Friday 19 September 2014

Supporting the Cinderellas of Science

Vitae: Healthy and delicious
Last week I went to the Vitae Conference in Manchester. Many of you have probably not heard of Vitae. It sounds like some kind of healthy sunflower-based butter substitute advertised by people wearing white and laughing as they eat toast and give each other piggybacks. But actually Vitae fulfils an increasingly important function in modern higher education. It offers succour to those cinderellas of science, fixed term researchers.
Fixed term researchers are essential for the proper functioning of research. They are the ones who actually do the experiments, or dig in the archives, or undertake the surveys. 

For many years they were overlooked and seen as expendable: a fixed term research position was seen as a stepping stone, forgotten as soon as you were able to jump free of it. For those poor souls who didn’t make it to the river bank a lifetime of hopping between one precarious position and another beckoned. 
Vitae was set up to give these researchers the voice they deserve. It formalised the training they should expect, and provided support and advocacy. It recently linked up with Nature Jobs to run a survey to better understand its constituency. It asked what people did after their doctorate. 1600 people replied, and the answer says as much about the sector as it does about the researchers themselves.
Of the 1600, 606 had left academia. This is actually unrepresentative: we know that around 56% of doctoral students believe that they’ll end up in an academic career, but only 20% do so. That aside, the answers given by those 606 make interesting reading. The majority found other work in higher education (24%), or took a sideways step into commercial life sciences and pharmaceuticals (19%) and  public administration (10%).The reasons that they gave for moving out of academia were somewhat inevitable, but no less salutary for the sector:

  • 79% wanted better long term prospects;
  • 76% wanted more job security;
  • 67% wanted to move away from a culture of fixed term contracts;
  • and 59% wanted a better work-life balance.
Whilst many had achieved these goals, and most would probably not want to step back into academia, the move was not without its challenges. They had had to adapt to new cultures and new structures, to understand new relationships and new management, and learn a new way of doing things. Most of all they had had to accept a new, non-research status. 
And it is, perhaps, the last of these that made the move the most difficult. Throughout their careers research had been held up as the ultimate goal, the ultimate good. To do anything else was seen as failure. Yet the figures show that there just aren’t enough jobs in academia: there would be no way of accommodating all those new postdocs, even if they were all suited to it. 
Increasingly, universities are recognising this, and are doing two things. Firstly, they are encouraging students and researchers to consider the panoply of other potential careers out there, and to recognise that some might even be as satisfying for them as research. Secondly, they are providing them with the skills necessary to get them. 
The Conference heard from the University of Manchester, where researchers make up almost a third of their 6,000 research active staff. They have recognised the need to provide a framework of support for researchers, and have in place leadership and career development programmes, careers events, research into management schemes, and fellowships, mentoring and coaching. 
That all sounds good, but the feedback they’ve received from researchers is that the support the receive in practice is patchy, particularly in the appraisal system, and many questioned its usefulness.  Moreover, although the University provides 2,089 courses for staff, only 100 or so are specifically for research staff. That’s 5% for the 32% of their staff base who are researchers.
Of course, many of the other 95% may well be appropriate for them. However, it does demonstrate that, whilst great strides have been made in providing for researchers in the last twenty years, they are still somewhat overlooked. We need to do more. But what? And how? 
Perhaps the Vitae survey can give an idea. Those questioned were asked to give advice to those who were still unsettled and unsure what to do. They suggested that they should: 
  • be positive and brave, and move early;
  • invest time in preparation and getting advice;
  • use networks and talk to former research staff;
  • develop transferable competencies;
  • get wider experience beyond research;
  • be flexible;
  • mentally move on;
  • be humble, but learn to sell yourself.
All logical, all obvious, but universities need to do more to encourage researchers and students to develop these skills and offer more opportunities to explore other avenues. We’ve come a long way, but we still have far to go.

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