Wake up and value the potential of the postdoc

April 20, 2007

Early-career researchers can reinvigorate academe, but only if they are given support and job security, argues Paul Wicks

Professors profess, lecturers lecture, students study and assistants assist. Why, then, are the people responsible for a large proportion of the UK's research efforts (if not the bulk of the coalface work) not called "researchers"? No, we're called "postdocs".

Let's go a little further. Why are we the only employed, professional group defined by having a qualification? True, when you're looking for your first job, hiring committees think of you as a "graduate" or a "school-leaver". In that specific situation I agree "postdoc" is appropriate. But several years into a salaried position you don't call lawyers "post-LLBs" or accountants "post-ACAs". So why don't we postdocs reclaim the word "researcher" as an academic title?

Semantic arguments can often look like academic navel-gazing to outsiders, but this one reflects a broader problem - namely that there is no clear career structure for those whom the higher education sector is starting to refer to as "contract research staff". And here's the thing: I and every postdoc I've met would really like to know our place within the UK's scientific community. I'd like to stand on my own two feet rather than hopping from short-term contract to short-term contract, uprooting my long-suffering partner every time to latch, remora-like, onto a principal investigator who I hope is swimming in the right direction. I don't want to be dependent on fortune to wind up with a good PI who will encourage me to go on training courses, take on management responsibilities and help me apply for my own funding.

So far, I've been fortunate in working for the good guys. But I've come across plenty of colleagues who haven't, caught in an endless cycle of postdoc positions where they're not picking up the skills either to take them to the next level in academe or to make them more attractive to industry. And without those skills they'll always be working on somebody else's money.

That brings me to the elephant in the laboratory. It's fine for PIs to make a bit of consultancy money from industry, but a common view among senior academics seems to be that postdocs should be kept on low salaries collecting precious data at all times. Any course should be relevant to academic research and not wishy-washy stuff such as personal development or career management. After all, if postdocs go on training courses like that they might get the idea that there is worthwhile work outside academe. And this takes us to the biggest problem of all: if there isn't enough money to provide academic jobs for everyone who wants one, why aren't we doing more to prepare qualified researchers for industry?

At undergraduate level, the universities understand full well that their job is to train the UK's workforce to leave and run the Empire. But it feels that after the PhD their goal is to hang on to as many researchers as they can for as long as possible. Given that the odds of those researchers getting a tenured position are slim at best, sticking around is unlikely to be in their best interests. Where, then, are the paid internships with high-tech businesses? Where are the careers fairs for postdoctoral researchers? Where are the careers advisers who know how to answer questions from people who aren't undergraduates?

Until now, we have been isolated and disparate. However, the past few years have seen an increasing number of postdoc organisations springing up at universities, culminating in the recent formation of the National Research Staff Association ( http:///network.nature.com/forum/postdocs ). Like PhD students before us, we now see that the specific subject or field we work in is not an impassable boundary and that we have more in common than we might have realised. While the Roberts agenda has been driving forward improvements in transferable skills and personal development at PhD level, universities are just waking up to the fact that "early-career researchers"

are as vital in powering the UK's knowledge economy. Once the message gets through that being a researcher is a job in itself, not just a stopgap between qualifying and real employment, we can help the nation's best and brightest to achieve much more than just publishing journal articles.

In return for a little structure, support and security, the UK's population of researchers will be reinvigorated to energise academe, industry and the public sector for the benefit of us all. We're up for it if you are.

Paul Wicks is a research psychologist at the Medical Research Council Centre for Neurodegeneration Research at King's College London.

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