Are Things Getting Better for Postdocs in Cambridge?

As a recent article in Nature pointed out, housing costs in Cambridge are a significant issue for new recruits to the university. As a city it suffers both from its proximity to London – well within commuter belt, as the busyness of the peak time trains attest – and from sitting at the centre of the thriving Cambridge cluster. It isn’t only the university as an employer that brings numerous early career professionals (not just researchers) to the city. There are many research institutes around the city, as well as the hi-tech cluster (for instance ARM, not to mention all the companies on the various science parks), plus the imminent arrival of Astra Zeneca, all pushing up both house prices and rental costs. Life as a postdoc – or a new staff member – is not easy or cheap.

The University is doing what it can to alleviate some of these problems through the development of the huge North West Cambridge development, now known as Eddington. The first phase is nearing completion and some occupants have already moved in. Eligible key workers from the University (staff at the low end of the payscales and postdocs) are able to apply for accommodation with a rent capped on average at a third of income. So far the University has invested £350 million into this development. In the autumn a new space for the Office of Postdoctoral Affairs  (OPdA) will open; the primary school is already open and currently has an intake of three years of children and, to the delight of Churchill College inhabitants such as myself and others living to the west of the city, finally a supermarket will be opening next month as part of this development. Other elements of infrastructure – such as a hotel and a doctor’s surgery– will be opened in due course. Much more information can be found here: I don’t intend to reiterate public information. The image shows a photo I took of the site from a rather perilous roof (or at least the ladder to the roof was fairly perilous) last autumn, to give an indication of the scale of the enterprise. The site stretches, for those familiar with Cambridge, from the Madingley Road to Huntingdon Road running roughly parallel to the M11, although the northern end will only be completed in later phases.


The commitment to purpose-built space, including workspace, a meeting room and break-out rooms, for the OPdA represents a recognition of the importance of this part of the community to the whole research endeavour across Cambridge. OPdA itself is quite young, only around four years, but offers much to support the enormous community of such researchers working across the city (several thousand). Currently OPdA occupies two sites: in the centre of town and on the ever-expanding Biomedical Campus around Addenbrookes Hospital. The new dedicated space in Eddington will replace the centre-of-town location.

Postdocs, for so long valued (one hopes!) by their supervisors but rarely able (unless home-grown talent) to participate fully in Collegiate Cambridge, are seeing a much more inclusive environment develop. Many colleges, my own included, now offer various forms of postdoctoral membership. Churchill awards around 10 postdoctoral by-fellowships a year, following a fairly simple application process. They allow postdocs full membership of the SCR, entitlement to some free meals at high table, access to sports and music facilities and many opportunities to participate in the academic and social life of the College. Not all take full advantage of this; some, one fears, only want the by-fellowship so that it looks good on their CV. One thing I personally am particularly enjoying is a new series of so-called ‘post-prandial’ talks midway through each term by one of the postdoc by-fellows, to complement fellows’ post-prandial talks at the start and end of each term.

Post-prandial talks can be a bit of an ordeal, as I know from personal experience. As part of the interview process to become Master of Churchill I was required to give such a talk at the end of a long session of meetings across the college site, which had been designed to give me a feel for the college, followed by a high table dinner. (The formal interview came the next morning.) This meant I was expected to make small talk over dinner whilst retaining the strength of mind to decline the wine proffered – which might have helped the nerves but not the diction of my presentation. And then, when everyone else was feeling ‘jolly’ and full of food and alcohol, I needed to maintain their interest through a talk about my research suitable for the expert as well as the novice in my field: that was a challenge I hope I don’t ever have to face up to again. I trust for the postdocs who volunteer to give post-prandial talks the pressure is a great deal less than I faced! Certainly, the ones I’ve heard have been pitched excellently for a general audience even when the talk’s topic may be pretty technical. Speakiing to such an audience – be they fellow Fellows or the general public – is of course a skill to be mastered and valued. In the College the talks are sure to be greeted by extensive, interested (even if perhaps on occasion naïve) questions.

I digress from NW Cambridge, but that’s because I think the way the University and its colleges are moving to support our postdoctoral community is so important. There are other attributes of the new development that I find personally very exciting. I will cover just one. I mentioned a primary school. What is so remarkable about this (about from its innovative circular design) is that it can be used as a testbed for educational research by the University’s Faculty of Education. It is the first Primary level University training school, and as such collaborates with a number of partners in order to contribute to the growing research underpinning primary education. Evidence about what works in education is so important, yet often lacking. The school itself uses research-informed teaching practices and aspires to be a hub of learning for adults as well as children.

Anyone who has visited Cambridge recently will know just how much the city is expanding, and not just on this northwest side. The biomedical campus on the south of the city is growing rapidly, and nearby the new suburb of Great Kneighton seems to be nearing completion between Addenbrookes and Trumpington. I have watched these developments mushroom as I pass by on the train, but have not yet explored the new complex of roads and houses, plus a pond or two no doubt designed to accommodate the drainage from the site. But our infrastructure is creaking. Our roads, our trains, our station – even now Cambridge North has opened – barely cope. It only takes one broken down lorry, or one new hole in the road to be dug, for everything to grind to a halt on the roads. Success has its price in the fens. Cambridge is a wonderful university city, but its achievements mean that it is expensive to live in and not always comfortable – for postdocs or for anyone else.


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2 Responses to Are Things Getting Better for Postdocs in Cambridge?

  1. wadhamite says:

    The college affiliations don’t work well enough for a number of reasons.

    1. The number of ‘slots’ even across all the colleges can only ever cater for a tiny proportion of the post-docs – not all post-docs wishing to be involved can be. The trend for some colleges to make post-docs pay to be affiliated creates a nasty two-tier system even within those managing to gain a college affiliation.

    2. The college affiliations rely on post-docs being on long-ish contracts (such that you will have one or two years left at the specific deadlines, which are all lumped together in the summer). If you’re being bridged from contract to contract, or funded from multiple sources, you can’t apply.

    3. The affiliations are much easier to get if you are already home-grown. Having a PI who is attached to a college, or friends/colleagues who are JRFs, means you get support, advice and the inside line on applications. Many PIs who are not college members themselves have no interest in writing recommendation letters so that PDFs can become involved in something they see as a distraction.

    There is also a nasty tendency for some colleges to use these post-doc affiliations to improve the appearance of gender balance at high table etc, without actually having to open up the fellowship more fully to women, or to ask themselves why their female fellows do not turn up for formal dinners.

    • Whereas it is true the numbers of by-fellowships do not match the number of postdocs, in Churchill we have been surprised by the relatively low numbers who apply. And we certainly don’t charge anything – on the contrary there are quite a lot of entirely free benefits. I only learned recently that some colleges do charge, which does make it a very different kind of relationship.

      Our college favours those applicants who have not previously had a chance to be involved with a college. I suspect some colleges do just allow past members to continue to be involved, but that is not how we use our scheme. We want to make it possible for those from totally outside the system to appreciate what colleges are all about. I am astonished that PIs may not be bothered to write letters of support. As a supervisor it is part of one’s responsibility always to do this for whatever position. And you can be sure we are not playing games with the gender balance this way! I would not tolerate that….

      As for the difficulty of short term contracts, that I do appreciate but logistically it is hard to avoid. For instance we only have one call a year and if people came with only a few months money who then left we would need to do this much more often with the consequent ‘overhead’ of organisation. It may seem brutal but it is at least a step in the right direction. Progress, in my view, is in the right direction even if we are a way off perfection

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