleducation.com.

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