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  • Dr Kay Guccione, Dr Steve Joy, Dr Nigel Eady

Improving the situation for postdoctoral researchers: recognising their value

Written on behalf of Researchers14 by Dr Kay Guccione (University of Sheffield), Dr Steve Joy (University of Cambridge) and Dr Nigel Eady. (Kings College London). The views represented here do not necessarily represent those of all members of Researchers 14, or their employing institutions.

In a recent Naturejobs blog post Prof David Bogle, Pro-Vice-Provost of the Doctoral School at UCL commented that “Too often, research staff are recruited to deliver a specific project and spat out at the end without thought as to their future beyond having more papers to support an application for another postdoc position.” As professionals dedicated to championing and developing this particular staff group, this observation resonates strongly with us. However, we find it jarring that David goes on to say, “Since most postdocs are heading for positions outside of academia, the postdoctoral period needs to be a time where scientists develop a deeper and more sophisticated set of skills than the doctorate”, because it reflects a problematic way of thinking about personal and career development for early career staff as simply a matter of gaining ‘skills’. It draws (as does the Industrial Strategy) on the old-fashioned employability-skills-deficit model, whereby universities should offer ‘skills training’ based on what industrial employers say they need.

Our argument is that, if it is well set-up and well supported, a Research Associate role can be a valuable learning experience in its own right. The skills needed to successfully complete a research contract are already highly valued – for example: specialist knowledge and technical skills, resilience and adaptability, creativity and critical judgement, responsibility and ethical understanding, teamwork and leadership, communication and intercultural awareness.

We recognise that Prof Bogle will be very familiar with the current tensions and debates that surround the development of early career researchers as more than ‘paper-writing machines’, and he articulates this well. As Chair of the Expert Review Panel, he has recently led a sector review of the UK’s ‘Concordat to Support the Career Development of Researchers’.

Synthesising his recent experiences, he suggests that we as a sector “...need to articulate a clear set of skills that every postdoc should develop during this stage in their careers”, and the blog goes on to make a 13-point set of suggestions for how we might frame the development of research staff as business minded and profitable research leaders, who should be looking to fulfil society’s future needs.

But we should be cautious about proposed sets of core skills. For one thing, we ought not to treat the UK’s diverse research staff population as a monolithic entity, as if they had the same talents, needs, goals, etc. And we should take care not to impute a ‘skills deficit’ to our research staff either: setting out a list of what they ‘should develop’ is always going to slip too easily into a list of what they ‘don’t have’ – and we are never going to support the contention that our highly skilled research staff are in some way deficient! Lastly, there is a serious practical flaw in trying to establish a core set of skills: the World Economic Forum estimates that, ‘on average, by 2020, more than a third of the desired core skill sets of most occupations will be comprised of skills that are not yet considered crucial to the job today’. It stands to reason, then, that coming up with a clear set of skills which all research staff should develop will be out of date before it’s even been agreed. Rather than universal sets of skills, we need to address in highly personalised ways the behaviours and meta-cognitive capabilities which enable researchers to be life-long learners and highly adaptive (something which – in the intensely mobile, unstable world of research contracts – we ought to remember that most of them have already demonstrated).

To support this reframing, there still needs to be a deep cultural shift in the attitudes towards early career research staff. Protected time for personal development and exploration is a very welcome proposal. Examining the role of the PI and other supportive colleagues is important. We advocate for a strong emphasis on personalised development for each individual, reflecting their needs, interests and values, and embedded within their day-to-day activities, rather than separated out or bolted on as ‘skills training’. Rather than thinking about career development as being ‘for future use’, career development opportunities could add genuine value to the work early career staff do right now within their research associate roles.

These environmental and cultural factors are critical in achieving systemic change, because research staff don’t often think of themselves as the business minded and profitable research leaders seeking industry jobs, that Prof. Bogle’s blog describes them to be. We are still in a situation where many researchers are doing all they can to remain within the university research environment. And what keeps researchers in employment in a university research environment is garnering the support of their PI, being a safe pair of hands who will generate data, delivering a specific project, and yes, being paper writing machines. There is a systemic tension.

We completely agree with Prof Bogle that the needs, and the attitudes and behaviours of the PI, must be reconciled with the researcher’s own best interests for their future. Building on this we suggest that the capabilities we want to flourish in our research staff should be aligned with the institutional framing and expectations for the postdoc role itself, and the responsibilities and opportunities that they are offered within that role.

What prevents the development of fixed-term contract staff is not just lack of dedicated time to attend development activity, nor a lack of creativity in the development opportunities we provide for our staff. It’s simply that their roles are all too often viewed in the most simplistic terms, with performance measured against blunt metrics like the number of papers they have published. We need to think more creatively about what research staff can do. What advance in status could a research associate gain over and above that of a PhD researcher? What higher leadership or management expectations are already placed on them in their associate role, and could be better recognised and enhanced? What institutional responsibilities might they take on as a postdoc?

Adult learners seek learning when they recognise that they ‘need to know’ and can see an immediate application for that learning. Yet, many institutions are neither prepared or willing to offer career progression (i.e. promotion) opportunities to postdocs, nor to recognise the contribution of early career staff towards these advanced institutional responsibilities (e.g. supervision, consultancy, teaching). If we want to encourage growth, we need to embed these developmental experiences within the expectations of the postdoc role, to recognise the contribution they make, and importantly to incentivise postdocs to move towards the set of advanced behaviours and competencies that Prof Bogle suggests.

So, we want to offer some of our experienced thoughts to those within universities looking to enhance the postdoc experience. What is needed is a personalised approach to development that identifies what a particular researcher brings with them and how it can be valued and built upon across their day-to-day activities:

  • Value our postdocs as already highly skilled, tenacious, and adaptable people with the capacity to contribute greatly to the university environment as well as research outputs.

  • Think broader than ‘skills’ development — how can we help early career staff to develop their understanding of the structures and systems that govern research? How can we develop professional behaviours through real opportunities to apply skills in practice?

  • ‘Training’ is not synonymous with development – most professional learning happens outside ‘a course’ through professional relationships e.g. networks, mentoring, committee work.

  • Who are the role models of early career researchers? How do PIs and other influential senior staff, model that professional development is part of academic life? Are we asking PIs to ‘turn a blind eye’ to staff ‘taking time out’ to do researcher development, or are we asking them to embed learning, and talk to their researchers about their development needs and opportunities?

  • Make mentoring meaningful. Frame mentoring activity as a specialist educational practice, and ensure mentors are helped to develop a repertoire beyond reliance on ‘advice giving’. Draw on good practice models for mentoring early career staff and facilitate good matching with mentors.

  • Arts and Humanities-based researchers without the ‘team’ dynamic and funding sources, and often on casualised contracts, may require different approaches, to support their development (e.g. better contracts, conference funding); to manage teaching load; to access mentors, networks and research cultures that stimulate discussion, and support their writing.

  • How can we help departments to create research environments that amplify early career researcher development? How might they value and champion their researchers on a local scale? For example, putting them forward for awards, panels, conferences, committees, networks, including them in strategic conversations, teaching, writing bias-free references.

  • What are the policies and structures we need to develop, which enable, permit or require growth within early career researcher contracts? How can we align job descriptions, induction processes, probation systems, appraisal, promotion etc, to give a clear set of expectations for the role.

Let’s recognise that part of what got Early Career Researchers to where they are is a highly sought-after capacity to be adaptable skills-acquirers. When we push for new opportunities to be given to them, let’s change the conversation from a deficit assumption (i.e. without these development experiences they will struggle to get jobs) to a credit proposition – these energetic, creative, passionate leaders have a lot to offer.

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