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.

elizabeth.gibney@tsleducation.com

Reader's comments (2)

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.
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.

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