Home > Academia, careers, physics > Dundee Fellows: Where are the applications?

Dundee Fellows: Where are the applications?

My department is part of the College of Arts, Science and Engineering at the University of Dundee and the College has recently been running a new type (for Dundee) of recruitment scheme, called the “Dundee Fellows“. This is a cohort recruitment program, offering all sorts of mentoring, media training and cross college networking opportunities, as well as being a permanent academic post. It’s an excellent opportunity for good postdocs to take the next step on an academic career path and establish their own group. The application deadline passed yesterday and we have hundreds of applications in total. I’m not sure of the number in physics, but we have a healthy proportion of that, and it looks like we have a large number of excellent candidates. So I don’t have anything to grumble about – this scheme will help us add more talented researchers to our growing department. But…while the number of applications applications sounds like a lot, this covers physics, biomedical engineering, maths, civil engineering, computing and the myriad of things that artists and designers do.

There are, I believe, around 46 physics departments in the UK, and I would suspect the average number of 30 staff in each would not be unreasonable. I would also suspect that the staff:postdoc ratio must be as a bare minimum something like 1:1? So that would give us around 1500 postdocs in UK physics. Now as we are not really recruiting in a range of areas (nuclear, particle, astro etc) we can whittle this number down somewhat, say by 1/2, which would lead 750 still in the general areas of photonics, materials and biological physics and other stuff we would be interested in. Assuming a postdoc is 3 years on average, 1/3 of these will be in their final year, with at least two years experience, so 250. Let’s then assume half of these actively wish to leave academia, and that half of those who wish to stay couldn’t come to Dundee for personal reasons. This leaves around 60. We do not have 60 applications from postdocs based in the UK. My assumptions may be way off, but that number doesn’t sound too bad.

As you hear all the time about the poor state of career progression in academia (which is true), why is it that I do not have a much bigger pool of people applying for positions here? I am genuinely curious. Possibilities are (i) that we did not advertise well/clearly enough, (ii) we are not an attractive destination for aspiring academics in physics, (iii) postdocs aren’t really sure how to apply for such positions, or where to find out about them, (iv) postdocs overestimate the number of permanent jobs that come onto the market, (v) postdocs quite like being postdocs. I’m sure there are others. There are a fixed number of jobs, and a fixed number of locations, with usually one University per location – so the options and choices are not great. If you are not mobile in this market you will be very limited in what you can do. My advice is not to apply for every job that comes out, but if in doubt take a bit of a punt, you might end up in somewhere like Dundee and be very surprised at what you find (in a good way).

I’d be particularly interested to hear from people who are looking for a permanent post in physics, saw the advert and decided not to apply. Any other thoughts welcome too, of course.


  1. Prof Robert Bowman
    January 24, 2013 at 1:18 pm

    I’d echo those sentiments. At end of last year we had 3 lectureships in a wide range of advanced materials, nano photonics and associated themes open and had around 90 applications. Overwhelming majority were overseas IIRC about a dozen from UK. In end we appointed a Swede from Imperial College, an Indian from ORNL and a Chinese (UK citizen) from Cambridge.

    Being in Belfast I’m sure has a consequential impact for us on your reason (ii) and I’m sure the others factor in as well.

    What I’d also observe is that there is a window of marketability for a post-doc to secure a permanent position at around 3-6 yrs of experience – less than that then exceptional, more than that then people ask why you haven’t had a permanent post yet … so while you might be hanging on for your dream position, obviously don’t just go to who’ll have you, you need to be aware that you might have to opt for a 2nd or 3rd choice or you’ll never get on the ladder.

  2. January 25, 2013 at 1:13 pm

    HI David & Robert,

    [A little bit off-topic but reasonably relevant]

    Robert’s final paragraph is what I was alluding to in my tweets with David earlier. This idea that a postdoc is “stale” if they don’t have a permanent position within 3-6 years of their viva. I propose that a lot of this is in the eye of the beholder and doesn’t really have a rational basis except perhaps to provide an easy means to filter out applicants. Are post-docs who have more experience as research scientists really less valuable than those with less experience? I certainly feel that I am a much better scientist now than I was 3 years ago, or 5 year ago.

    That said, as David pointed out, there are a lot of post-docs who would prefer to remain as post-docs, although, perhaps given that we are nearly all post-docs working in academia, we should distinguish instead between the post-doc, career researcher/scientist, and the PI. What is needed is investment in the career researcher pathway, with permanent positions for career scientists at their institution rather than short/medium-term contracts, so that we can avoid this permanent position or exit academia choice. This seems to me a much less wasteful approach.

    To address your question ‘people ask why you haven’t had a permanent post yet’, there is a very good reason why a postdoc might not have a permanent post at any stage of their career; not enough permanent positions for the available candidates. There are more good scientists who could ably fulfill the requirements of a permanent position than there are such positions (in the same way that the are always more good project proposals that should be funded than there are funds available). Many universities have been aiming to increase the number of successful PhD’s that are churned out, partially as a response to the REF whilst the number of permanent posts has remained stable or reduced (over the last decade or so). An increasing supply (of postdocs), together with a reduction in demand (for postdocs), and lack of a clear career scientist pathway in the UK is just making a bad situation worse.

    • January 28, 2013 at 8:54 pm

      I’m not so sure about the 3-6 years idea, but I do think you need to show sustained productivity as a postdoc, and this is difficult to do over a longer period of time. If your productivity drops off, you start to look a little less desirable, compared to someone who’s just published a swathe of top stuff. Also the more experienced your are the more one might look for you to have a few more strings to your bow – application for some funding, more significant roles in grant writing etc. So with more experience comes more expectation – which does suggest there are probably optimal times to apply. I like to thing I view each application on its own merits.

  3. Prof Robert Bowman
    January 26, 2013 at 9:47 am

    It is probably not something that post docs have not thought of or indeed been exposed to, but department/faculty and indeed university finance drives current situation.

    Sure many of us would love to spend all our time on research but a university requires other things to be done. Most obviously teaching. Even in a large civic research intensive uni income from teaching / fees is something like 50% of a departments income ( which is used to pay salaries – about 60-70% of costs or more in humanities). So a permanent research only position has to be paid for by external sources or conventional academic staff have to carry cost burden of a purely research only staff post by doing more teaching/ admin.
    So OK let’s get external funds to support/pay the permanent researcher? How feasible is is it that you can raise 100% of your salary from external sources? Very hard indeed, evidence shows. Most departments have probably around 10% of staff on fully funded ‘fellowships’. The rest of us seek to recover research cost including salary from grants. I can offer a bit of personal perspective here – I’m currently for last 5+ years very succesful in funding and I raise around 70% of my salary from external sources – industry 50% and EU/EPSRC /TSB the rest. For many of my colleagues who do less applied research they probably get RCUK to cover 5-30% of their salary from 1-3 grants. Average investigator time on fEC system is probably around 10% per grant/project. In fact if you look at the salary cost of a post doc -35k for say 3 yrs experience then the fEC system sees a need to raise around 90k p.a. to cover all indirect costs etc. that is why a pretty basic one post doc plus PI grant now costs around 4-500k over three years. so as it stands the system cannot afford ‘permanent’ researchers unless they can funded themselves directly and stats show that pretty much nobody who’s not on a fellowship can be 100% research.

    If you ask any permanent academic securing research funds including some contribution to their salary is one of biggest stressors of the job and very time consuming. To have to raise 100% would put most over the edge.

    So the reality is if you want a research only position there a two routes join an institution that is such e.g. A national facility/institute or secure a succession of fully funded fellowships which is nigh on impossible bar for a handful of people nationally.

    I’d also like to refine the window of appointability perception – this is not just hard numerical thing instead it is a nuanced look at a candidates CV – are they still working directly in what they did In PhD perhaps in same lab, have they moved and again show they are a major factor to current success. As a colleagues says “.. the heavy penny question..”. What is particularly hard for internal candidates to demonstrate is what new/additional networks/collaborations does this person bring to the table? They need to work hard to differentiate themselves from their PI and the environment that they are in. At the beginning of my career I was given the harsh advice at time – “…..you’ll not get a position here you have to go elsewhere a prove yourself somewhere else that is how the system works people flow about…”. I still think that is the perception. So when you fold that view into what I have outlined above on finance then you can start to see the extremely challenging situation and why the appointments process is what it is. in all professions the hardest thing is that first step onto ladder I don’t think post-docs realise that and once established opportunity for movement increase… In fact other departments can rely on a quality check that that person is already in a permanent established position in addition to their current CV..

    So advice is get applying, don’t be precious on where your first appointment might be, it will give you the opportunity to establish you yourself and even at a minimum the application process will give experience of what lectureship interviews are like…. But thats another thing…. Hint.. They aren’t just interested in your research! They might ask about any teaching/education experience much to many candidates surprise, bizarrely.

    • January 28, 2013 at 8:46 pm

      I’d agree with most of this. I think the way in which we fund things in science, or in most forms of publicly funded research and teaching can seem a bit odd at times. In fact you could argue that because things in the UK are very competitive it’s what keeps UK research at a world leading level in so many areas. But it’s not always ideal. I read an interesting blogpost this morning discussing alternative US funding models – fund the person not the project, and then run things on a promotion, relegation basis depending on how thigns pan out. Looks interesting, although I’m not sure on the practicalities, but it may be that we need new ways of thinking about how we fund and sustain careers in research.

      I do agree that internal candidates can suffer (the grass is always greener) in such processes, but at the same time I also thing that if they can demonstrate that they can work independently from a PI, or simply have a clear plan of action as to how to go about this, then they can also be in an advantageous position as they are already in the door, and the department can be more confident that they will accept the offer.

  4. January 28, 2013 at 8:58 am

    We like Dundee: the place, the cake, and the Crocodile!

  5. January 28, 2013 at 3:02 pm

    Totally agree that mobility among postdocs must be as flexible as circumstances allow but perhaps the problem is that the University called this program Dundee “Fellows”. Despite the explanation given on the web site that these are not short term contract positions (the 3 year probation is typical and reasonable), the connotation of “fellow” to an existing postdoctoral “fellow” is clear. Add to this the cohort nature of the recruitment and one might be left with the perception that the members of this recruitment will be put into a Hunger Games situation where the University nets a series of promising young researchers knowing full well that only a fraction can be offered permanent positions. While this is similar to any individual recruitment, by grouping the cohort, the potential applicants are sensitized to an apparent sieve that protects the University from risk. Hopefully, these concerns will be put to rest during interviews and if enough suitable candidates are not found, then the program can be modified going forward.

    As a Dundee U alumni (early 80’s), I can say that the scientific environment is excellent and have only gotten stronger over the years.

    • January 28, 2013 at 8:39 pm

      Jim – I take the point about the use of the word “Fellows’ here. Although I think the connotation is more related to named Fellowships, like Royal Society Fellowships, EPSRC Fellowships etc. And many Universities now use this type of branding. The cohort entry is clearly stated to not be tenure track, so I’d like to think no one would think we’ll hire twenty people for 10 permanent places. We’re not so mercenary. The idea of the cohort is really to give a specific identity to the group, and hopefully to foster more interdisciplinary thinking. And to be clear we have lots of very able candidates, and I have no dobut whatsoever that we’ll get some excellent new people. I just wanted even more excellent people to choose from!

  6. February 11, 2013 at 6:47 pm

    his year i received an Offer from University of Dundee for my application in Physics (F303). Until i decide what to do, i want to obtain more information about the universities. About Uni of Dundee, what are the areas of physics that i can improve in my Master? And also, i want to know if Quantum Physics and Astrophysics are covered by research in university.

    • February 11, 2013 at 10:07 pm

      Dear Utina,

      If you want more info on the course, you can email me directly (d.mcgloin@dundee.ac.uk) and I can answer any questions you might have. But briefly there are courses in quantum physics at all levels of the course, but we don;t offer an astrophysics option so courses in this area are more limited. In terms of research our main areas are in photonics, biophysics and materials science which are all very cool. We’re a small friendly department and I’m sure you’d enjoy it here. As I say I can answer any question you might have and give you full info on the course if you just send me an email

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