Tuesday, 25 June 2013

Research Career Pathways

Posted by Lynne Forrest

As I enter the final few months of my PhD, although I know I should be concentrating on writing up my thesis and getting it submitted on time, I have been somewhat distracted recently by thinking about what I’m going to do when it’s all over. It’s a difficult balancing act, finishing the piece of work that will allow you to move on to the next stage whilst simultaneously looking for that next opportunity, but I’m sure it’s one that most people working in research, at all levels, are familiar with.

I’m lucky in one respect in that I’m sure that I want to stay in academia. But it’s very disheartening to read endless articles about the surplus of PhD students and the bottlenecks that occur at each stage of the academic pathway. In fact, I think I’ve yet to read an article that promotes any positives of an academic career, although, as far as I can see, there are many. Perhaps because I’ve worked elsewhere I can definitely see that the grass isn’t greener. Yes, being a female academic with children is difficult but then so is being a professional female with children in any industry. The flexibility of academia can actually be a real advantage. The freedom of managing your own time and research and doing something you love shouldn’t be easily dismissed either.

The dreaded PhD surplus
I’m also lucky in that my PhD supervisors have been fabulously supportive and have found me funding that will allow me to analyse the cancer data that I didn’t have time to look at for my PhD and to write up any remaining papers from my thesis. It also looks hopeful that other funding will then become available to allow me to stay on at Newcastle and also write a Fellowship application so I can quickly move on from the temporary Research Associate (RA) route. And, unlike a lot of younger researchers who come straight in to a PhD after their undergrad degree, I have no illusions about how research and academia works. I don’t want to go down the endless RA-jobs route and although I’m not wholly convinced I have what it takes to be a ‘research leader’, I’m going to give it a go.

I know how things work as, in an irony that is not lost on me now, my previous job before my return-to-research mid-life crisis was as the Career Pathways Scheme Manager, a scheme that was being developed to help support researchers in their career management.

In this, a survey of RA attitudes to career development found that the majority of researchers did not want to become research leaders or academics, they just wanted to continue as RAs on a project, but without having to look for a new job every 3 years or so. The idea of the scheme was to develop a ‘third way’ so that the choice was not just between following the Fellowship-to-academic or RA paths but to offer a third option of becoming a Team Scientist, a specialist in their field, who was not an academic but held a permanent post. It was an admirable idea from Newcastle University but it didn’t take long to see the major flaw in the scheme as, apart from in a couple of cases, there was no funding for these posts.

I’m not sure what the answer to all this is. Without a system-wide change in the funding structure for research all the issues are going to remain. I fully understand why RAs who are constantly changing job and location become disillusioned and leave research. There’s undoubtedly a lot of stress and pressure. And yet, with optimism still intact, I’m prepared to give academia a go…


  1. It's a shame there's no funding for that sort of 'third way', I've known a lot of really good scientists who don't want to end up managing a lab and writing grants. It would be perfect for them. I think it's ridiculous that we train scientists to a high level and then they just end up leaving because there's no career path for them.

  2. I totally agree. My favoured route would definitely be the 'third way', a permanent job where I just got on with the research. But then I don't imagine most academics want to spend all their time grant writing either. I guess as researchers we have to try and push for change but, without a total overhaul of the funding system, I don't see this happening any time soon, unfortunately...

  3. It does seem perverse that the only way in which to attain any degree of job security in academia is to go down a route that increasingly moves you from research to management/admin. I am another person who might be happy to be a 'team scientist' as least for a good long while. Or a research leader in the sense of one who formulates and gets to conduct research projects, rather than becoming so busy with continual grant applications that others have to be hired to do the actual research. Reflecting on that, it makes me wonder whether even 'permanent' academic posts have the benefits of permanence, given how much time must be devoted to maintaining the existence of one's group.

    I like research, but the career structure is lacking in many respects.

  4. I would like to reiterate the previous posts by agreeing that the research career structure needs looked at. One of the biggest frustrations as someone who has spent years training to become a competent researcher is that to progress further you have to take a step back from doing the actual research to become a manager. I really do not want to lose that technical ability and become de-skilled.

    Perhaps there should be different career structures for researchers and research managers?

  5. The kind of career path that 'Anonymous' seeks exists most closely in MRC Units (http://www.mrc.ac.uk/Ourresearch/Unitscentresinstitutes/index.htm), where you can build your career towards becoming Programme Leader. The focus remains solidly on research, but the availability of programme funding means that you would not need to seek external funding to support your entire portfolio, although some external funding is usual. Academics working in Universities without the benefit of MRC Unit status need to think strategically about how we can replicate this model to retain and foster the careers of our most talented researchers. Unfortunately NIHR programme grants (somewhat perversely imho) can only be held by an NHS trust.