PhD student experience
The PhD student survey (PRES) showed that the overall rate of satisfaction is generally high, with supervision and research skills development topping the bill at 84% and 85% satisfaction. On the other hand, the research culture, progress and assessment and professional development fared worse at 64%, 78% and 76%, respectively. The research culture figures were brought down mainly by the lack of opportunities for students to discuss their work with others as well as the general research ambience of the department. Having said that, the vast majority of students said their supervisor had the skills and knowledge to support their research and provided useful feedback.
In terms of personal and professional career development, the results were not as favourable, with less than 30% of bioscience PhD students saying they received advice and information on career options. Considering almost 50% of science postgraduates are likely to leave academia when they graduate - see Royal Society (2010) The Scientific Century- securing our future prosperity, I see this as a serious concern and may be one reason why some PhD students decide to undertake a postdoctoral post; with little knowledge of ‘alternative careers’ they are more likely to choose a career more familiar to them. You may or may not agree with this!
Postdoctoral researcher experience
Moving on to the research staff (postdoctoral researcher) survey (CROS), the lines of enquiry were different and sought to find out more about opportunities for researchers to get involved in activities such as collaboration, knowledge exchange, supervision, teaching and mentoring. The responses showed that over 65% of researchers have had experience of collaborating with colleagues outside of the UK and with external organisations. However, only around 50% had experience of mentoring, teaching or writing a funding proposal - although a more recent survey (data to be published Oct/Nov 2013) shows that research publications still tend to override many of these research-related activities in the biosciences. The most startling figures in the survey related to the perceptions of fairness in the treatment of contract research staff compared with other types of staff, with around 50% of both males and females believing they were not treated fairly. This figure rose to 64% when the same question was posed to researchers who had been on five or more contracts.
With regard to the career ambitions of researchers the survey reported a clear disparity between the aspirations vs realistic expectations of researchers. Although three quarters would like to have a research and/or teaching career in academia, only two-thirds believed this was likely to happen in reality. In fact, this part of the survey was reported in the Times Higher Education Supplement, THES (12/09/2013) including perspectives from a professional careers advisory body, which said that this lack of opportunities is true of other intellectually stimulating professions.
So what does this say about the PhD student and postdoctoral researcher experience? What’s your experience? Do these results mirror the situation in your institution or your country, or do you think your circumstances are more/less favourable? Maybe they are in some ways, but not in others?
What is clear is that there is a lack of engagement with careers support at the doctoral and postdoctoral levels, either out of choice or because such support does not exist. If you have any comments to make on any points made in this blog or from the two surveys, or would like to get in touch to find out how to get careers support for yourself please get in touch.