'We're overworked and underpaid,' PhDs tell research council

November 26, 2004

Young researchers challenged senior research council figures this week to explain how they were expected to survive job insecurity and insufficient funding, writes Anna Fazackerley.

PhD and postdoctoral students from across the country accepted the first invitation from the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council to quiz its chief executive, Julia Goodfellow, as well as senior academics who work with the council. The event took place on Monday in London.

A number of students voiced fears about what lay ahead of them in career terms - some were having difficulty securing their next job, while others were unhappy about having to move from one short-term contract to another.

One researcher said that postdoctoral researchers were "overworked and underpaid". He asked: "Will there be a time when researchers are rewarded financially for their expertise and labour?"

Professor Goodfellow told delegates: "You have hit on what is a very serious problem."

But she added that if researchers were struggling to find jobs, then there was a mismatch: "People are crying out to recruit trained people in all areas."

Caroline Dean, associate research director at the BBSRC-sponsored John Innes Centre, warned: "The thing with a scientific career is that you have to move around, and that can be difficult personally.

"If you stay in the same place, you will be penalised."

Samuel Caddick has finished the final year of his PhD at the University of East Anglia and is struggling to make ends meet while he writes his thesis.

He said after the meeting: "It's perfectly clear that they have no answers for people in my position. Most PhD students get three years in a lab and that's it. If you need five months to write it up, how do you survive?"

He added: "I haven't come away feeling particularly encouraged about my career prospects. It's just one short-term contract after another. I probably won't stay in science."

David Wyatt , a postdoctoral researcher in Cardiff University's School of Biosciences, fears he will be unemployed when his contract ends in March.

He said: "Increasingly I'm asked by final-year students whether they should do a PhD. I've always said 'yes'. But what do I say now? I feel they should be aware of the insecurity that comes next."

Dr Wyatt has been offered jobs elsewhere in the country - but always with temporary contracts. "It is difficult to uproot your partner for something short term," he said.

Ionna Stavridou , a postdoc in molecular biology at UEA, used the seminar to talk to a representative of GlaxoSmithKline about moving into industry.

She said: "I've been a postdoc for a year, but I want to see if the grass is greener on the other side."

She explained: "My main concern is trying to secure a permanent job - and better money."

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