Researchers ‘not doing enough’ to explore options outside academia

Just one in 10 researchers has completed an internship away from the academy, a new survey says

September 14, 2015

Many university researchers have unrealistic expectations of a long-term career in academia and are doing little to explore other job options, a survey has found.

Some 77 per cent of researchers who responded to the Careers in Research Online Survey 2015 said they aspired to a career in higher education and 60 per cent expected to achieve it.

But it is “unrealistic” to expect this number of research staff to secure a permanent job in higher education as “insufficient opportunities, at least in the UK, exist”, says the report produced by Vitae, the careers organisation for researchers.

“There are some concerns over whether research staff have realistic aspirations,” said Robin Mellors-Bourne, the report’s co-author and Vitae’s deputy chief executive and director of research and intelligence.

The report was unveiled at the Vitae Research Development International Conference 2015, which was held in Manchester on 8 and 9 September.

It is likely to focus attention on whether more can be done to help the large number of postdoctoral researchers to find good jobs outside academia, rather than existing on a succession of precarious short-term research contracts.

Only 9 per cent of the survey’s 8,964 respondents at 72 institutions – around a quarter of all research staff in the UK – said they had undertaken an internship outside higher education, which would provide valuable experience of other career paths.

However, 44 per cent said they would like to do so, the CROS survey found.

Institutions should also hold “pragmatic discussions” during review meetings about whether individuals were likely to succeed in academia and provide access to information about a wide range of career opportunities, the report recommends.

However, only a small proportion of senior research staff view appraisals and career advice as major parts of their job, according to a separate Vitae report.

The Principal Investigators and Research Leaders Survey 2015, which received responses from 4,316 research leaders at 55 higher education institutions, found that just 20 per cent thought that providing advice on careers outside academia was a very important part of their job and less than a third felt fully confident doing so.

More than half (56 per cent) also felt that they were not recognised by their institution for providing advice on non-academic careers – a rate that fell to 44 per cent for higher education career advice.

In addition, just under 30 per cent of research leaders say conducting appraisals is a very important part of their management activities, raising the issue of whether junior staff are getting a clear-eyed view of their long-term job prospects in the academy.

The PIRLS survey also asked staff about whether their institutions treated staff fairly irrespective of gender. A third of senior female research staff said they did not believe institutions treated women fairly – a figure that fell to 11 per cent for male researchers.

Dr Mellors-Bourne said it was also “a little troubling” that women are more likely to be employed on fixed-term contracts, even when data are controlled for age, subject mix and other factors.

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