This week’s meeting: are science careers in crisis?

This Thursday (20:10 UK time) Astronomy Journal Club is going to be tackling the thorny issue of the current science career structure. In case you aren’t familiar with the process, generally people who want to work in science in the UK do a PhD (which makes them a Dr.), then have several short-term postodoctoral positions of a 2-3 years each (possibly in several countries) and then get a permanent lectureship. The problem is that there aren’t very many senior positions available, compared to the number of PhDs, and the postdocs opportunities are becoming more limited, meaning, well, job-instability and uncertainty. This diagram from Royal Society report (via The Beautiful Stars) sums things up nicely:

Diagram from "The Scientific Century" by the Royal Society. Their caption reads "This diagram illustrates the transition points in typical academic scientific careers following a PhD and shows the flow of scientifically-trained people into other sectors. It is a simplified snapshot based on recent data from HEFCE, the Research Base Funders Forum and for the Higher Education Statistics Agency's annual Destinations of Leavers from Higher Education (DLHE) survey. It also draws on Vitae's analysis of the DLHE survey. It does not show career breaks or moves back into academic science from other sectors." (Text & diagram taken from

The charity Science is Vital recently held a consultation on this topic. The report they produced, and the recommendations they came up with, will form the basis for this week’s discussion. The full report can be downloaded here and the Executive Summary is reproduced below:

Executive Summary

Science is vital for the UK economy. A healthy scientific career structure, in turn, is crucial to maintain our strong research base, especially in a time of public austerity. Science is Vital, a grassroots campaigning group with the aim of protecting and championing science in the UK, recently conducted a consultation amongst a wide range of scientists in the UK to explore their views on the career structure of the profession.

Nearly 700 respondents, distributed across the spectrum of the scientific career, submitted written evidence – from students and postdocs to principal investigators, department heads, emeritus professors and Fellows of the Royal Society, representing more than 160 institutions across all four nations of the United Kingdom. We found that the top concern of these scientists was the career instability caused by successive fixed-term contracts and the shortage of permanent research positions. Other problems included issues of pay, mobility, balancing work with having a family or relationship, pressure to assess impact, and the fact that in many cases younger scientists are not allowed to facilitate their careers by applying for their own grants.

This exercise uncovered the widespread view that the scientific career structure in the UK is not fit for purpose. If the situation is not improved, we risk seriously undermining our research base and, in turn, imperilling the economy. Clearly, increasing funding for science in the next budget would significantly help ease the pressure. In the meantime, however, drawing from our respondents’ ideas, we have proposed a number of solutions that we would like to see discussed among government, scientists, funding bodies and universities, including:

  • The creation of more permanent research staff positions that are not principal investigators/lab heads
  • More funding earmarked to help bridge the transition from postdoc to independent position
  • More independent fellowships, and the abolition of eligibility criteria that effectively discriminate against older postdocs or those who have followed a non-traditional career path
  • Increased opportunities for postdocs to apply for project grants as the named investigator in their own right
  • The inclusion of early and mid-career researchers in ongoing discussions about the scientific career structure and funding issues
  • Private sector contributions to scientific training
  • Improved career advice for PhD students and postdocs

I have to confess a personal interest in this subject as I am currently in between postdocs, and, like many of my friends and peers, considering my career options. I think this is something we should discuss at every opportunity – if we want things to change (or even if we don’t) we need to let people know. I hope people from other sciences and from outside the UK will also join in on Thursday and give us a wide perspective on this.

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1 Response to This week’s meeting: are science careers in crisis?

  1. Pingback: Review: Are science careers in crisis? | Astronomy Journal Club

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