Researchers’ ‘unrealistic’ hopes of academic careers

Fewer than half of those new to research can expect long-term academic careers

September 12, 2013

There is a “significant credibility gap” between researchers’ expectations and the likelihood of their forging long-term careers in higher education, a survey has found.

More than three-quarters of research staff responding to the Careers in Research Online Survey 2013 said they aspired to a career in higher education and around two-thirds said they expected to achieve this.

But it was “unrealistic to expect” that this number of research staff, or even half of those in the early stages of their career, would be able to secure a long-term research role in higher education, says the report, based on the survey produced by Vitae, the careers organisation for researchers.

“Anecdotally we expect that probably fewer than half are, in reality, going to make it into academic careers,” said Robin Mellors-Bourne, director of research and intelligence at Vitae and the report’s co-author.

The report, unveiled at the Vitae Researcher Development International Conference 2013, held in Manchester on 4 and 5 September, is likely to add weight to concerns that more needs to be done to help the large number of postdoctoral researchers, on which academic research relies, find career paths outside the academy.

Dr Mellors-Bourne said the survey – which drew on the views and experiences of 8,216 research staff at 68 UK higher education institutions – reinforced the importance of institutions providing research staff with useful performance reviews as well as access to information on the range of career opportunities available. Although nurturing researchers’ careers was seen as one of the most important roles for academic leaders, it was an area in which they felt least confident and little recognised, he added.

Almost 40 per cent of respondents to the Principal Investigators and Research Leaders Survey 2013, also unveiled at the conference, said they did not feel valued for providing career development advice, he said.

This suggested that although many senior academics want to provide career support “they may not be doing it particularly well or maybe need help in doing it better”, added Dr Mellors-Bourne.

The view that junior academics struggle to access career advice was also found in the results of the Postgraduate Research Experience Survey, published by the Higher Education Academy on 4 September.

Among the 48,401 postgraduate students surveyed, career advice opportunities were found to be “low across all subject areas”, it said. While chances to develop academic research skills were generally widely available, opportunities to develop transferable type skills were more “patchy”, it added.

Commenting on the CROS survey, chair of the Association of Graduate Careers Advisory Services’ Research Staff Task Group, Josie Grindulis, said that in common with other intellectually rewarding professions, a career in research was very competitive but “researchers do not all have a full awareness of quite how competitive [it is]”.

Self-review and appraisals can help with career planning while open provision of information from a range of sources on the realities of academic career options, use of mentoring schemes and access to impartial careers advice and guidance, could help researchers to make realistic plans, she added.

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Reader's comments (6)

I wish an article addressing this important subject had been published when I decided to undertake my PhD studies. I worked really hard and in my Viva I was congratulated by the panel on the quality of my research and passed without corrections. However, I couldn't get a job in any university. I still feel really dissapointed about it (and I finished my PhD in 2000, should move on from those feelings, shouldn't I?) Ana (Oxford)
This article seems to be focussed on postdocs, rather than PhD students. I would suggest the situation is different in Arts and Sciences. In the Sciences there seem to be far more postdoc positions than follow-on academic jobs. In the Arts, the bottleneck comes at the end of the PhD: if you're lucky enough to get a postdoc, you probably have a pretty good chance of getting into academia. I agree that realistic expectations and conversations need to happen at both levels.
Having read this, I do not feel so bad now that my career as a junior lecturer ground to a halt and I was compelled to move into other areas. It seems I only had a 1 in 2 chance of having such a career, especially being in Humanities rather than Sciences, as Rosemary indicates. For a long time I asked myself what I had done wrong, assuming that it was the norm to progress up the academic ladder. Now I see that using my skills in university administration was probably a sensible option rather than hanging on for years in the hope that my academic career would progress. I can sympathise with Ana's story. I do think that the bulk of people taking a PhD assume they will have a career as an academic. It is difficult to shake off that view, especially, as often during your time as a doctoral student you are indeed an academic: doing teaching, attending committees, conferences, etc. In my experience progress as an academic is not connected to the quality of your research, but a whole host of factors, particularly 'being in the right place at the right time' and to some extent who you know rather than what you know. I do not think any of us ever shake off the disappointment of not getting an academic career; it was something I had dreamt of from the age of 8 and I came so close to attaining it. The only consolation is that we had a greater chance of winning through than if we had been actors, artists or writers, vocations in which the bulk of people have to give up and try something else.
I recall filling out such a survey 15 years ago and the prime reason why I checked the box for higher education was that at this point I hadn't thought about career paths at all and it seemed like the default box. Of course most of the people are confident they'll achieve it, but they'd probably be equally confident to achieve something else.
Before I even started my thesis work, everyone advised me not to go into theoretical high energy physics because the chances of getting a job were negligible. It is only through a refusal to be influenced by that fact that I am now tenured and still active in the field thirty years later, not giving up in spite of many years of temporary positions and a tenure denial. Expectations of an academic career may have been unrealistic, but if I had ever acknowledged that, the chances would have been zero. My advice to students is that you have to follow your dream and be willing to do what it takes to make it possible, without thinking too much about the odds or becoming discouraged if the path is more difficult than expected.
I think this article is overly optimistic. I would say the figure is more like about 20% or less. The basic problem is that research requires post-graduates and post-docs working in the labs but what happens to them afterwards is not irrelevant. You are not told that dirty secret and your vanity stops you from working it out for yourself. I am a graduate and PhD of The University of Sydney. After 12 years post-doctoral experience (7 years overseas in Scotland, USA and Canada) and interminable adjunct jobs and a contract lectureship I could not get a job in Australia or overseas (about 300 applications). I had published over 60 papers in international journals when I got a 4 month fellowship to visit Thailand. Afterwards they offered me a job and I accepted it. The pay is low by western standards but I have a lab and students who value me. There are jobs in SE Asia but you have to turn up and ask or better still go there on a fellowship of some sort and if they like you they will offer you a job. They are not advertised. Incidentally, they are only interested in your ability to publish in English so do not worry about languages.

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