Study your opportunities, they may not be to your liking

February 20, 1998

Jobs for the new millennium:Ayala Ochert continues our series with a hard look at the prospects for a research career

After a PhD, what could be more logical than the progression to postdoctoral research? By its very definition, postdoctoral research is what you do after you get your doctorate, and surely a PhD is nothing other than a training for a career in research.

From GCSE levels to A levels, to university and on to a PhD, research may seem like the most natural next step. But with the end of a PhD in sight, it may be the time to stop and think where it is all heading, because for all too many this academic conveyor belt is going nowhere slowly.

In the past two decades, the number of short-term research contracts has tripled while the number of university academic posts has remained static. Now, "the number of people who complete research contracts in any one year is about five times the number of vacancies likely to arise in (established) positions", according to evidence given to the House of Lords select committee on science and technology. For a career with few prospects, contract research has few benefits: long hours, little security, poor status and very low pay - a starting salary of Pounds 14,500 compared with the average graduate starting salary of Pounds 15,500. Ten years and several contracts later, if you cannot get a permanent post, you may find yourself at the top of the contract scale with nowhere to go.

University careers counsellors, such as Neil Harris at University College London, recommend that PhD students consider carefully the decision to take up a first postdoctoral research post. "If you are infinitely flexible, the likelihood of getting an academic post is quite high, especially if you are prepared to go anywhere, like the University of Tashkent," he says.

Consider alternatives, such as working in industry, for a consultancy or even the civil service, all of which traditionally take on people with PhDs. One glimmer of hope comes from the concordat signed by the universities and research councils promising to do more for the career development of contract research staff. But do not hold your breath. Research councils are not about to offer long-term contracts, and universities cannot afford to - the best they can do is to help people out of research altogether.

If you are finishing a PhD and none of this has put you off, you must be ready for your first postdoctoral research job. The first place to look is, of course, The THES and other more specialist publications publications and the Careers Service Unit, which publishes hundreds of posts (http://

Contrary to what many PhD students assume, the process of applying for research jobs is no different from applying for any other type of work. "A lot of PhDs look upon themselves as people who know an awful lot about next to nothing, so they market themselves as the leading expert in (their subject), which is not enough," Harris says.

A job interview is not a viva, so be prepared for more than just the technical questions. Be sure that you identify the range of skills that you have acquired: highlight presentation skills, writing skills, interpersonal skills and teaching skills, all of which will count in your favour.

Once the application forms are off, do not sit back and wait. Networking is as important. Use your supervisor and other academic friends and contacts to tap into the invisible networks of researchers, to find out who is doing what and make yourself known to them. Harris recommends what the Americans call the "information interview" - instead of asking a prospective employer for a job outright, express an interest in what they are doing and ask if you can come and talk about it.

In the end, a short contract might not seem like much of a commitment, but if you just plan to test the water and get out of research later, Harris recommends staying for no more than four years.

"When you are thinking of doing a postdoc at a university, you have to consider the ageist society, how old you are, how old you will be when you finish and whether or not employers will discriminate against you on age," Harris says.

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