The Top-up Funded Postdoc
Neal Haddaway, University of Bangor
I am a top-up funded postdoc. It’s been two years since my last externally funded position.
I suppose I should start out by explaining what a top-up funded postdoc is. We are the ‘fortunate’ few for whom salary funding has been secured through left-over money from our PI’s accounts; travel funding that hasn’t been used, publication costs that weren’t needed, money for that piece of equipment that didn’t get bought. I am fortunate to have a job, particularly in today’s academic jobs market, and I largely really love my job. The situation that I am in, however, is fundamentally one of exploitation, and since many aspects of it will be the same for others, I wanted to highlight them and propose a solution.
I started my current postdoc a little over two years ago and was initially on a one year contract. It was a great opportunity to work in a policy-relevant area in an up-and-coming subject with an influential team. My first point: one year contracts, in my opinion, are fairly exploitative. In a career path where the currency is impact there is virtually no possibility for significant professional development in the space of a year: grant applications work on longer timescales; PGcert HE training (the professional teaching qualification for higher education) takes two years to complete; publications often take far longer than this to conceive, write and publish; even professional development reviews are typically held only once a year (if at all!). What’s more, PIs often don’t want their one year postdocs spending their time working on grants for their next position, writing up publications from their previous one, or taking time to get involved with teaching that doesn’t help get the job done. Obviously I am generalising and obviously there are exceptions, but from my discussions with other postdocs, these are the minority. This problem isn’t restricted to top-up funded postdocs. In fact, externally funded projects with strict deadlines are perhaps more likely to preclude time for professional development. “Why not work on these papers, applications and teaching in your free time?”, I hear from the disgruntled old academic firmly planted in the department Chair at the back. I, like many other short-term contracted postdocs spend most of my free time writing job applications and trying to network to secure my next job: in fact, I’ve been applying for jobs continually for five years because of short-term contracts.
And this brings me to my second point. Those of you paying attention will note that I’ve been in my current position for two years, but was originally on a one year contract. Good maths skills! (You’ll do well in academia). I was given a second one year contract (hurray!), but again, this was not long enough to let me enrol on the PGCert HE and I wasn’t allowed to apply for grants on work time. The situation has recently been made worse as my contract renewal has been dropped to 6 months because the university is in financial trouble, despite having brought in in excess of £75,000 of funding in my free time. I am not alone: two other postdocs in my department have been on rolling one year contracts for over ten years, and another colleague is now on rolling one month contracts following the end of a two-year position. In a rather specific unfortunate twist, we’re often not informed of our extensions until after we start them due to inefficiencies in the human resources department. ‘Job security’, eh? Hmm… But at least we know we’re working on our careers over this extended period in the same subject area. Right?
Yes and no. Yes, it is true that we’re often verbally given an indication that our contracts will be extended to allow us to build a career, but without necessary resources we’re often left impotent. With top-up salary funding comes no money for professional development; no conference fee costs, no travel and subsistence funds, no training budget, no publication fee costs, no research budget. I have my computer and an endless supply of stationery, but this won’t buy me the software I need to work on a new aspect of my research. Furthermore, networking is the lifeblood of a productive, interdisciplinary, collaborative career, and conferences are vital opportunities to network. Training needs no justification at all. And yet postdocs, top-up and externally funded alike, are often advertised with no professional development plan.
And this brings me to my final point. Most other careers have clearly identifiable options for progression, aided by permanent contracts, assistance with vertical and horizontal redeployment, and investment in people. Not so academia. In November 2013 a search on the job vacancy site jobs.ac.uk for ‘ecology’ identified 54 PhD adverts, 14 for postdocs and only 4 lectureships (Figure 1). Is this indicative of an investment in people, or is it exploiting cheap labour? In a country where a PhD stipend is c. £13,000 and full annual costs for a postdoc are nearer £65,000 (Bangor University), I know which one I believe. Are those 54 postdocs told that only 7% of them will make it to a contract lectureship, let alone a permanent position? Remember that this is ecology: subject-relevant job opportunities for PhDs outside of academia are fairly limited.
Figure 1. The Academic Pyramid. Job adverts on jobs.ac.uk for ‘ecology’ in November 2013.
Postdocs are often seen as ‘having a job to do’, with little time to devote to their own professional development. Many of us want to succeed, meaning long hours and bucket-loads of blood, sweat and tears. Many of us are happy to do this, but I for one have become resentful as I feel more and more exploited.
And the solution? We already have a Postdoctoral Concordat, issued by Universities UK in 2011 (https://www.vitae.ac.uk/policy/vitae-concordat-vitae-2011.pdf), which aims to increase attractiveness of academic careers and support for postdocs. It’s worth a read if you weren’t aware of it; a shocking number of us aren’t. But it is a voluntary agreement, and from the experiences of most postdocs that I’ve spoken to, it simply doesn’t go far enough in the few cases where it’s appropriately implemented. What do I suggest? A Postdoctoral Charter. This would be a commitment from universities to ensure that for each and every postdoctoral position advertised a professional development plan is provided that lists the benefits of the position to the successful postdoc, potential pathways to career progression (industry, policy, and academic), opportunities for writing grant applications and publications, and provides clear minimum expectations for an investment of time and money in the postdoc’s professional development. Until this charter is in place any recommendations for provision of support will remain exactly that; recommendations.