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Challenges faced by postdoctoral researchers in the US and the UK

Sneha Kulkarni | Jan 6, 2015 | 20,460 views
The culture of scientific research particularly affects postdoctoral scientists who are in the most important phase of their academic career

Academic research has become an increasingly competitive field, and a wide range of aspects such as funding structures, publishing prototypes, career prospects, and research management systems impact researchers. The culture of scientific research particularly affects postdoctoral scientists who are in the most important phase of their academic career—a step away from academic independence. Although it is postdocs who drive academic research in many institutions and are the future of academic research, the challenges they face due to fierce competition paired with low job security are often left unaddressed. However, two reports that highlight the problems and condition of postdocs in the US and the UK have been gaining attention of concerned academicians. Some key points from both the reports are presented below:  

The UK report – The culture of scientific research in the UK        

This reportcompiled by Nuffield Council on Bioethics, details the plight of postdocs in the UK. The Council surveyed 970 people involved in research at UK universities and institutions, and held detailed discussions with another 740. While postdocs comprised the majority of the respondents, senior researchers too were part of the survey. Some interesting findings the report are:

  • When asked to describe high-quality scientific research, the most popular word respondents used was “rigorous.” “Legal” (9%), “respectful” (5%) and “reproducible” (1%) were the least used words to describe high quality science.
  • Over 50% of respondents believe the way funding for specific projects and programmes is awarded is having a negative effect. Also, most consider applying for funding (94%) or jobs and promotions (77%) as the most competitive aspects of being a scientific researcher.
  • 58% of scientists said that they were aware of colleagues feeling tempted or under pressure to compromise on research integrity or standards. While 21% of scientists aged 35 or over said they themselves felt this way; strikingly, that figure shot up to one-third for those aged under 35.
  • 54% of survey respondents think the way scientists are assessed for promotion during their career is having a negative or very negative effect on scientists.

The US report – Shaping the Future of Research: a perspective from junior scientists

This report brings to the fore the challenges US postdocs face, and was a write-up of an October seminar held by postdoc researchers in and around Boston, Massachusetts. Some highlights of the report are:

  • Postdocs consistently called themselves “the lost people” and “the invisible people” and the report states that “junior scientists are primarily treated as cheap labor rather than as participants in a well-rounded training program.”
  • There is a complete lack of information on the number of postdocs in the US.
  • The number of graduate students is increasing faster than the number of faculty positions. Moreover, few postdocs and their faculty mentors know what careers are available and what skills those jobs require or how to obtain them.
  • The quality of the scientific results being produced is compromised by the current structure of research funding and execution.

Both reports present the same set of problems postdocs face, namely, lack of knowledge about career options, difficulties in obtaining funding, intense competition that is affecting the quality of science, and few faculty positions.  Apart from spelling the difficulties, the reports also put forth solutions to improve the research environment for postdocs, some of which are listed below:

  • Increased connectivity among junior scientists and other stakeholders should be promoted to encourage discussions on reforming the structure of the scientific enterprise.
  • Increased transparency should be a priority, which includes having clarity about the number of trainees and their career outcomes as well as establishing a balance between employment and training in individual postdoctoral appointments.
  • There should be an increased investment in junior scientists, with increased numbers of grants that provide financial independence from Principal Investigator (PI) research grants, and increased accountability for the quality of training as a requirement of funding approval.
  • Research institutions should cultivate an environment in which ethics is seen as a positive and integral part of research; ensure that the track record of researchers is assessed broadly; and provide mentoring and career advice to researchers throughout their careers.
  • Researchers should engage with funders, publishers and learned societies to maintain a two-way dialogue and contribute to policy-making.

While the challenges faced by postdocs are well known to academia, little has been done to bring about a change in the scenario. There still exists a gap between the expectations of postdocs and the reality. The predicament of the postdocs presented in both the reports point to scientific culture that has failed to adequately support and guide young researchers to meet their goals. To secure the future of academic research, all those involved in the field of scientific research should ensure that they create a culture conducive to high quality, ethical, and valuable research for young researchers.

You might also be interested in reading Stepping out into the world – Career navigation advice for researchers.


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