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MPs’ thoughts on academic career paths

Posted by on March 26, 2013

by Rebecca Nesbit, Society of Biology

From a potential ban on neonicotinoids to the importance of the EU, there were some provocative questions at last week’s Voice of the Future. There were many times when I had my preconceptions challenged by the MPs’ answers, and many issues I hadn’t stopped to consider. This Storify (below) sums up the debate brilliantly, and you can watch the entire event here, but I’ve taken the opportunity to share some of my thoughts, and look forward to your comments.

Unsurprisingly, a major issue raised by young people was the career structure in academic science. Unlike most commercial settings, aspiring academics must do multiple short-term contracts after which many will never get permanent jobs in research.

Universities and Science Minister David Willetts MP was keen to explain that there are reasons for the high number of PhD students relative to senior staff, including that the structure shouldn’t be too top heavy (though he didn’t explain why academia should be different to other careers). Perhaps we need to stop thinking of PhDs as a route into academia, but as training for a range of careers?

Whatever the reasons, the result is a career structure that’s extremely challenging for everyone. But there was specific debate about women in academia, with Andrew Miller MP describing the issue as ‘morally and economically’ important.

The Twitter conversation, however, suggested that the real problems hadn’t been tackled. The value of role models, especially for girls at school, was raised repeatedly. Whilst this is extremely important, it isn’t addressing the issue that the fall-out is mainly later on. Women are well represented at undergraduate and post-graduate levels, but very few make it to Professor.

Shabana Mahmood MP, shadow minister for Universities and Science, spoke about ways of making it easier for women with families, without questioning the assumption that this was a factor for women not men.

I sent a tweet asking what are the real reasons women are leaving science, and got some interesting responses:

Self-confidence? sent by @schrodingerskit

Women are paid less and regarded as less competent? blog by @ElodieGlass

If anyone has any research on this topic I’d be really interested to see it, or are there any solutions the MPs missed out? I’m sure the academic career structure risks putting off very talented men as well as women, and we should work to make the system as effective as possible for science and scientists.


6 Responses to MPs’ thoughts on academic career paths

  1. Rebecca Nesbit

    Thanks Leila, a lot of what you have said rang very true with me.

    I had an interesting conversation about ‘career success’ with my family (my brother is about to submit his music PhD) because we realised that we had friends who had left academia following arts or humanities PhDs and were perceived by their families as having wasted their time. It is also more common in the arts world to self-fund a PhD, and people are often doing this with an unrealistic idea of what their career will be like afterwards. PhDs are almost never a waste of time whatever you do afterwards, but could certainly be seen as a waste of money! So I agree that we need to change our view of career success and ensure that people understand this before they decide to do a PhD.

    As for whether it is different skills that determine whether men and women are choosing academia that would be really interesting to study. If it is true, I wonder whether this will change as academia demands a diversity of skills? Even if it doesn’t account for a gender divide, I remember my PhD supervisor commenting that although many of my contemporaries had strong verbal skills the ones who made it to top levels may well not. It raises interesting questions – do we need to recognise a greater diversity of skills in academics? If REF means that academics will be required to do public engagement, do we risk discriminating against excellent academics who lack verbal skills?

  2. Leila

    PS: Rebecca. I just remembered this new study which suggests that women may, to some extent, be leaving science because they are more likely to have both high verbal and mathematical skills than men. This enables them (so the theory goes…) to access a wider range of careers than is available to those with high mathematical but low verbal skills (more men than women fall into this latter category). I am sure this is not all the answer to your question, but certainly chimes with my personal anecdotal experience. Colleagues who stay in academic science, despite often having a series of short term contracts and lack of long term prospects, will say things like ‘I don’t know what else I could do, or would enjoy as much as research’.

  3. Leila

    If you’re interested in research on this, can I suggest as a useful starting point. It is US focused, but many of the findings probably translate to the UK context.

    PhDs are not a route to academia for 90% of those who have one. You only have to look at the diagram on page 14 of the Royal Society Scientific Century report ( to see that this is the case.

    Given that this is the case it is incumbent upon universities, PHD and post-doc supervisors, and we scientists ourselves to begin to redefine what ‘career success’ as a scientist looks like. Why do we continue to view academia as the gold-standard career path for PhD students? Once you reach the post-doc stage, deciding not to seek an academic position is all too often considered by ones colleagues to be tantamount to ‘giving up’. Too rarely are post-docs told that most of them will never have an academic job and so they should focus on planning and preparing for a new career. It is not in the interests of the group leaders, who depend on them to work hard, produce plenty of papers and quietly move on when they’re done, to tell them how realistic their aspirations to become an academic really are. Maybe it is because those who are training the students are themselves academics and so focus their career guidance to their students towards ‘becoming like them’ as that is simply all they know? Or maybe they see holding out the ‘carrot’ of a tenured position as a great way to keep their post-docs/PhD’s motivated and focused on their research rather than their more realistic long term future outside the academy. Either way, this is a problem that needs to be addressed, for the better of both men and women in science.

  4. Rebecca Nesbit

    I agree – I think most people I know found their PhDs valuable, but I wonder how many people are glad they did post-docs if they don’t go on to have a career in academia?

  5. Richard Edwards

    “Perhaps we need to stop thinking of PhDs as a route into academia, but as training for a range of careers?”

    I think this is true but the real problem for scientific careers is at the postdoc stage, not the PhD stage. Plenty of people go off to do other interesting and rewarding things post-PhD out of choice. The problem is all the talented postdocs who “waste” years of their life on short-term contracts in far-flung places before being forced into other careers due to the lack of options and/or job security. This affects both men and women but I think that the very real “biological clock” of women indirectly discriminates against them in this context as they are likely to be forced to make the family versus unstable career decision at a younger age.