What's up postdoc?

July 23, 1999

A survey shows that physics PhDs on short-term contracts get a raw deal. Alison Goddard reports

Career Paths of Physics Postdoctoral Research Staff is published by the

Institute of Physics. Postdocs are becoming trapped in an underclass of university researchers on short-term contracts by unrealistic expectations of a permanent post and inadequate careers guidance, according to a survey published by the Institute of Physics last week.

Three-fifths of postdoctoral contract researchers in university physics departments do the job because they want a permanent academic post. But less than one-fifth will get one, the survey found.

To make matters worse, at least three-quarters of postdocs are not receiving proper careers guidance from universities. Only one in four postdocs working in 29 universities could cite any examples of training and career development initiatives at their institution, and they did not always rate these highly. Half said that their university operated no training or career development initiatives, and the remainder were unaware of any such projects.

"The fact that so many respondents entered postdoctoral research posts primarily with the objective of securing a permanent faculty post, an objective only likely to be realised by a minority, highlights the need for proper management of expectations and good careers advice for postdocs," said Phil Diamond, higher education manager for the Institute of Physics.

The study, by DTZ Pieda Consulting, focused on 448 people who had started their first postdoctoral research job between 1988 and 1993; a further 181 who started between 1994 and 1995, and 55 who started from 1996 onwards also responded to the survey.

About a third of respondents had spent up to three years as postdocs, 40 per cent had spent between four and six years in such positions, and nearly 30 per cent had been in contract research work for more than six years.

The findings come more than three years after the concordat on contract research staff career management was drawn up to tackle exactly this problem, and 18 months after it was agreed by 11 bodies including the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals and the research councils.

The concordat specifies that: contract research posts should provide opportunities for training and continuing professional development; systems should be in place to supervise contract researchers and review their progress; the terms and conditions of service should be the same for contract researchers as for other staff; and contract research staff should have access to assistance with career planning.

"The pace of implementation of the concordat is nowhere near as fast as it should be," said Tom Wilson, head of the university section at Natfhe, the lecturers' union.

"This survey indicates the need for much more backing to be given to the concordat and the research careers initiative. We have been arguing that everything in the garden is not rosy and that postdocs need advice. This survey shows that it is not just a few bad apples that fail to provide careers guidance.

"Vice-chancellors, personnel directors, careers advisers and heads of departments that employ postdocs need to sit down together and hammer out a policy setting out the job opportunities and careers advice given to all postdocs. It is not difficult, it just requires a bit of willpower but this has got to come from the top," he said.

"We want to see career development structures in place for these postdocs," said Ewan Gillon, education policy researcher for the Association of University Teachers.

The report stated: "Given the existence of the concordat, which institutions should now be implementing, the survey findings are of some concern. Many of the good practice career development initiatives cited by respondents seem to be operated by Scottish universities, suggesting that they have forged ahead to a greater extent than universities elsewhere in implementing the concordat."

The postdocs interviewed also had some suggestions for improving their lot. Many argued that postdocs should be allowed to apply for research grants in their own right and that money should be earmarked for this purpose.

Other suggestions included: explicit career progression within postdoc grades; providing opportunities to acquire generic skills in information technology; specifying time to be set aside for training; and using performance reviews.

There is some good news for physics postdocs, however. The survey found essentially full employment among individuals who had spent time as physics postdocs.

And, with hindsight, 65 per cent of respondents said that they would do it all again.

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