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Most postdocs do not use university careers offices

Postdoctoral students at UK universities need more careers guidance and work experience before they complete their studies, a report published last month by research careers organisation Vitae warns.

What Do Researchers Want to Do? The career intentions of doctoral researchers is based on a 2010 survey of more than 4,500 postdocs at 130 UK universities and research institutes. It found that even in the final stages of their studies, the majority of respondents still had no definite career plans, with only one-third saying they knew exactly what they planned to do next. The report suggests that PhD students overwhelmingly choose to embark on their research out of intellectual curiosity and not for career-related reasons.

“These findings have significant implications when considering the future supply of researchers for a range of employment sectors,” said Ellen Pearce, director of Vitae, in a statement. “Given the undecided state of career thinking for many respondents, it’s clear that the doctoral process is a crucial time for forming views about career opportunities.”

The report found that around one-third of final-year doctoral students had used their institution’s careers service. Of those who had, 75 per cent found it helpful or very helpful. Two-thirds of final-year doctoral students also said that they would have benefitted from using the careers service at some stage during their studies.

“University career services are highly valued by those doctoral researchers who seek advice; more needs to be done to align postgraduates’ aspirations with practical career strategies,” added Pearce.

The report also found that the number of students undertaking work experience varied significantly between disciplines. Most of the respondents in social sciences and education, for example, said they had undertaken work experience related to their studies. But only a minority of students in the biological and physical sciences said the same. Of those respondents who had undertaken work experience, four out of five said it had had an effect on their career plans.

The report recommends that further research should be undertaken to assess the value of a PhD in the labour market to give postgraduate researchers a better idea of the options available to them. It also recommends that institutions develop ways of getting doctoral researchers to engage more with their careers service and promote opportunities for work placements in industry.