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.
Last year I had an enquiry from a prospective PhD canidate, from Libya. He seems like a decent enough bet: he had a MSc from Cardiff, and his references from there were fine – so there were no major concerns with his English or his general background knowledge. His MSc project was in an area relevant to my own work. So, it looked like his could make a go of a PhD. The basic paperwork was in place for him to come, he just needed to acquire a visa. Then the revolution started. Communications went down, and there was no way to know what was really happening. Thankfully, sometime after things had settled down I got an email to say my applicant was OK, and was the offer for the PhD still open? So we sorted the paperwork out again and an application was made for a visa. Note that the Libyan Government would pay the overseas fees (>£12k per year) and that his stipend would be around £1900 per month (much more than the EPSRc stipend of around £1150 per month). The visa request was turned down – the reason given was the monthly income was less than £2400! If one includes the fees and stipend, the Libyan Government was prepared to pay more than £3000 per month to fund this student.
In the Sunday Times this weekend there is an article [paywalled] about Indian students ‘shunning’ the UK as visa regulations get tougher and courses increasingly expensive. Damian Green, the immigration minister is quoted as saying:
There is no limit on the number of genuine students who can come to the UK and our reforms are not stopping them.
Well Mr Green, in this case they clearly are, unless of course you are coming from a country that is prepared to pay, not only 3-4 times the fees of a UK/EU student, but also more than twice what the UK Government is prepared to pay it’s own physics and engineering PhD students. It seems we are quite happy to support regime change in Libyan, but not quite so forthcoming in helping to educate their students.
I don’t really understand the decision making process here, but if this is the general rule for overseas PhD applicants relating to visas, then I think UK Higher Education may have a very serious problem, which is not just brewing, but well underway. ‘Cos clearly we can afford to turn away decent students with the money to finance their studies behind them.