Are you a research student or contract researcher thinking ‘what next’? Or a university wanting to do more to help these key people with their career choices? If so, read on.

Much has been written about the challenges encountered by postdoctoral researchers in the UK as they strive to obtain an open-ended academic position (university lecturership). Results from a study reported in 2016 reveal that chief among these is the desire for greater job security, better employment prospects and a permanent or open-ended contract. But there are not sufficient academic posts to accommodate all the postdoctoral researchers who aspire to become a university lecturer. In addition, numbers of research students have grown dramatically over the last 10 years, swelling the numbers of postdoctoral researchers.

Among the conclusions from a Vitae report are that while a large majority of researchers aspire to an academic career, this is because of a lack of knowledge of alternative careers coupled with a culture within academia that a non-academic career is a second choice.

The Numbers

According to a Universities UK report, in 2015/16, there were 98,620 (full-time plus part-time) academic staff (lecturers and above) compared to 48,600 staff (full-time plus part-time) on research only (researcher) contracts.

The traditional route to an open-ended academic post involves obtaining a research studentship to study for a PhD, gaining further research experience as a postdoctoral researcher and then applying for a lecturership.

Data presented in a HEFCE post show that, In the 10 years between 2005/6 and 2014/15, the number of UK and EU-domiciled students entering postgraduate research programmes in England rose by almost 30%. In 2015/16, there were 113,170 research students in the UK and 27,375 research degrees awarded, according to a report from Universities UK.

Vitae supports the professional development of researchers. In 2013 they reported that around 43% of people who graduated with a PhD in 2008 and 2010 obtained a position in higher education. The functions were research only or a combination of research and lecturing/teaching. Three and a-half years following graduation, about 38% of the graduates were employed in these roles.

A Long-Term Challenge

Funding for the majority of postdoctoral researchers is fixed-term because it is linked to delivering a specific research project, typically over 1-3 years. The funder may be a research council or a private company or a charity, for example. But the researcher’s employer is the university, not the funder. At the end of the contract the funding ends, and unless further funding is available, either via another contract or funding to bridge between contracts, so will employment. This situation usually leads to researchers taking a succession of fixed-term contracts, often in different universities and sometimes in different countries. It is not unusual for researchers to work in this way for ten years or more. Such a way of life clearly impacts on personal well-being and finances, as well as life plans.

The Concordat to support the career development of researchers was launched in 2008 and is reviewed every three years. It is an agreement between the funders and employers of researchers, with a focus on those employed on fixed-term contracts. Certainly, universities value and support this group of staff but as their funding is fixed-term the position of the individuals is vulnerable.

Life After Academia

Not surprisingly, the fixed-term nature of postdoctoral researchers and lack of employment prospects and job security leads some of them to leave academic research. In 2016, Vitae published a seminal report of a study concerning the successful transition of postdoctoral researchers to a wide range of positions either outside academia or to non-academic positions within academia.

These people (total of 856 from 24 EU member states) had previously worked as researchers in the EU (including the UK). While 78% had aspired to an academic career while working as a researcher, only 18% still held this aspiration after moving out of academic research. 80% of those who had moved reported that they were happy with their current employment.

It is clear from the report that those considering a move out of academia encountered a lack of support while employed as an academic researcher.

In my opinion, there are a number of things that could be done to remedy the situation. Several of these concern the involvement of non-academic organisations in professional development opportunities for research students and postdoctoral researchers.

For decades research councils have provided some research studentships that require or allow non-academic research user organisations to co-fund the studentship. Such an arrangement involves a research project that addresses an interest or challenge faced by the collaborating organisation. Some universities operate similar collaborative arrangements. Sometimes non-academic organisations fund the entire studentship themselves. It is worth mentioning that UK research councils encourage doctoral students to collaborate with partner organisations as part of their research training, even if the student is not in receipt of a formal collaborative studentship.

As the weighting for research impact case studies has increased from 16% for REF 2014 to 25% for REF 2021, the importance of research users being brought into research projects at as early a stage as possible has also grown.

But the involvement of collaborative organisations in research student training as described above is focused on the research rather than the professional development of the student, including learning about career opportunities other than within academia.

Vitae’s Researcher Development Statement includes ‘professional and career development’ as a sub-domain and ‘career and employment opportunities inside and outside academia’ is listed as part of this. I wonder to what extent research students are able to enact this. Also, how do universities assist?

Some Suggestions

I believe that universities could do more by providing a suite of opportunities for research students (and postdoctoral researchers) to engage with people from non-academic organisations as part of their professional development. Individuals holding a non-research role within academia could also be asked to engage with researchers. Involvement might include:

  • Internships to gain insight into the values, drivers and ways of working of different organisations;
  • Shadowing of staff;
  • Mentoring;
  • Networking events;
  • Problem solving workshops focused on challenges faced outside academia or in non-research roles;
  • Seminars where people from non-academic organisations or those who are self-employed talk about what their job involves, followed by discussion;
  • Buddying with a former researcher who has successfully moved to employment outside academia or a non-research role within academia.

The organisations may include the private, public and voluntary sectors as well as civic organisations and encompass, for example, the NHS, museums, business, charities, government departments and schools as well as self-employed individuals and people within academia who hold non-research roles.

A professional development qualification could be considered for those who have engaged in a specified number or range of activities.

Universities already have a multitude of interactions with non-academic organisations for a wide range of purposes. It should not be difficult to extend some of these collaborations to activities that support the professional development of research students and postdoctoral researchers.

Jenny Ames was employed on a range of fixed-term contracts (1 month-3 years) as a postdoctoral research fellow from 1982-6 and a one-year fixed-term lecturer from 1986-1987. She was on a rolling contract as a lecturer from 1987-1995. From 1995-2017 she was employed on a succession of open-ended contracts as reader, professor and senior manager across five universities in different parts of the UK. Since 2017 she has been Director of Jenny Ames Consulting Ltd.

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Author Jenny Ames

Working with Universities, Businesses and their Stakeholders to benefit Society.

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