Last night I talked at an RSC/IOP event launching a report (Mapping the Future: Physics and Chemistry Researchers’ Experiences and Career Intentions) based on a survey of 776 postdocs. The report illustrates some interesting differences between the cultures experienced in the two different disciplines and also between the sexes’ experiences. However, what is clear is that academia needs to do a better job of supporting some of these postdocs, to make sure they feel valued and are able to develop optimally. I have not yet had a chance to read the full report (only the summary was provided to me in advance), but some of the feelings expressed will undoubtedly tie in with the working experience of life as a postdoc described in a recent NN blog (if I am allowed to mention NN on this site) which indicates the long hours culture so typical of postdoc life in a lab-based subject.
As with the ASSET survey I have written about previously, getting responses from those directly involved is hugely valuable in knowing what is really going on in the population, and the numbers involved are large enough to make conclusions drawn fairly reliable. The first thing that struck me when reading the summary report was how many years some postdocs are willing to stay in that role (I understand the term postdoc was meant explicitly to exclude those on independent fellowships): 19% of male physicists had been postdocs for 7 years or more, contrasted with 7% of female chemists. Are they receiving good career’s advice which makes these men think that if they just stick it out a bit longer a permanent career in academia will transpire? Well, probably not. Careers advice seems distinctly patchy, with only 21% of respondents having taken advice from their institution’s formal careers service during their present contract. More (45%) had obtained advice either from their PI or other academic staff member. However, putting these two bits of quantitative information together makes me worry a PI may be encouraging a postdoc to stick around because they are useful, rather than because it is in the best interests of the postdoc themselves. It will surprise few that some PI’s may be slightly self-serving in this way; the loss of an experienced postdoc can be a real blow to the successful functioning of a team. Of those long term postdocs there are far more men than women, far more physicists than chemists. The former may be explained by women jumping ship because they aren’t happy, but it may also be they are more realistic about career options. The results show that female chemists in particular, who have done more than 1 postdoc, are getting increasingly dubious about pursuing a scientific career, with 60% of them expressing doubt.
Furthermore it is clear that most postdocs know very little about careers outside the academic world: not an astonishing finding if they are predominantly relying on their PI – who almost certainly hasn’t themselves worked outside the university sector – to provide advice. However, blame for not seeking professional advice from the careers service cannot really be laid at the PI’s door. A postdoc needs to take responsibility for their future to a large extent, making sure they get all the facts they can from wherever they can, and making sure the information they get is ‘in the round’ and not just a partial view from their PI who doesn’t want to lose a skilled pair of hands. At this point let me flag up the useful set of guidance notes the Athena Forum drew up to help postdocs work out just what it is they need to know and where they might go to for advice. Postdocs do need not to be passive, but take active control of their lives and the directions these might go in.
Even working on the assumption it is the individual’s responsibility to seek out careers’ advice, the postdocs ought to be given good appraisal and mentoring to help them work out what their strengths and weaknesses are, and what they need to do to improve the latter. By and large they aren’t. More than half the postdocs aren’t getting appraised and of those who were only 1/3 found the process useful. Many felt it was a mere box-ticking exercise. This is shameful. The ASSET survey showed that in general the more senior you are the more likely you are to be appraised, something I feel is quite the wrong way round. We need to help our postdocs work out whether they should be staying in academia or if their talents would be better used elsewhere. We need to encourage the more diffident – often women, but not necessarily – when they may be far more talented than they realise. We need to make sure they know what opportunities are out there, and what gaps they have in their CV’s. And, collectively, it would seem we are failing to do so – or just assuming their PI will cover this comprehensively.
Some of these findings speak to the need for ‘empowerment’ of postdocs, a point stressed by one of the other speakers, Tennie Videler from Vitae, an organisation devoted to
championing the personal, professional and career development of doctoral researchers and research staff in higher education institutions and research institutes.
She particularly stressed something that Vitae have been developing, called the Researcher Developer Framework, which provides a framework within which researchers can think about their strengths and weaknesses, and how they might tackle them to enable them to grow and progress. I had not come across this before, but a quick look at their website shows just what a valuable resource this could be for employee and employer alike.
There are further worrying bits of information this report throws up. For some, the transition from PhD student to Postdoc obviously brings greater responsibilities and a change in attitude from those around, but for no means all. The questionnaire specifically queried whether postdocs felt respected and that they were now treated more like a staff member than a student. More than half the physicists felt they were treated more like staff – both male and female – but the numbers were rather lower for the chemists, notably with less than 40% of the female chemists feeling this. When it comes to feeling respected, again the chemists were less content than the physicists by some considerable margin: 45% of the physicists felt respected and less than 10% felt definitely not respected with little difference between men and women, whereas for the chemists there was both a markedly lower number who overall did feel respected and a higher number who definitely didn’t. Furthermore, the women definitely felt less valued than the men (37% men and 29% women did feel respected amongst the chemists; and 11% men and 16% women did not).
This highlights, as have earlier reports, some clear problems with the culture and working environment in chemistry which seems distinctly less favourable for women than men. The RSC’s own previous report indicated that women in biosciences were less content in chemistry departments than in biochemistry departments; the EPSRC’s 2009 International Review of Chemistry highlighted how women were conspicuously absent from those asked to present to them, as if this was felt to be too risky a strategy. Chemistry, as a discipline, clearly needs to reflect upon its mores and work out why their working patterns are so particularly disadvantageous for women. It can be no coincidence that, despite the percentage of girls starting on chemistry degrees being at least 50% in most university departments, the number of female professors remains depressingly low. This seems to be the discipline where the leaky pipeline leaks most.
Postdoctoral years may be wonderful, a chance to develop independence and autonomy without, for instance, the grind of committees and grant writing. (A large number – 82% of physicists and 63% of chemists – reported being given an opportunity to teach, but one hopes this is at a level of their choosing and not the overload with which many lecturers feel burdened.) So, these years may be fruitful and exciting. But they are also a time of job insecurity and anxiety, as written about so poignantly by my fellow OT blogger Jenny Rohn. Postdocs need to think carefully about how to optimise their opportunities and seek out advice beyond their immediate circle, to ensure they are as well equipped to make decisions about their futures as possible, enabling them to take realistic control of the directions their lives are heading. Equally importantly, PI’s need to assume more responsibility about ensuring postdocs get sensible and constructive advice at each stage of the way. Neither party should be passive in this interaction.