Thursday, 17 March 2011

Is the career structure for scientific research in universities broken?

Thanks to MRC Policy Watch (Medical Research Council) for drawing a Nature opinion piece to our attention. According to the article the career structure for scientific research in universities is broken. It says the science job market has been tight for decades and this has been compounded by the global recession and accompanying austerity measures. It suggests “professionalising” the postdoctoral role; turning it into a career rather than a scientific stepping stone.

The post-doctoral role is something that seems unique to scientific research in the UK. In any other career structure, once you have left university you are launched onto the job market where if you are successful in finding a job it is, at least theoretically, permanent. If you perform well and your employer is financially successful, you will continue to be employed. If not, your services will be dispensed with in the first instance or you will be made redundant in the second. What happens to you then depends on your abilities and the vagaries of the job market.

Not so in scientific research: once you have your PhD (and another story in finding funding for that) you try and find a team or department that has funding to give you your first post. This may well be with what is called soft funding – ie from a charity such as ours. That will last for three years, and during your third year you have to think about applying for the next round of funding. After a few of these, if you are successful you will be leading your own team and employed by the university and thus have tenure where your job is secure. I am not sure that the concept of tenure exists anywhere else.

This process also discriminates against women who have families. If you take a career break to have a family and then get back on the post-doc soft money road show, review boards may turn you down as you will be older than your contemporaries and they may question why you are not leading your own team by now. I am happy to say that in observing our own Scientific Advisory Board that is not the case, but it does happen.

Our scientific fellowship awards are designed to help the talented investigator make that transition from post-doc award to tenure and we hope that by the time they finish their five year fellowship they are in a position to negotiate tenure. But we can only fund one or two of these a year.

In other European countries the situation is somewhat different and there are defined career structures, but they do not have the level of charity funded research that is found in the UK. We know that the UK punches well above its weight in the global academic research community but at what cost?

I wonder how many talented researchers fall by the wayside because of this system. I think that the author of the piece, Jennifer Rohn, makes a case very eloquently but don’t expect the system to change any time soon.

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