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Give postdocs time to break out of the two-track career system

Early-career researchers with fellowships have an advantage over those working on someone else’s grant. All should get a chance to build their own programmes, says Tom McLeish.

Chairing interview panels for early-career permanent academic positions is exciting but painful. For every candidate we delight there are three or four who have to receive heavy disappointment, and must recover their hopes for another day.

In scientific subjects, and increasingly in others, any candidate applying for a first lectureship will have had some years of postdoctoral experience. This time can be extremely valuable, allowing early-career researchers to gain expertise in different techniques, experience a variety of research environments and develop their own questions and programme.

One recent panel, however, gave me a stark reminder of how the funding system produces postdoctoral experiences of very different kinds. One candidate had, a few years before, won a five-year fellowship supporting her own research. She had identified and joined the group ideally suited to her questions, bringing a grant that covered her salary, travel, consumables and more. 

She had supervised a number of undergraduate projects in support of her work, and modified her intentions in the light of results. A visit to an overseas laboratory had been the first step towards a constructive collaboration. A little teaching experience had added to her CV and meant that she was able to answer questions on how to engage students.

A second candidate had spent an equal amount of time as a postdoc. His publication list was as long as the first candidate’s, and the mix of research groups was similar. But on deeper probing, their two experiences diverged at every point.

Because he had been employed on a series of grants held by established investigators, he had not, unlike the fellowship holder, been able to conceive and design his own research programme. There was variety but not coherence; and opportunities for innovation were far more limited. His bosses’ insistence on prioritising grant deliverables had prevented him from following up promising sidelines or gaining teaching experience.

We have, in other words, produced a two-track postdoc community. Personal fellowship holders can present themselves with a record, not only of publications, but significant grant capture, together with experience of designing and formulating a research programme. Most are already enjoying the freedom of an academic position, making them a natural fit for another one.

Their colleagues who have been employed on the grants of others typically have none of this to show. They cannot demonstrate innovative and creative scientific thinking to the same degree. They might have completed their PhDs on an equal footing, but four years later things look rather different.

No one would wish to restrict the growth in personal fellowships for early-career researchers. These are some of the UK’s (and the European Union’s) best research investments, launching many highly fruitful careers.

But something can and must be done about the conditions of grant-funded postdocs. It’s not difficult, and in many cases good practice is already prevailing. At the landmark conference on research culture held at the Royal Society in London in October, several investigators and postdocs spoke of how a supportive framework can transform the early-career research experience.

I have urged the research councils, under the banner of UK Research and Innovation, and other funders to insist that all postdocs should spend 20 per cent of their time on their own research ideas, with support for appropriate travel and consumables. These could be connected to the main grant or develop quite distinct lines of enquiry, but they should be conceived and guided independently of the grant holder.

The draft Concordat to Support the Career Development of Researchers, currently out for consultation, makes a similar proposal. Universities should get behind it, creating an environment for early-career researchers that recognises their evolving responsibility and seniority. All postdocs need the space to innovate and spread their wings.

I can already hear principal investigators objecting that this would mean less time for core research. Some would also complain that it would distract from their own programmes and that—with funding already hard enough to come by—it is a luxury they can’t afford.

But hard research problems are not solved in proportion to the time spent trying to crack them. They are resolved by creative thinking, which is most likely to spring from a mind that feels free and adventurous.

I would be surprised if a 20 per cent gift of time to all postdoctoral researchers did not return at least a two-fold benefit to their core programmes in terms of creative thinking. And in any case, which is of greater value at the end of a research grant: the papers or the person?

Tom McLeish is professor of natural philosophy in the department of physics at the University of York.

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This article also appeared in Research Fortnight