The brain drain

Mismanagement at UCL and an unforgiving career path have left postdocs unhappy and frustrated. Is this what our future looks like?

Written By: Jason Arunn Murugesu.

Art By: Ella Davey

Last October UCL’s Provost, Michael Arthur, held a Q&A with Early Career Researchers, better know as postdocs. Over 200 attended, in high spirits. Though not in the audience that day,  but having spoken to colleagues who were, Dr Mel Bartley, UCL Emeritus Professor of Medical Sociology tweeted:

‘Very Sad. @UCL provost to #ECR ‘We have no security to offer you. It is so easy for us to replace you’.’

Bartley did not comment for this story, but instead put me in touch with her colleagues who had attended the Q&A. I met Dr Rebecca Lacey in a dimly lit room littered with files and folders last December.

Lacey was on a five year research contract that ran out this Christmas. She told me how she had passed  the last two weeks preparing for a job interview and that she spent  most of her working hours looking for new jobs or applying for grants.

A grant application, she told me, takes up to 3 months to complete with only a 10% success rate. She hadn’t heard back from her latest application yet. Lacey had also applied for a lectureship, but thought she was unlikely to be successful.  At the time, Lacey was seriously considering leaving academia, even though it is her dream job. With a young family to raise, she cannot afford to be unemployed for long.

An hour into talking, Lacey’s colleague Dr Elizabeth Webb arrived. She too had been at the Q&A and they both expressed disappointment in the Provost who they said ‘lacked empathy’. She pointed out the perks of the job, such as getting into work whenever you want and flexible hours, but claimed the system made her feel like she was just ‘a cog in a machine’.

At the Q&A, the Provost used his life as an example to appease the postdocs. He pointed out that he himself had to move around in order to continue his career in academia (Arthur moved to California). The life of a postdoc was, however, very different in the late 80s. The career path of a researcher was relatively straightforward. One did a PhD, followed by a postdoc, earned a permanent position and then became a Professor.

Nowadays, whilst this is still a career path, it is one that is only taken by a very small percentage, as this diagram by The Royal Society shows:


This pattern is also true of University College London. In the Institute of Child Health, there are only 16 junior lecturers in comparison to the 250 postdocs they employ.

Whilst Lacey and Webb admitted the Provost did not use the exact words described by Bartley, they agreed that the sentiment was the same. When the audience at the Q&A were asked how many of them wanted permanent positions, Lacey said ‘50% of the hands went up’.

A blog post written by the Provost detailing the Q&A made no mention of the discontent and instead focused on the opportunities presented by UCL East, the new campus being built on the Olympic Park.

Lacey showed me an email the Provost’s office had sent to Bartley asking her to post a clarification of her previous tweet, which she duly did:

‘The Provost of @UCL would like me to clarify that he did not say the college would not offer open ended contracts to #ecr. Great news!’

Dominique Fourniol, UCL Head of Media Relations, told Kinesis that the meeting ‘was designed to support early career researchers, the issues discussed being ones that are faced across the sector’.

UCL however seem particularly inept at supporting these early career researchers. Dr Daniel Kelberman, a Senior Research Associate at the Institute of Child Health, told Kinesis that  the university does  not prioritise funds for supporting the career of their postdocs. Kelberman himself organises an annual networking event for postdocs that is minimally supported by the university. In fact this year, he was told by management that he would have to personally finance the cleaning of the event space afterwards.  

UCL treats postdocs as disposable. Kelberman actually says that he finds the term ‘early career researcher’ offensive, as it suggests he has a career to look forward to. He says he views the job of a postdoc as a ‘contract research worker’. The system is highly inefficient; it spends four years training postdocs in highly specialist skills such as imaging, but then replaces them after their contract runs out. The replacements then spend another four years learning the same skills.

Kelberman recently submitted a Freedom of Information Act on redundancies. In 2012, approximately £227,000 was spent on redundancy packages in the School of Life and Medical Sciences Faculty. In 2015, this figure had jumped to £470,000. Kelberman calls this a ‘brain drain’ and argues that it is due to short-termism by UCL.

One example he recalled was of a colleague who was so brilliant that Facebook offered him a job. Not wanting to take his wife away from her career in London, he turned it down. Facebook then set up a London office, in part Kelberman suggests, because of his colleague. The aspiring scientist however, wanted to continue his academic career; he told UCL about the job offer and asked them to renew his contract. However, he was told that he had 3 months left of his current contract and that he was free to go after it was up.

There are further administrative bureaucracies that hinder UCL. One very prominent researcher was told by management that he could not give a lecture to undergraduates as he was ‘too senior’. Those working in the Institute of Child Health also cannot give lectures to undergraduates.

Gauri Bhosale, a PhD student at UCL, believes that students become postdocs with their ‘eyes wide open’. However she claimed this was not the case with undergraduates studying science who, whilst understandably naive, needed more guidance in regards to the realities of staying in academia.

Lacey points out that most academics could easily earn double if they joined the Civil Service, but  for most of them, money is not the motivating factor. She argues that all postdocs really want is job security. However, in a system that utilises short term grants, rewards sensationalised papers and bases promotions on obtaining near impossible to get fellowships job security is in short supply. Without job security, it is no wonder so many leave academia: calling it a ‘brain drain’ is an understatement.

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