British PhD-qualified scientists are amongst the most productive in the world, so why are so many being forced out of scientific research by an unstable career structure?

What you want, baby I got it.

Bis_report_output_per_researcher

UK researchers produce more output (citations, articles etc.) for less money (GERD) than anyone else. Source: BIS Report.

What you need – you know that I’ve got it.

Scientific_century_productivity

With 1% of world population, we kick scientific butt all over the world. It would be like Team GB getting 14% of the gold medals at the Olympics. Every time. Source: Royal Society.

All I’m asking for, is a little respect.

Rs_career_structure

Only around 20% of those involved in generating this international success can look forward to a long-term career in scientific research, and only 3.5% will remain in academia. All the others work on a series of short-term contracts until they either leave research altogether (~80%) or move into industry (~17%). That curvy “Dad’s Army” style arrow is a particular concern – people leaving science altogether after often extended and productive postdoctoral careers. There’s nowhere else for them to go. Source: Royal Society.

Huh?

The vast majority of the UK’s highly productive PhD-qualified scientists are working on short-term contracts and will ultimately leave scientific research. Being employed on a succession of short-term contracts makes it difficult to establish a settled family life and often requires scientists to relocate or emigrate. Only a very small proportion of PhD-qualified scientists ever find stable long-term employment in research (about 17% in industry, and around 3.5% in academia according to the Royal Society).

This is a problem. Each year, experienced, capable productive people are driven out of science by the pressures that result from career instability. Highly specialised skills, developed over many years are lost to the research community while new researchers are constantly being trained to fill their shoes. Meanwhile over half of newly qualified PhDs leave science immediately. It is a crazy and wasteful way to fund science, and all we’re asking for is a little respect: better careers advice for junior scientists, better targetting of PhD funding, and a more balanced career-structure with more stable mid-career positions so that productive scientists aren’t forced out of the lab and have the solid foundations they need to establish families and live settled lives by their 30s and 40s.

“Researchers should be able to have useful and fulfilling academic careers without becoming professors, as well as careers beyond academia. That is why I recognise the issue of – shall we say – a pyramid in HE with a very broad base and a very narrow tip.” David Willetts.

Amen to that. Sometimes people moan about others with a “sense of entitlement”. We all know – respect has to be earned. But, as the BIS report shows, we are earning it, right now we’re just not getting it.

Update

If you are interested in this post, you may also like to read Ben Goldacre’s response and related earlier posts by Grant JacobsAthene Donald, Anthony Finkelstein. Please feel free to comment below (whether you agree or disagree).

Further Reading and Sources

Royal Society “Scientific Century” Report

BIS Report: ” International Comparative Performance of the UK Research Base: 2011″

Science Is Vital Report: “Careering Out of Control: A Crisis in the UK Science Profession”

Science minister Rt Hon David Willetts MP Gareth Roberts Science Policy Lecture:

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18 thoughts on “R-E-S-P-E-C-T

  1. Thanks for the comment – I enjoyed your post, too. I’m from Suffolk, but feel pretty strong ties to Yorkshire now. I think you should carry on thinking carefully about whether or not to pursue a career in academia. There are plenty of reasons to think twice as my post makes clear. If you can work with the career structure, or at least endure it, the plus side can be very big, too.

  2. Even though Willetts recognises the problem to some extent, a large part of me thinks there’s a leverage problem. People are always going to want to be scientists more than any government needs us to be scientists. I don’t say that to downplay the importance of science, rather to highlight how driven most aspiring young scientists are. We’re willing to tolerate a lot of crap, essentially.

  3. Hi Tom,This is actually something that a few of us have been thinking about for some time, focussing on how to build alternative funding streams for researchers based on their own output. This lends itself very nicely to engineering related disciplines that are inherently “real-world” problem oriented, but I think its also applicable in the more general sense. Perhaps we could discuss this over a coffee sometime? (I spend time in both Cambridge and Yorkshire (not york, but close enough))

  4. But @mf TBH, scientists formidable dedication is a huge asset, if the government would only use it properly. It means further improvements to our already world-leading productivity need not cost any more money. A little respect will go a very long way. Keeping our best, most experienced scientists by offering them stable careers will pay huge dividends if anyone ever thinks it through.

  5. I surely will. I’m currently in the states, but I’ll be back in a couple of weeks. Is email the preferred method of contact?

  6. I think the one thing that is really lacking is suitable careers advice for scientists during their degree. On my degree course approximately 90% of the students wanted to do medicine but failed to get in and decided to take degrees in biomed sci/biochem/pharmacology etc and then reapply after. There was such a high proportion that they had dedicated lectures about how to apply for medical college after finishing their degree. We did not have the same for people who wanted to be scientists and chose the degree course on its own merit. So I think many fall into a PhD from not knowing what the options are.I have 9 days left before I finish my PhD and I have no idea what I will do next. As a woman I do not want to post-doc as I feel I would be closing doors to having a family (at least for several years to “establish my career”) and I am settled where I live now, my fiancé has a good job etc so why should I have to give up these for a career in science? I work with many women in their mid to late 30s who seem to have little in the way of work-life balance and only a small proportion have families. We are told of the benefits of the flexible working hours etc but I have spent many weekends in the lab in the past 4 years and I can’t see how that works when you have children.The other gripe I have is how underpaid scientists are. A doctor doing the exact same thing as a post-doc (i.e. ones with no clinical role at all – something I have seen with several foreign medics who are not qualified to practice in the UK) will still be paid 2x as much. We have more laboratory expertise so why the huge difference? And the same can be said for medical reps, who can get their jobs with a 2.2 in a random subject?When a doctor comes out of their long training they are well rewarded with their pay. I do not expect to get the same as that but where is our reward when we have studied for 6-7 years? I sometimes wonder if I should have bothered with the PhD at all.

  7. @gemushka Thank you for commenting. I absolutely agree that career advice at all stages could be much better. Having been involved in it a bit in my job, I found it quite difficult – universities could do with a better supported infrastructure for careers advice (not to mention schools!). Careers advice tends to be big graduate employers on the one hand or niche professions (drawing on the degree specialism) on the other. There is little guidance regarding the “long-tail” of non-obvious careers which most graduates end up pursuing. People tend to end up targeting very particular jobs which have come up on their radar, rather than aiming at a general sector or identifying options that build on their unique talents.Your concerns about the incompatibility of post-doc life are widely shared (see Science is Vital report), and indeed this is a major motivation to change the current system. I have posted about this on Athene Donald’s blog (linked above). I think this is one of the major reasons why women are underrepresented at the top level in science. Of course the desire to settle and raise a family is something that many men share! In my own family I believe my post-doc roles played a part in deferring our family; not a choice I would have made willingly, and one which had difficult consequences for our fertility and wellbeing (multiple miscarriages). I am glad women are speaking up for family life, as I perceive that there is possibly a bit of a stigma for men. Perhaps it is only by emphasising the discriminatory effects the current career structure we can make people realise it is flawed, though I regard the problems as more fundamental.I agree that the comparison with the medical profession would be enlightening. I am hoping that someone will give me some pointers to comparable figures (to the third figure above) for Medicine. I expect the comparison to be very unfavourable for science. Speaking only for myself, I’ve never been particularly troubled by academic pay. The rewards of doing science are adequate compensation. Or at least they would be in a world of stable careers and longer-term thinking. The current climate stifles academic creativity in the service of short-term impact, which makes it less fun.

  8. This is a bit of a late reply since I just discovered this blog now! but I wanted to speak to the issue of female careers and families. There’s no doubt it’s hard to combine a scientific career with having babies but it isn’t impossible – I am a woman with three children, and now a professor, so I’m proof it can be done. I’m not some brilliant and impossible-to-emulate shining star on a pedestal either, but I am quite stubborn and determined, and I’ve learned that that counts for as much as if not more than brilliance. I had my first baby in my first year as a postdoc, so it isn’t necessary to wait for your first permanent position – indeed i’m not sure it isn’t better to start early. I spaced my kids out quite a bit though. It’s been hard work and I’ve been absolutely dependent on having a supportive partner, but also very rewarding and I don’t regret it for a minute. All the times I’ve had to neglect the kids because of a paper or a grant deadline have been compensated for by the fact they are very proud of having a scientist mother, and think it’s cool.

    But anyway, the point I wanted to make is that when we looked in my department at why we were losing women faster than men it turned out to be at the stages of self-selection, not our selection – in other words, we had proportionally fewer women applying at each step of the process than were getting through the previous stage. We were relieved to discover we were making female appointments at the appropriate rate with respect to the applications. So, women were selecting *themselves* out of a scientific career. This led me to wonder how much of the problem was to do with confidence – women look ahead at the career path and don’t think they will cut the mustard so they don’t even try.

    The other thing is, kids eventually grow up and leave home. Then, you can really make up for lost time, and you have acquired a whole lot of personnel-management, time management, resource allocation and conflict resolution skills that mean you get much more done! The female career is not an arc, it’s two steep hills with a plateau in the middle. I hope the funding system comes to recognise this, and stops assuming that past trajectory is the only predictor of future trajectory.

  9. This is a bit of a late reply since I just discovered this blog now! but I wanted to speak to the issue of female careers and families. There’s no doubt it’s hard to combine a scientific career with having babies but it isn’t impossible – I am a woman with three children, and now a professor, so I’m proof it can be done. I’m not some brilliant and impossible-to-emulate shining star on a pedestal either, but I am quite stubborn and determined, and I’ve learned that that counts for as much as if not more than brilliance. I had my first baby in my first year as a postdoc, so it isn’t necessary to wait for your first permanent position – indeed i’m not sure it isn’t better to start early. I spaced my kids out quite a bit though. It’s been hard work and I’ve been absolutely dependent on having a supportive partner, but also very rewarding and I don’t regret it for a minute. All the times I’ve had to neglect the kids because of a paper or a grant deadline have been compensated for by the fact they are very proud of having a scientist mother, and think it’s cool.

    But anyway, the point I wanted to make is that when we looked in my department at why we were losing women faster than men it turned out to be at the stages of self-selection, not our selection – in other words, we had proportionally fewer women applying at each step of the process than were getting through the previous stage. We were relieved to discover we were making female appointments at the appropriate rate with respect to the applications. So, women were selecting *themselves* out of a scientific career. This led me to wonder how much of the problem was to do with confidence – women look ahead at the career path and don’t think they will cut the mustard so they don’t even try. Somehow we need to convince female scientists that academia is a viable career option even with a family.

    The other thing is, kids eventually grow up and leave home. Then, you can really make up for lost time, and you have meanwhile acquired a whole lot of personnel-management, time management, resource allocation and conflict resolution skills that mean you get much more done! The female career is not an arc, it’s two steep hills with a plateau in the middle. I hope the funding system comes to recognise this, and stops assuming that past trajectory is the only predictor of future trajectory.

  10. As a recent female phd graduate myself, I have just been through the turbulance of career choices along the process of job hunting. I got married straight after my phd, which really made the decision a lot harder.

    I think the problem does not only in HE system, it is even more severe in industry. Most phd graduates’ abilities that developed in academic area are not treated like ‘proper experiences’ in industry. For entry level jobs, phds are not welcome because over-qualified. For higher level jobs, phds are still not welcome due to lack of ‘real’ work experiences. It is sad and frustrating to see that abilities developed during phd are not accredited in industry.

    I have seen lots of industry roles advertising ‘looking for analitical ppl, project managing skills, good communication etc’. Sounds ideal for a phd graduate? but hey it is highly likely that they’d prefer a undergraduate applicant with 1 years admin experiences.

    For a phd from industry related background, things would have worked out much better as lots of R&D positions out there eager to be filled with brilliant phd graduates.

    Above all, there are things that beyond money and stability: self-fulfilling. Initially, I thought I would enjoy an industry environment with lots of colleagues and constant discuss things. However, after having worked in a company for two weeks, I realized that all the roles in the credit rating company I worked in was not satisfying enough. I quickly quit the job and took another offer as a postdoc, although it means that my husband and I will only be able to meet during weekend. After I tried the industry roles, I’m quite happy to work in academia!

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