The career path for scientists and engineers in UK academia is broken. But we knew that already. The recent House of Commons’ Science and Technology Committee’s report on women in STEMM careers (science, technology, engineering, maths and medicine) is just the latest to find issue with the structure of research careers.
Progressing from a Ph.D. to lectureship usually involves a series of short-term contracts in post-doctoral and fellowship positions. This unstable period in people’s careers and personal lives discourages many from continuing in academia and disproportionally affects women. Despite decades of awareness of these problems and their consequences, women still remain under-represented at the top levels of the academic science profession. As Andrew Miller, chair of the House of Commons’ Science and Technology Committee, summarised:
“The system of short term contracts is hugely off-putting for many women scientists… that is why we have called for Government, universities and research councils to review the academic careers structure, so that talented women, and men, can have more stable career pathways.”
These issues have a personal resonance with me as I’ve just gone through the short-term contract experience, and have now stepped off the academic career path. Although unlike many, I remained in the same location since I finished my PhD, I’m now in my fourth position in 4 years and have worked on three-month, six-month and year-long contracts. I can personally attest to how short-term contracts affect employment rights, put strain on relationships, create anxiety over job security and make it difficult to plan for other things, such as house-buying.
This experience of early career research is hardly a new phenomenon, nor a British one, and was highlighted in Baroness Greenfield’s report “SET Fair” in 2002. Little has changed since, and in the latest inquiry Dame Uta Frith admitted that “short-term contracts are probably inevitable in a very competitive situation.” This feeling of inevitability trickles down to the researchers themselves: most of my colleagues are frustrated by but resigned to the early career existence, sentiments that even pervaded last November’s national Research Staff Conference.
But is the situation really inevitable? It’s easy to say so, and it becomes something of a self-fulfilling prophecy. Personally, I don’t buy the argument that because something has always been the way it is means it can’t be changed in the future. The Commons report was criticised for being short on actual policy recommendations, but it did support greater job security for early career researchers. It was also critical about how information on employment rights, such as maternity leave for PhD students and research staff, are poorly communicated from funder, through employers to the researchers themselves.
In my view they could have gone a bit further. Below, I’ve summarised three possible ways the system could be changed for the better (although I’m always conscious of the law of unintended consequences).
-Embed researcher mobility into PhD programmes and research fellowships
Working in more than one institution, and particularly abroad, is highly desirable for anyone wanting to progress in academia. The positives are that travel exposes researchers to new science and new ways of thinking, leads to new collaborations and spreads ideas. At present, the onus is predominantly on the individual themselves, who needs to become mobile either after their undergraduate or postgraduate degree. I know many who have done this, with success, but it puts stress on relationships and becomes even more onerous for those with families.
I would like to see the responsibility for creating a well-travelled workforce put onto the funders and employers themselves. More PhD studentships, research grants and Fellowships should provide options for researchers to work for periods abroad, at other institutions or in industry (much like “Year in Industry/Year Abroad” undergraduate degrees).
Colleagues of mine did study abroad during their PhDs, but only if funding was available or they won a highly competitive scholarship. There are EU research programmes, such as Marie Curie, which build in researcher mobility with students or fellows expected to work at more than one institution. In the UK, Centres of Doctoral Training and Engineering Doctorate programmes are starting to provide similar opportunities to travel or work in industry. To me these types of “secondments” are preferable to the current system- researchers can opt for shorter periods away from home, and there is greater job security provided by the protection of their PhDs.
-No more contracts less than 12 months in length
Post-doctoral contracts are usually tied to the length of research grants, so most will last no more than three years (some up to five). The reality is that many contracts are considerably shorter- I’ve seen adverts for positions as short as four or five months and I myself have worked a six month post-doc position. Not only do short contracts provide no job security, they prevent good science being done as they dissuade talented applicants and force researchers to be looking for the next job almost immediately. RCUK say they want to increase the number of longer post-doctoral positions available- they could insist that they will not support short-term ones as well.
-Better career guidance on academic and non-academic careers
In a recent blog post, Athene Donald describes the naïveté of new PhD students when it comes to considering their careers. When I started a PhD, I was motivated by an interest in science and a like of University life; at that time, I didn’t want to move into industry or another career. I wasn’t really aware of the career progression into academia, nor did I care too much, and I know many of my friends and colleagues thought similar.
Rather than wait until people are writing their Thesis, new PhD students, even late-stage undergraduates interested in research, need to receive mentoring and guidance about academic careers. Not only will this help manage expectations but it will also enable researchers to better plan their careers.
Also important is advice about careers outside academia. By the evidence of a careers’ event we ran at Nottingham last year, there is a huge appetite for information among researchers. Career support for postgraduates and post-docs does exist at Universities, but is less developed than what’s on offer for undergraduates and needs to be improved. Bringing employers into contact with researchers not only helps broaden their awareness of career options, but also breaks down preconceptions on both sides.
In their report “Career out of Control: A Crisis in the UK Science Profession”, Science is Vital exposed the scientific career structure in the UK as “not fit for purpose”, concluding that “if the situation is not improved, we risk seriously undermining our research base and, in turn, imperilling the economy.” Beyond simple economics, there is also an ethical imperative- a system which disproportionally (but not just) puts off women from remaining in academia is a system which simply should not exist. I appreciate that change to the academic career path may not be simple to implement, but I fear the biggest hurdle might be the conservative attitude of the academic community. Perhaps it needs greater leadership from above, in the form of new policies and directives, rather than just leaving it to busy academics. Whichever way people decide to change the system, if they do at all, there is little doubt in my mind that it continues to discourage talented scientists and erode their love for research. If that’s not a motive for change, then I don’t know what is.