The perennial postdoc vs. need for PhD research staff

In an article in the South African Mail and Guardian 2 weeks ago, Philippa Kerr sets out an interesting argument in Perverse incentives for universities are wasting the skills and work of postdoctoral fellows.  Kerr makes a compelling well-reasoned argument that South African universities have a lack of permanent staff who have PhDs but at the same time host thousands of postdocs.

“On one hand, universities and the department of higher education and training (DHET) claim that the higher education system is seriously short of PhD-qualified academic staff.  Only about 35% of permanent academics have PhDs, though these are unevenly distributed among universities. (…) Universities are being encouraged to think of “innovative strategies” to recruit PhD-qualified academics to fill this gap. But on the other hand, the universities already collectively host a few thousand postdoctoral fellows.”

Kerr describes the way in which postdoc appointments are viewed – as temporary appointments that allow recent graduates to publish as much as possible before going on to a permanent post with more teaching and admin responsibilities. Ideally, this  fellowship arrangement is beneficial to both the university and the fellow as Kerr explains:

“Universities typically claim that this arrangement benefits both the university and the fellow: the university benefits by having its research productivity bolstered by the fellow’s publications; and the newly-qualified PhD-holder benefits from a period of “mentored training” in which to develop their research skills, under the supervision of a senior academic host, in preparation for an academic career and a permanent university job.”

But of course this must be countered by the precarious situation in which many postdocs are placed with low pay, no employment benefits and even the way in which fellows are considered perpetual learners/apprentices. Kerr points out that the benefits to the university system include the relatively low cost of employing postdocs as well as the bolstering of ‘per capita’ research outputs (this per capita does not seem to include postdocs as they are not permanent staff). As Kerr states:

“In some ways, this mirrors patterns of academic casualisation in much of the Global North, where, in a collapsing permanent academic job market, postdoctoral fellowships and other kinds of insecure posts are absorbing the oversupply of PhD graduates who have no realistic chance of finding permanent academic work.  In South Africa, however, the reasons for offering postdoctoral fellowships are less clear, as most academics already in permanent posts don’t have PhDs.”

As a South African postdoc working in a European research institution I was struck by this rather strange dual problem – I think many of us are aware of the real risks of being in a postdoc position for many years. However, I hadn’t realised that there is a fair proportion of permanent academics already employed in South Africa without PhDs, as this does make for quite a dilemma. I would love to hear from this community about your experiences of postdoc career pathways –  is there this same need for PhD staff but apparent lack of options for postdocs in other universities around the world?  It would be great to start a conversation about the creative ways through which you have all navigated this space!

Thanks also to Jess Cockburn for first posting the article to social media.

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