Boosting career support for PhD candidates and postdocs
Which career paths do early-career researchers take? How relevant is their PhD education for the working life they start after graduating? A recent study examining doctoral candidates' labour market adaptations and the quality and relevance of Norwegian doctoral education has prompted a conversation on how to best develop career support services for PhD students and postdocs.
The study, conducted by the Nordic Institute for Studies in Innovation, Research and Education (NIFU), gives us reason to be moderately optimistic: PhD candidates are generally satisfied with their adjustment to the labour market and the competences acquired during their doctoral training. Based on this study, we now also have data demonstrating that holding a doctoral degree from a Norwegian institution does lead to a panoply of career tracks.
A considerable share (35%) of PhD candidates from Norwegian institutions continue their career within the higher education sector. Yet, for the majority the career trails take them elsewhere, to jobs in university hospitals, the private sector, at research institutes or public sector institutions. The study also finds that the conditions for doing research in Norwegian higher education and research institutions attract early-career researchers. This is a good sign.
Yet, this study is no call for complacency. We would argue that an even stronger focus on career tracks and support for early-career researchers is needed. PhD candidates are in general uncertain about their own competences and career options. This has been a recurring concern for the University of Oslo and the university board adopted the policy document Standards for career support in March 2020. NIFU’s study gives us a knowledge base to set a clear direction when transforming the policy document into actions. Our policy is not only set for PhD candidates, but also addresses the need for career support and guidance among postdocs and researchers in temporary positions.
Doctoral candidates and postdocs are the core of our research communities. As researchers at the forefront of their fields, they take part in defining the present and the future of our scholarly communities, beyond their doctoral or postdoctoral research projects. They shape the quality and direction of our research-based study programmes; they develop and nurture international networks as well as contribute to dissemination and societal engagement. PhD candidates and postdocs who opt for a career outside academia connect the university with society. Therefore, increasing our institutional capacity for career support is an investment in the future of our scholarly communities.
In 2019, University of Oslo awarded 483 PhD degrees and currently 503 people are employed in postdoc positions. The attention we give to career support and guidance concern a high share of our academic staff.
High standards for career support
The NIFU study clearly demonstrates that we have to take action to implement the university’s career policy for early-career researchers. The set of standards for career support adopted by the board last spring builds on recommendations made by a university-wide expert taskforce’s report: Career support for early-stage researchers: a holistic and systematic approach (Karrierestøtte til forskere i tidlige karrierefaser: En helhetlig og systematisk tilnærming).
The action plan builds on a basic principle that the actions should address researchers institution-wide and not be reserved for a selected group of researchers. At the same time, these actions should be differentiated to remain relevant to people with different needs. For example, the situation and need for mentoring and guidance are as multi-faceted as a comprehensive research-intensive university itself.
The standards state that postdocs should be offered the opportunity to acquire teaching competences and experience, as well as other types of meritorious practice beyond their research. In addition, early-career researchers should be assigned a councillor or mentor, an individual career plan for their contract period and further career. This includes regular career conversations with their unit leader. All faculties are required to offer an organised postdoctoral programme, either faculty-wide or in cooperation with other faculties.
Several of our faculties have already started to implement these guidelines, and have harvested valuable experiences that other units of the university can benefit from. Our many Centres of Excellence are among the research units that have taken important initiatives to aid their young research talents. With our Circle U. partners, our researchers will also have the opportunity to explore career counselling measures and career possibilities in Europe. Within this alliance, we will be able to exploit the potential for further expanding the toolbox for career support in the years to come.
We are not alone in raising this important issue. European career paths may become more easily accessible if the EU is serious about the high ambitions to create a European Research Area and a European Education Area with intensified mobility among researchers and teachers in the early stages of their careers.