David Willetts and the Round Table

Last week, fellow OT blogger Jenny Rohn and I were among the attendees at the roundtable discussion headed up by Paul Nurse (President of the Royal Society) and David Willetts (Minister of State for Universities and Science), held at the Royal Society. The basis for the discussion was the postdoctoral career path. Questions posed up front included:

Is the career ‘pyramid’ the right shape and are there genuinely satisfactory mid-career options?
• Do postdocs get the right advice and is enough done to prepare them for a life outside academia?
• What can be done about job insecurity, and more specifically the impact this has on women?
• How should PhD’s and postdoctoral research be funded and what is the correct duration of each in a career trajectory?

I think it would be fair to say none of these was answered, unsurprisingly, but the very fact that the discussion happened at all is encouraging, and I was certainly left with the impression there will be a follow-up of some sort. Some comments from four of the participants are being posted on the Royal Society website here, myself and Jenny Rohn included, and Jenny is posting her own more extensive thoughts on her own blog. Here is my personal take on things, which builds on the various previous discussions on my blog and others, links to the main ones of which I have collated at the bottom for ease of reference.

The attendees at this meeting extended beyond academia and beyond the sciences; problems are clearly not confined to those postdocs working in science. The discussion itself also encompassed training aspects for PhDs, where some issues overlap, although clearly not all. It’s impossible to capture the whole conversation, but there were some striking turns of phrase which may give an indication of the sense of some of it.

Engine room of science is youth;
• Cultural and ecosystem issues;
• Need to empower postdocs to ask the right questions;
• Serial uncertainty versus narrowness of research field;
• Unsustainable system;
• Management of human capital;
• Discipline-to-discipline variations.

Although much of the previous discussion on Occam’s Typewriter on the topic has concerned what happens to senior postdocs, this wasn’t where the meat of the roundtable’s debate lay. From the very beginning it was pointed out that the phrase ‘the leaky pipeline’ is used in a derogatory way and that this is inappropriate as a way to describe people who leave academic science. I agree that people who leave for good reason – such as they find either that they are not sufficiently good at it to want to continue, or that something else appeals to them more – should not see this as a negative. To me the leaky pipeline, particularly in the context of women, describes the situation where people leave for bad reasons – they don’t feel integrated or like the culture, they can’t see a way of combining their career progression with having a family or they are actively discouraged despite their excellence – so it remains a negative. Nevertheless, as I‘ve argued before, the act of leaving academia after one or two postdocs should not necessarily be seen as ‘waste’. It should on the contrary be seen as taking the skills a science education and training have provided and using them in the big bad world outside academia (and, I presume, this is equally true for other disciplines of which I have no experience). The trouble is, academics in general, the line managers of these postdocs, are the least well-placed people to provide advice about this world, having in all likelihood not stirred far beyond the walls of academe. So, what can be done to ensure postdocs are well informed? How can academia collectively best make sure that each successive generation knows what sort of jobs their skills are well-suited to and where to go to for disinterested advice?

I will return to that second point in a moment, but let me start by focussing on the first: making sure the early career researcher knows something about the world beyond the university lab-bench (which should be taken also to include the computer or desk for theoreticians). A number of people were in favour of internships of some sort or other, largely focussing on industrial experience. It was pointed out that large companies are much better placed than small to give a thorough grounding, simply because there are so many more people available, more opportunities for exposure to different skills and questions, and more logistics in place to ensure a high quality experience. But, whether the company be large or small, there is still the danger that an actual piece of research, particularly if it turns out to be useful, may fall foul of IP issues preventing publication or inclusion in a thesis. Little was said in detail about other sorts of placement, although both policy and teaching got mentioned in passing. This is a shame because both (not to mention many other fields) offer all kinds of exciting opportunities and, let us not forget, the UK needs more specialist science teachers – of physics in particular. Any such sort of placement away from their home base formally and explicitly introduced into a postdoc’s terms of employment would represent a real departure from current practice and could only happen if appropriate funding mechanisms were introduced.

As for whom to turn to for advice, this can turn into a potential conflict of interest on the part of the PI supervising a postdoc. If the postdoc has high-level skills, they may be seen as a key person in the lab, useful for training incoming students and generally keeping an eye on things while the PI gads around the world or sits on too many committees. The PI may not wish to encourage the PI to consider alternative options. Instead they may wish to keep such people on to increase the flow of top notch papers and facilitate the overall team management, and at first glance it may look like a win-win situation. However, it is far from clear to me that this is so. Is it actually good for career development? Maybe yes, particularly for a short time, and it may look like good job security for the postdoc and so attractive. But what about the longer term? It was additionally said that such a position – what might be deemed a staff scientist position and something that both Jenny Rohn and Tom Hartley have argued in favour of in their earlier posts – can lead to stagnation and staleness. Furthermore, at some point where is the progression anymore? So, on balance there was little support to make such posts widely available, attractive though they might initially seem, a position with which I concur, at least with structures and funding as they are now.

The PI, rather than wishing to keep good people around him or her, doing useful stuff to further their own career, needs to step back and be more altruistic. This is where the ‘management of human capital’ phrase I cited above comes in. Maybe, for a while, provision of a safe berth while a particular individual expands their skills and gets the opportunity to produce some key papers simultaneously with training the next generation, is beneficial to the postdoc. But at all times the PI should be thinking, do I need to push this person out so they can make their own mark as individuals, not under my wing or guidance? How can they demonstrate independence and innovation? And, if the person is less than stellar – but still undoubtedly a real boon to have around – then they need to be encouraged to explore a wider range of options and not just sit tight until the money finally dries up.

At the end there were various suggestions that might be worthy of further thought:

  • Production of a’ key information set’ for postdocs, of questions they should ask, places they should go to for information and of alternative career options and routes they might explore;
  • A rule of ‘7 years and you’re out’;
  • A mechanism to shift the average age at which people find they have to leave the pipeline earlier (see the current situation in Fig 1.6 of The Scientific Century Report);
  • Modification of employment contracts to spell out explicit mechanisms or actions to ensure a broader range of transferable skills are acquired. In turn this requires funders to work out how this would be paid for (eg who would cover the costs of 3 month placements);
  • Reconsideration of the Researchers’ Concordat to see if it is working and if not why not.

In order to move things forward there will clearly have to be significant cultural changes, with changes to the mindsets and expectations of PI’s and postdocs alike. There is also likely to have to be rather significant changes to the funding landscape. These are big asks. Cultural changes will not happen overnight and postdocs should not expect instant transformation in their working life or security. Unfortunately.

Relevant links:


http://www.doc.ic.ac.uk/~mvalstar/page1/page2/page2.html A personal view of the original RI debate from an attendeed

http://poddelusion.co.uk/blog/2011/05/26/science-careers-has-the-science-establishment-let-down-young-researchers/ podcast of the RI debate
http://www.nature.com/news/2011/110302/full/471007a.html Jenny in Nature: Give postdocs a career, not empty promises





Useful statistics can also be found in various reports from Vitae:






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12 Responses to David Willetts and the Round Table

  1. thanks for the nice wrap-up, Athene.

    Just one comment, on this: “It was additionally said that such a position – what might be deemed a staff scientist position and something that both Jenny Rohn and Tom Hartley have argued in favour of in their earlier posts – can lead to stagnation and staleness. Furthermore, at some point where is the progression anymore?”

    You could say the same thing about a professor, but nobody seems to worry too much about them stagnating or not having a higher research-related role to which they progress to. (I’m not saying professors don’t also stagnate on occasion, but the point is that we don’t seem to have the same expectations with the two roles – we expect the former to stagnate by default, but the latter is seen as a rare outcome. Why?)

    • Jenny:
      Thanks. I think there is a key difference which makes it easier for a professor, or indeed lecturer, not to stagnate. That is, that they can change what they do if so motivated. That might be to change research field; it might be to decide to become an admissions tutor or shift the balance from research to administration or outreach. But as I understand a staff scientist role, they would be expected to fulfill a role imposed upon them by the PI and that might well mean training generation after generation of incoming students on some sophisticated piece of equipment, or carrying out multiple screenings. These are, as I understand what you have in mind, the people who have not succeeded in getting independent funding and so will not be able to follow their own ideas. This is why I worry they will get stale and not progress, because there is no push nor real motivation.
      It need not happen, particularly if they have a PI who understands the ‘human capital’ argument, but it is largely out of their hands what development opportunities come their way. As was said, I think in response to an earlier post of yours, look at other countries where such posts exists and stagnation undoubtedly occurs. I am sure this is what speakers at the meeting had in their minds. Maybe in an ideal world there are ways around it, but you’ll have to convince me what model you have in mind that would avoid that possibility.
      A stale professor, one assumes, will be assigned other work/chores by a sensible head of department. That undoubtedly happens (not very often), and there are plenty of such tasks they can be pushed into if they lose their mojo for research. If they merely find they have come up against a brick wall they should be able to pick up new directions of research.

  2. The staff scientists I’ve known and particularly admire have some autonomy and freedom of direct and their interests evolve with the project. They author their own papers and supervise students. There are some amazing people like this in the States especially. I think it all depends on what they are allowed to become. If the role is senior, and allowed some supervison and freedom, they can become great assets to their labs and even their departments, and at the same time the role is challenging and variable.

    I guess the bottom line is this: If you give someone a boring job description, they can get bored. But if you trust them and give them a challenging and wider remit, they can truly flourish. I’ve seen it and it can work.

  3. Jenny Koenig says:

    This is encouraging stuff! I think the point you make about the conflict of interest for the PI advising the post-doc is a really important one and it’s good to see it spoken about openly. Through CamAWISE I’ve met many women scientists who say that they have to take a day off as holiday in order to attend a training course because they don’t dare to ask their PI particularly when the training course would be to help them think about alternatives or gain additional skills to help them make the jump out of academia.

    How often is the ability to manage human capital considered when selecting PI’s? I get the impression it is really just research grant income and publication list.

  4. Jenny, the answer to your last question must surely be ‘never’. Or am I just cynical?

    To be fair, some PIs are pretty good at the development aspect, but in my long career I’ve also received some really subjective, lousy advice that was clearly designed to lead to outcomes glorifying the PI’s empire rather than helping my career. Fortunately I’ve been able to see through these and seek advice elsewhere in those cases. But that shouldn’t be necessary.

    By the way, I’ve noticed that in the years since the Wellcome Trust awarded me their Career Re-Entry Fellowship, they’ve added a new requirement – that all CRFs have a designated ‘mentor’ who’s not in the same department. I think that’s a great idea.

  5. Jenny R
    Not everyone is probably as smart and experienced as you at seeing through honeyed words, and it is easy for junior researchers to believe messages if wrapped up in charm even if only in the best interests of a PI unfortunately. I have said before how important I think appraisals – as well as mentoring – are for postdocs, and these should be done not by line managers, equivalent to what you say about a mentor from anothe department. Unfortunately the evidence from ASSET is that postdocs are less likely to get appraised than professors! Makes no sense.

    Jenny K
    Academics are judged on many things, including teaching skills which may show up the truly narcissistic, but people management is only judged in so far as applicants’ previous research supervision is noted. Not the same thing.

  6. Andy Parnell says:

    Dear Athene,
    I really disagree with putting a time limit on a research career as this will apply even more pressure on people to be successful in that limited time period. I think the majority of postdocs feel under huge pressure to succeed and are working really hard. Also the argument that postdoctoral researchers will stagnate seems like an assumption as currently there are no researchers employed on such a model to judge their dynamism. Yet you seem to make allowances for lecturers who change from research focused activities to other duites that are not research related. We need to compare like with like, and I imagine that there are research dormant lecturers in most university departments.

    I have benefited in my short career so far from having the backup and support from highly experienced and motivated postdocs with many years of experience that has provided continuity. By this I mean essential knowledge and skills that have been passed down without the need to re-learn essential skills. If we move to a new system I would argue that 4 of my main collaborators who are all now lecturers would have been booted out long before they attained a position. Also their skills and experience would have been lost from the group and Sheffield University.

    • Andy
      The 7 year suggestion was one tossed out near the end of the meeting and was not discussed in any detail. I am merely trying to report the content of the meeting, not advocate this as a ‘solution’. However, if there is to be a shake-up of the system a lot of ideas are going to have to be put on the table, some of which may seem unpalatable to one group or another. On Jenny’s post and comments she stresses we don’t even know what it was meant to be 7 years from – PhD or start of postdocs. So, I wouldn’t start worrying yet!

      Although there are few ‘staff scientists’ posts in the UK, other systems have far more. So it isn’t true to say the comments are merely an ‘assumption’. Some of the speakers had first-hand knowledge of what happens abroad and expressed their views on these systems. Furthermore, I’m not sure what you mean by comparing like with like. Lecturers have 3 strands to their jobs considered when coming to promotion: research, teaching and ‘general contribution’ which usually means admin or management tasks of some kind. So, if someone’s research goes dormant they can put more effort into teaching or other tasks and are still able to make a valued, indeed central, contribution. However I would anyhow argue the RAE over the years has caused most ‘dormant’ lecturers to exit.

      Finally, I understand your passionate defence of long term postdocs, and indeed know some of the team who you feel have supported you over the years and then progressed to lectureships. However, for the collective good of both your generation and those to come, it is clearly not a bad thing to have this debate. Don’t blame the messenger for relating what happened this week!

      • Alan Dunbar says:

        Hi Athene,

        I am glad to hear that the debate on the long term prospects for postdocs is beginning to get some attention. This is something that I feel is long overdue some attention. I would like to make a couple of points:

        When discussing the stagnation (or not) of postdocs I think that it is very important to remember that the opportunities open to postdocs are very much more restricted than those open to academics. There are only a few highly competitive funding schemes which allow postdocs to bring in their own money, unlike academics who can apply to a great many more sources of funding. It is therefore much more difficult for a postdoc to control his or her own destiny. It is this empowerment through having some control of ones future that helps prevents stagnation. Also, I don’t think short term contracts necessarily prevent stagnation, I think it is just as likely for a postdoc to become disillusioned on a short term contract as in a fixed position – it comes down to the personality of the individual. Admittedly, the problem may go away quicker with a short contract, but the chances are, if you look at the big picture the problem will just pop up somewhere else.

        The other big concern that I have is the lack of continuity of knowledge of how to use equipment, analyze data etc… that is lost because the people in the lab doing the research i.e. postdocs and PhD students change every 3 years. What other industry replaces all its hands on staff every 3 years thereby loosing all expertise built up?

        I know from my experience that it takes about 6 months to find out how things work in a different lab and become fully productive in a new postdoc position and often the last 6 months are mostly focused on finding the next job. So for a 2yr position 50% of a postdoc’s time is often at below optimal productivity in terms of research publications.

        In my experience the most productive research groups are those that can retain good postdocs for a sustained period. Very few academics have the time to go into the lab and do their own hands on research, some might find the time to do some supervision of students (in this context I mean show them how to use equipment, analyze data etc…), but most academics primarily manage research from their office relying on their postdocs to fill in the gaps, often without enough recognition for their efforts. I accept that not all postdocs are sufficiently community spirited to take on this ‘extra’ responsibility but the vast majority are.

        Most UK research labs no longer have enough (if any) technicians. As a result it is again left to postdocs to fulfill the role of keeping the lab well stocked, maintaining equipment etc… as well. So to assume that a postdoc who is not publishing lots of research is therefore not fulfilling any useful role is unfair.

        Therefore, I would propose that one solution might be some sort of two tier system. This would incorporate something like the existing postdoc positions which allow younger researchers to move around and explore new areas and opportunities. These short term positions should be complimented by continuing employment positions for more senior postdocs which permit them to apply for their own funding, and in doing so ensure their continued employment and motivation to do the research. Furthermore, most universities automatically increment the salaries of staff regardless of performance, (thereby in effect rewarding stagnant workers), if however, pay increments were performance linked then high productivity would be rewarded and stagnation penalized. If set up correctly this would provide a clearer career path for researchers at all levels and therefore help maintain their motivation.

        I suspect that many of today’s senior academics who I probably experienced a very different set of circumstances, when the number of postdoc positions better matched the number of academic positions available, and therefore got promoted more quickly during their early career development don’t fully appreciate just how distracting it is to deal with the usual trials of life (buying a house, marriage, kids etc..) whilst not having any certainty about ones future employment and/or location. I think that by looking after our research staff a little bit better it would be possible to improve upon our our research productivity overall – after all they are the ones doing most of the research!!



        PS. I think a 7 year limit is a crazy and unfeasible idea for many reasons, most of all, how can you deny someone the right to make a living in their area of expertise on the basis that they have been doing so for too long already? This sound like career euthanasia to me.

  7. Alan
    Thanks for your thoughtful response. You cover a lot of ground, but suspect you are conflating two ideas implicitly. The postdoc who can apply for funds of their own is basically a research fellow. There are plenty of schemes for these and even from fairly soon after a PhD finishes. I would see these as a sort of ‘tenure track’. The postdoc who is a PI’s right hand man or woman is a different sort of person, in that they are in essence there to facilitate the PIs programme and not go off and do their own thing – this is what I mean by a staff scientist. That they can’t go off and do their own thing is precisely why they are liable to stagnate. It isn’t the idea of a postdoc per se that could lead to stagnation, it is the fact that they are specifically (as I said in my post) not really progressing because that is not the role they are being employed for.

    I feel strongly there is an element of false nostalgia in how some of your generation think the older generations (such as my own) lived. The numbers who even got to stay on to do a PhD back then were tiny; getting a 1st from Cambridge for me was no guarantee of a PhD position. If the Royal Society hadn’t created URF’s at just the right time for me, I would have brain drained to the US. The lack of any permanent positions coming on the market (due to the age distribution arising from the big expansion in the university sector in the ’60s) was exactly why these fellowships were created. It was not a golden age, it was still fiercely competitive, even if the total numbers involved were much smaller.

    So don’t kid yourself we had it easy and your generation has it hard. Job insecurity was no better back then, nor was the availability of postdoc positions, however short term. Nevertheless there is no doubt the system now is family unfriendly and generally difficult. I hope discussions will continue at high level to help to resolve some of the issues, but there will be no quick fix I’m afraid.

    • Alan Dunbar says:

      Hi Athene,

      Sorry for the delay in responding, 2nd year labs amongst other things are much like the tide and will wait for no-one. Just when one tide has passed another comes along the following week.

      I like to think I am not kidding myself, although I am almost certainly biased in my opinion. The point I was trying to make was that the career paths of young researchers now are very different to what they were. Indeed I agree that in the past to get a PhD position was much more difficult. Only a select few succeeded, but this few was better matched to the number of future career opportunities that lay ahead. The rest were forced to find something else to do with their lives at an earlier stage when the industrial sector knew what they were getting – a fresh graduate.

      This more difficult career path in many ways seems a fairer one to me than today’s route to academia. Nowadays it is relatively easy to get a PhD and likewise a first PDRA position, and before you know it you have a large number of PDRAs who are on their 3rd, 4th, 5th contract and have a fairly small number of permanent positions available to apply for. Expectation is built up and not met. In that position a few years ago I felt I didn’t speak the same language as industry and as such found it difficult to get a job outside academia that made use of my experience and many industries didn’t seem to understand what I could offer them. I felt very stuck, not exactly in a rut as I enjoyed the work, but more in limbo, my career and life on hold awaiting positive a positive judgment from one of my many job applications. It is difficult to settle down and buy a house, get married etc… when you have to (or think you might have to) move location every few years to pay the bills. As you know, I got lucky.
      Likewise, most PDRAs will eventually find something more permanent somewhere, but that lack of certainty over such a prolonged period can really get on your goat.

      Maybe some/more interaction between PDRAs and industry is part of the answer. PDRAs might learn how to communicate their worth to industry more effectively and industry might learn what they can offer.



      • Alan, one issue that was discussed at the meeting was the possibility of severely limiting the number of PhD places so that the pyramid starts off with a much narrower base. However, that has all kinds of consequences intended and probably unintended, and there is a feeling that for many jobs and in many fields (though probably not all), a PhD is now the entry qualification. This would include many industries. But surely the answer has to be to put more effort into discouraging so many people going on into sequential postdoc positions without due consideration of the implicatons. That may indeed mean more postdocs being exposed to industry, but it isn’t just science industry in a narrow sense that should be considered, but a much broader swathe of potential employers. I think you sound as if you are overly restricting the opportunities for scientists to move into diverse fields. Skills learnt are not only the obvious practical skills, but the whole mindset of critical analysis, problem solving and so on.

        I reiterate, though, even in my day with its more restricted numbers entering there were very few jobs in the years post the 1960s expansion, and precious little job security unless and until a rare faculty opening occurred.

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