Archive for the ‘UK Academia’ Category

Whilst in graduate school I had the good fortune of having the opportunity to witness two faculty searches unfold, one of which I also got to serve as the graduate student representative on the search committee. Thus, I obtained some absolutely invaluable insight into what is necessary to be competitive to obtain a tenure-track interview (note to future applicants: do NOT print your CV in an overly large font size; it makes it look like an advertisement for the local bake sale!). So when the department I’m in here in the UK was looking to fill several positions at the lecturer/senior lecturer level (read assistant/associate professor) I was curious to see how things differed from my experience in the US…and differ it most certainly did!

The most bizarre difference was that all the applicants were invited to interview on the same exact day! There were 4-5 applicants interviewed per position (whereas in my experience in the US it was typically 3 per position) and they were all wandering around the building at the same time. When it came time for the job talks, they all sat and watched each other give talks…and then after the day was over they all went out to dinner together with some of the committee members! Crazy! What an extraordinarily awkward social situation to put people in! (I should note, when I did my postdoc interview at my current institution it was not entirely dissimilar; i.e, all four of us interviewing for the job were interviewed in rapid succession, although we didn’t see each other’s job talks…just bumped into each other while wandering around the lab…).

The other notable difference was the lack of involvement of most of the faculty members in the department in making a decision. In my US experience, all the faculty members had a chance to discuss and vote on whomever the faculty search committee recommended for the job offer at the monthly faculty meeting. Whereas here in the UK, the committee made the decision with only informal (and seemingly quite minimal) input from those outside the committee. The search committee also made their decision VERY quickly, making job offers within 1-2 days following the end of the interviews….and the decision was shrouded in secrecy so that no one outside the committee was told their decision. In addition, as best I could tell, the search committee was made up almost entirely of very senior faculty members (which is probably how they keep the inbreeding going so strong), which is a bit odd seeing as the junior faculty members are the one’s that are going to have to work with whomever they choose the longest and are the one’s that are going to shape the tenor of the department into the future. Sounds a lot like an aristocracy to me!

Some other minor differences were: 1) Prospective applicants did not have a chance to sit down with graduate students in the department. This deprived applicants of an opportunity to see the caliber of students they might expect to obtain at the institution and denied graduate students to chat with someone that isn’t too far from where they may want to be in several years. 2) The overall caliber of invited applicants was somewhat poor, particularly for those applicants that would be brought in at the lecturer (i.e, assistant professor) level. For example, out of the three applicants that would have been brought in at the lecturer level, two of them weren’t even close to being prepared to take the next step (at least based on my conversations with them and their job talk). I don’t think this is institution dependent as my postdoc school has a better ranking/reputation than my PhD school.

The only real positive difference I could see from how the search was done here in the UK versus my experience in the US is that it is much more efficient. Getting all the interviews out of the way in 1.5 days was quite impressive, although they are pretty intense full days in which it would be impossible to get much else done. Other than that, the overall faculty hiring process here (at least in this instance) strikes me as problematic, particularly the lack of offering a forum for input from all the faculty members in the department. I’d be curious to know if this is how it is commonly done throughout the UK or if it’s highly institution dependent. Either way, hopefully this post will be of use to anyone that may be embarking on searching for a faculty position in the UK and may not be familiar with what to expect…


There are a number of differences in the graduate school experience between the  US and the UK. One of the most prominent differences is the amount of time it takes to get a PhD:

Time to completion:

In the US the time it takes to get a PhD in the biomedical sciences varies widely based on the program, the adviser, the student and the research progress luck. Usually it takes anywhere form 4-7 years. In my PhD lab, most students graduated in about 5+ years. Here in the UK there is much less variability: it takes either 3 or 4 years; and you know how long it will take from the beginning. This is because most PhD positions are offered as studentships that are funded from a specific grant for a specific period of time to perform a (usually) well defined project. Once your time is up, well you better be done because there may not be any cash around to support you!

There are some obvious advantages to having a set time limit on the PhD experience (although I think 3 years is too short; I’ve been told there is been a trend towards having more PhDs take 4 years…). Having a clear deadline for when funding runs out may help keep a student focused on making brisk progress. It is not entirely uncommon in the US to find graduate students that sort of meander about and don’t get their ass in gear until 2-3 years in. Having a set time limit also cuts down on the potential for advisers to abuse graduate students by forcing them to stick around longer than necessary to continue to work on a project.

However, I also think there are some significant drawbacks to this approach.

The primary one is that students don’t come out as with as much professional experience as I think is more typical in US programs. Given the amount of time it takes to really get going in a lab and get a handle on the literature in the particular sub-specialty, there is limited opportunity for giving talks or multiple poster presentations. In addition, I also think graduates from UK programs are less likely to publish as much or have as much opportunity to generate multiple first author publications or apply for their own support. Given the time constraints, they also appear to be less likely to have the opportunity to dabble or go after more high risk or exploratory research if they are only working on a small piece of a much larger project, as the cost of failure is much higher when the time frame is more limited.

Thus, at the end of the day, I think a student is likely to be more competitive overall and have more professional experience/knowledge about the scientific process with respect to publishing and grants after graduating from your “average” PhD program in the US than the UK. Given the 1-3 more years it typically takes to get a PhD in the US, there is significantly more opportunity to develop a CV. However, if one were to control for the total number of years being in science, I think many of the differences may very well vanish as I don’t believe there are any significant differences in overall quality of the PhD programs between the two countries.



Since coming to the UK I’ve noticed that there is a considerably higher level of academic inbreeding here than I’ve seen in any of the institutions I’ve been at in the US. For example, at my present institution in the UK there are about 4 or 5 faculty members who got their PhD here, did a postdoc here and are now faculty members. Several of them did not even postdoc anywhere else before obtaining the faculty position.

In addition, there are several postdocs here that have been at the institution (and sometimes the same research group!) since they were undergrads. Indeed, the large majority of graduate students were also undergrads here, and as best I can tell this is common practice in the UK. This is in stark contrast to my experience in some departments in the US where they have a hard and fast rule against accepting undergrads from the same institution into their graduate program.

Thus, coming from a research environment in which academic inbreeding is discussed as if it is a scourge rising from the very depths of ineptitude ready to pull science into the pit of irrelevance, I find it odd that this practice is so rife here in the UK.  Such an observation, of course, causes my American arrogance to kick in and I say to myself “well of course things are just a little backwards on the other side of the pond, I mean, it’s not America and all!”. Well, I need to chickity check myself befo’ I wreck myself on this assumption, as that wonderful attitude is simply not supported by the facts. A recent bit of analysis reported on in Science suggests that the US has fallen to THIRD in the world with respect to citations per paper, behind the UK and Germany:

Marshall & Travis (2011), Science, 334 (6055): 433. Reprinted without permission...biatch!

Thus, clearly academic inbreeding is not having the monumental effect on productivity and impact as I (and others?) were led to believe. In fact, it may very well be beneficial! Now, this is not to say there are not many other factors involved here, as undoubtedly there are. Nonetheless, it suggests that inbreeding really might not be so bad after all…so that cousin you’ve been eyein’ since you was a youngin’…go ahead and give ’em a kiss, it won’t turn out so bad…your papers might even get cited more…

Given the recent world-wide financial crisis that has been taking place over the last several years, and the current fiscal troubles of both the state governments and the federal government in the US, the last words I thought I would ever hear from an employer were “defined-benefit pension plan”. Apparently, all one has to do is move to the UK (and presumably many other EU countries?).

Aside from trying to put myself in the position to obtain a tenure track position in several years, one of my other primary life concerns is figuring out how the hell I’m going to obtain the $1,000,000+ I need to fund a comfortable retirement in 35+ years (and that’s if I were to retire NOW, I don’t even want to think about how much I’ll need when I retire to have the same purchasing power as a cool million today). This is just an absolutely daunting number, particularly considering the paltry pay of graduate students and post-docs.  Nonetheless, I have been contributing what I can via Roth IRAs throughout grad school, knowing that the sooner I start saving the better (if you are reading this and saying “what the hell is a Roth IRA, FDX just gone flipped his lid” then you need to do some research on retirement saving, like yesterday).

Unfortunately, while living overseas and earning money in a foreign country, you cannot make contributions to an IRA unless you want to get taxed twice*. BUT, at least in the UK, you are given access to a University Superannuation Scheme (aka, a defined-benefit pension plan) no matter what University your work at. You put in 6.3% of your salary, your employer pops in 16%, and voila Bob’s your uncle, when I hit the ripe old age of 65, they start sending me checks based on my final salary and how long I made contributions. Easy as insulting a Brit with sarcasm. It’s a no brainer**.

Now, it is my understanding that in the US there is considerable variability concerning the offering of retirement benefits to postdocs. I did a little searching, and it looks like some universities may offer benefits (about 50% according to one National Postdoc Association estimate (this is a PDF)). This is absolutely ludicrous. At the very least, ALL universities should offer any full-time employee a match of up to 5% of their salary to contributions made to a 403(b) or 401(k) plan. Anything less is an absolute disgrace. University  administrators of these 50% of universities should be ashamed of themselves for taking advantage of thousands of bright young men and women just to pad their bottom line (what other reason is there to not meet the basic life requirements of an essential employee?). Saving for retirement is simply too important for administrators to ignore just because they can.

Now, if postdocs are offered a retirement plan and don’t take advantage of it, they need to get their head out of their ass and get with the program.

So, gentle reader, if you are a postdoc, are you offered retirement benefits? If so, what sort of match does the university offer you?


*You can exclude up to about $95k of foreign income from paying US income taxes, but if you do this you forfeit the right to contribute to an IRA or Roth IRA.

**This, of course, assumes the pension plan remains solvent. I actually think defined pension plans are typically unsustainable and should be phased out over time. They are not risk-free investments, but should just be one part of a diversified portfolio.  Luckily, changes will soon be implemented to the University Superannuation Scheme here in the UK to help ensure its long-term solvency.

DISCLAIMER: I am not a certified financial adviser. In case you missed it on the way in, I’m just an “American life scientist keepin’ it real while living and working in the UK”. In no way should that be interpreted as meaning I have the appropriate certifications to provide financial advice. Actually, if you are looking for good financial advice, you probably shouldn’t be looking to someone that took the financially ruinous path of obtaining a PhD.

No D-Day in the UK

Posted: April 19, 2011 in UK Academia

Female Science Professor recently had a post up about the date of April 15th. This is both the dreaded tax filing deadline (unless you live overseas, then it’s June 15th :p) and “Academic D-Day”  with respect to graduate students having to decide on their graduate school choices by this day.  This graduate student decision date, however, is not universal.

In the UK they do things quite differently for recruiting graduate students. Students do not apply to a university or program for graduate school, but they apply for a “PhD studentship” (go ahead and check out Nature Jobs, you’ll see them advertised). Thus, a student applies to work for a specific professor and is funded by one particular grant to do a clearly defined project. This method gets around the issue of an academic D-Day because the whole process is treated much more like a job interview. A particular PI interviews several candidates for the position, and offers it to someone. In some ways this seems like a good deal, particularly for the PI. There’s no messing about with how many students one will get, and the PI has a lot more control over the entire process and is not reliant on the department to set things up.

One of the problems I see with this system is on the side of the graduate student. It doesn’t appear that there is much recourse for the graduate student if they find that their lab or PI is not quite what they expected (although I could be wrong about this, please correct me if I am). The issue seems to be that most PhD studentships are funded by a particular grant to do a particular project. Thus, as far as funding is concerned, most students are tied to a specific grant/project and appear to have very little flexibility. As far as I can tell, the idea of rotations here is quite foreign. This is in contrast to many students in American universities that have some financial support from the specific department through teaching or research assistantships (although I realize there is a lot of variability here from school to school and department to department). This is coupled with the fact that grants in the US appear to have a lot more flexibility in how money can be spent. Grant money seems to be able to be spent on a PhD student or a postdoc, or it can be spent on supplies or equipment. As best I can tell, in the UK money is allocated specifically for salary for a student and it can ONLY be used for that. If a student doesn’t come along to fill the position the money can’t be spent on anything else without a mountain of paperwork to be filed (again, if anyone knows different please correct me if I’m wrong, but this is the impression I get from my PI).

So with respect to “academic D-day” it appears that the UK system solves many of the problems that the US system has, at least from the perspective of the PI. Whether or not this is better for the training of the student will be the subject of a future post. I need to do a little more snooping around here before putting such a post together so as to not misrepresent the UK.