It may not be the major earthquake that some hope for, but the UK's research training and career landscape is getting a shake-up. The Government, the Higher Education Funding Councils, and the Research Councils are all pulling in the same direction, and the result should be more attractive research careers featuring better financial support, training opportunities, and career structure. Next Wave reports on what these changes mean on the ground and what else is in the pipeline.

Financial Support

A "wake-up call" is how Alan Johnson, Minister of State for Lifelong Learning, Further and Higher Education, refers to the Roberts Review. Sir Gareth Roberts's report, " SET for success ," was commissioned by the Treasury and published in April 2002. Among other concerns, it highlighted how low incomes for postgraduate students and postdocs are a contributory factor in so many turning their backs on research careers. Johnson was speaking during last month's UK GRAD Annual Conference in London, which brought together representatives of the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE), the Research Councils, and Higher Education institutions (HEIs).

The Government's response to Roberts came in the 2002 Spending Review. Following this, "funding for research, including postgraduate training and careers, will increase by £1.25 billion in 2005-06 compared with 2002-03," Johnson highlighted to the conference. And many young scientists should feel the impact of the extra cash directly, by looking at their bank accounts. The minimum stipend for Research Council students has increased to £9000 in 2003-04 and is set to rise further, to £12,000 by 2005-6, with up to £13,000 on offer to students in subject areas such as the physical sciences where there is a shortage of PhD candidates. Research Council postdoctoral salaries will rise too, on average increasing by approximately £4000 by 2005-6.

Training

Patchy quality of research training that leaves some new doctorates ill-equipped for a career either in academia or industry was another concern raised by the Roberts Review. The report recommended that "major funders of PhD students should make all funding related to PhD students conditional on students' training meeting stringent minimum standards."

This statement echoed a general trend towards guaranteeing minimum standards for research training. In August 2000, following the HEFCE Review of Research British universities were warned that they would lose HEFCE funding should they fail to advance the careers of young researchers sufficiently.

But the difficulty was knowing how to measure how well universities perform in terms of research training. The report to the Funding Councils, " Improving standards in postgraduate research degree programmes ," published in October 2002, proposed a framework of threshold standards and additional guidelines for good practice. It covered all aspects of research training, including the research environment, progress and examination of students, supervision and skills development, along with the institutions' arrangements for quality assurance, procedures, and regulations.

Minimum Threshold Standards Under Consultation

  • Each student to have at least two supervisors, the main one being experienced

  • All new supervisors to receive training

  • Students' progress to be reviewed annually by a panel including at least one person independent of the supervisory team

  • Students to have access to a training programme in research and other skills

  • Fair and transparent complaints and appeals procedures to be put in place by all institutions

A complete list is available.

Even though the Funding and Research Councils have welcomed the framework, it will be a while before changes reach the lab. The threshold standards are now being developed, along with systems to monitor them, and a second round of consultations with the HEIs has just closed. Final details are expected shortly and, to implement the scheme, funding models based on universities' performance also need to be designed.

Meanwhile, the Research Councils have also put together a set of competencies which they would expect any PhD student to develop during their training. These are not compulsory, but rather are intended to encourage universities to deliver research training of the highest standard. However there is no reason why research students cannot make use of them right now, to monitor the value of the training they receive and their own skills development.

Research Councils'/AHRB Skills Training Requirements

A PhD holder should be able to:

  • Demonstrate original, independent, and critical thinking

  • Justify the principles and experimental techniques used in their research

  • Show a broad understanding of the context in which research is carried out

  • Effectively manage a project and use information appropriately

  • Constructively defend research outcomes

  • Articulate ideas clearly to a range of audiences

  • Develop and maintain working relationships

  • Take ownership for his or her career progression

  • Demonstrate an insight into transferable skills

A complete list is available.

Roberts recommended "the provision of at least 2 weeks dedicated training a year", especially in transferable skills, for PhD students and postdocs. This is to become a reality for all Research Council PhD students and postdocs on Research Council grants, with all HEIs receiving extra funding from this academic year to provide this additional training. The UK GRAD programme, best known to PhD students for the GRAD school courses that help them take ownership of their personal development, is responsible for helping universities to develop their training programmes. The Government has allocated £1.5 million to the UK GRAD programme in the financial year 2003-04, an amount set to increase to £7 million in 2005-06.

Finally, a proposal for 100 training awards worth £50,000 each was announced in the White Paper on the Future of Higher Education published in January 2003. Currently under consultation, the Promising Researcher awards would enable talented young researchers in departments rated 4 or below in the Research Assessment Exercise to spend 6 months in a higher rated lab.

Career Structure

The ill-defined career structure and precariousness of short-term contracts are a major source of concern for anyone considering a career in research. A Concordat was signed in 1996 between all the HEIs and the major funders of research to implement better career management of contract research staff. The final report of the Research Careers Initiative, which monitored progress towards meeting the Concordat's commitments, was published in 2002. That year the Fixed-Term Work Regulations were also introduced in an effort to improve the situation of all staff employed on fixed-term contracts. "These regulations will give employees comparable employment protection and rights" to permanent staff, explained Johnson, "and prevent the potential abuse and uncertainty of continuous fixed-term contracts."

More recently, as part of its response to the Roberts Review, the Government has proposed the introduction of new Academic Fellowships that will offer a more stable environment in which researchers can build their expertise and reputation, providing career-related training and, importantly, a permanent position at the end of the 5-year awards. Up to 200 of these fellowships will be given out each year, with the first annual round to be launched in early 2004. Funding to the tune of £23 million has been earmarked until the new spending review in 2006, although it is anticipated that the scheme will continue beyond that time.

Amid all the changes being put into place and proposals on the table, there is one clear message. "Postgraduate students used to be invisible in all sorts of ways," concluded Dame Janet Ritterman, Chair of the Arts and Humanities Research Board Postgraduate Committee, at the UK GRAD Conference. Now, however, early-career researchers are very much in the mind of the powers-that-be.

Elisabeth Pain is contributing editor for Europe.