Employment prospects of PhD graduates in sharp focus

Proper career-development support is needed for researchers to make good choices about their futures

 

In 2002 the Roberts Set for Success review addressed the supply of science, technology, engineering and mathematics skills throughout the education system in the UK.

Among the recommendations were two that related directly to postgraduate researchers and research staff. These focused on having better structure and career development for PhD candidates and postdoctoral researchers. The UK government responded by investing £150 million through the research councils to increase stipends and the length of doctoral programmes, and to provide training for their funded researchers.

The training and professional development is sponsored by Research Councils UK, the agency with oversight of all the seven councils funding research. The entire training and development is run by the organisation Vitae. It is a network- based organisation, with a central team based in Cambridge and a series of eight regional hubs throughout the UK and some international networks. Vitae has recently developed the comprehensive researcher development framework (RDF). This enables researchers to manage their professional development, focusing on areas including engagement, influence and impact; and knowledge and intellectual abilities. It has been successfully applied in the UK and a number of other countries, including Germany and Japan.

It is really important for researchers and institutions to engage fully in career development. International studies show that in many countries more than 50 per cent of PhD graduates leave academia to find employment.

The 2010 Royal Society report The Scientific Century: Securing Future Prosperity highlights that only 3.5 per cent of PhD graduates in the UK will obtain the status of permanent research staff and a mere 0.45 per cent will achieve professorial status. Although there is some variation in statistics, similar overall trends have been shown for other European states. As a result, the issue of employability of PhD graduates and researchers has come into sharp focus on the European Research Area agenda.

A 2012 EC report Professional Development of Researchers – Provisions for the Future concluded that skills training and professional development for researchers is highly variable across Europe. This was based on a study of seven countries; Austria, Finland, Germany, Ireland, Norway, Portugal, Slovenia and the UK. There is a high level of support for researchers at doctoral level, followed by a sharp decrease for postdoctoral researchers. Overall training and development in independence, knowledge exchange and innovation is poor, even at doctoral level.

Proactive approach
Vitae held its annual conference in Manchester on September 4th and 5th last. One of the keynote speakers was Indi Seehra, the director of human resources at the University of Cambridge. As a university with significant public and private funding, it is taking a highly proactive approach to supporting researchers. Cambridge was one of the first universities in Europe to engage in the European Commission’s HR Excellence in Research institutional self-evaluation. All of the Irish universities, the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland, many of the institutes of technology and other research bodies, including Teagasc and the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, are in this EC-sponsored HR process.

The seven Irish universities have put structures in place to support researcher career development. In the case of UCD, for example, there is dedicated research skills and career development support. The objective is to provide a range of courses, development opportunities, career workshops and one-to-one coaching sessions to support researcher career planning. The role of the UCD research staff association is recognised in promoting the interests of researchers. Funding is limited for these types of services. Similar structures are present in the other universities. They do not fall under the categories of core university or competitive research funding.

Cambridge faces the same problems as all universities, with few academic career paths and researchers retained on soft money from external research contracts. However, its significant funding resources enables it to put into place services to support researchers. It is critical to have in place proper career development support in order for researchers to make informed choices regarding their future. However, this can only happen if there are the resources available to ensure these structures can be put in place.


Conor O’Carroll is research director in the Irish Universities Association, iua.ie

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