Insecure employment for postdoc researchers is leading to bad science
Postdoc researchers like me aren’t considered university employees, even though we’re essential to research. This must change
Behind most of the technological advances we take for granted are brilliant researchers working long hours to complete experiments and advance our understanding. The backbone of this labour is made up of junior university researchers, or postdocs, who suffer poor progression opportunities, low job security and a dependence on their line managers for continued employment. This leads to bad science, bullying and discrimination, while driving a brain drain of our best and brightest away from academic research.
In 2002, a government committee warned of problems with the postdoc working environment and accused universities of failing to address issues that had been known for decades. Unfortunately, little has changed since. There have been attempts to improve the situation for postdocs through a series of “concordats” aimed at improving their career prospects, though these have had limited success given that most researchers remain unaware of their existence. The latest revision is due for publication this year, and this time we desperately need it to kickstart a culture change.
As a postdoc myself, my overriding impression of working in a university is one of indifference. We’re not recognised as members of the university even though, alongside PhD students and technicians, we do the actual research work. Despite the central role we play in delivering research, I’ve seen remarkably little engagement with postdoctoral careers from senior management. We need to be cherished as a valued constituency within the university, and for leaders to invest in us as the future of research.
It’s clear that postdocs need more secure employment than the short-term contracts we’re given at the moment, to incentivise universities to invest in talent management strategies and genuine career pathways. The inability to promote a postdoc, continue to employ them or enable them to transition to a fulfilling career outside the sector should be seen as a red flag of failing management or staff development, not a failure on the part of the individual.
Equally, we need our university employers to be proactive on postdoc wellbeing by tackling the causes – poor employment conditions, toxic culture and bad behaviour – rather than “managing” them after the fact. Universities must wake up to the corrosive effect of bad managers in disrupting the research environment and the quality of research outputs. And equality, diversity and inclusion need to be central to enable all researchers to reach their potential.
Research funders have a role to play, too. They should embrace their role in developing research talent. If we’ve learnt anything from research assessment and changes to tuition fees, it’s that universities respond strongly to financial incentives. To see genuine improvement, funders should be willing to enforce policy change through funding practice and accept that current structures may be working at cross purposes to the development of our research talent.
The final piece of the puzzle is employers. Universities need to engage with them to make sector boundaries more porous and enable researchers to contribute elsewhere in the economy, through developing secondment schemes, industrial placements and ensuring that researcher skills are well recognised.
Not everything is the responsibility of universities. Researchers need to take charge of their careers and realise there is a world outside of academia. But they need to be empowered to do so. Managers must be honest with their employees about the chances of success at an academic career and shouldn’t feel like they’ve failed if their postdocs graduate to roles outside the university system.
Producing, maintaining and growing research talent is essential to innovation in the UK. It makes sense for everyone: investing in postdocs’ careers provides a better return on investment of research funding and will reduce R&D costs for the private sector.
We can build a better system where university research is an attractive career path, and where university researchers are equipped to contribute elsewhere in many meaningful ways. We’ll know we have succeeded when, in 10 years’ time, we open a consultation on revising the researcher concordat and discover that it’s no longer needed.
- Nikolay Ogryzko is a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Edinburgh
By Nikolay Ogryzko