NZ S&T post-doctoral fellowships: A key part of New Zealand’s talent pipeline

By Shaun Hendy 12/04/2010 4

One of the most important steps in a scientist’s career is their first post-doctoral fellowship. Science becomes something to be practised rather than studied, you get a salary not a scholarship, and you start paying taxes rather than tuition fees.  At the end of the fellowship, a fellow will have established their own research direction, and will be capable of taking a scientific question from formulation to resolution.

In New Zealand, FRST has been running the NZ Science & Technology post-doctoral fellowship scheme since 1993.  I was awarded an NZ S&T post-doctoral fellowship in 1998 to work at Industrial Research Ltd.  The job market was not great when I came back to New Zealand that year, so had it not been for the fellowship scheme, I am not sure I would have been able to start a science career in New Zealand.

Up until late 2009, 481 fellowships had been awarded to a field of 1631 applicants, an overall success rate of just under 30%.  That’s a very high rate of success in the New Zealand context.  The latest round closed on April 7; successful applicants will be publicised in about two months.

Salaries have grown slightly ahead of inflation recently.  In 1998, a fellowship was worth $44,444.  In 2006, the fellowship paid $50,000 pa; from 2006-2008, they were $58,000 pa; from 2008, they have paid $61,000 pa.  In 1998 dollars, today’s salary would have been worth $47,000.  A review of the salaries awarded is now conducted every two years, in which the Foundation benchmarks the stipends paid against the salaries paid to entry-level postdoctoral researchers by the universities and CRIs.

Since 1998, fellowships have gone from two years in duration to three, and a ’Bridge to Employment’ scheme has been created.  This scheme pays 50% of a Fellow’s salary for one year, if the institution they are working at is prepared to make an offer if permanent employment.  FRST award 2-6 of these per year.

However, one of the problems with the scheme is the requirement that applicants must already possess a PhD.  This precludes students from applying in anticipation of completing their degree, as they would for most other fellowships.  Although FRST has two application rounds per year, a student who graduates just after applications are due would have to wait 6-8 months before being able to start an NZ S&T fellowship.  During this time, they will no doubt look at other opportunities, most likely offshore.

When I asked FRST about the reasons for this I was told:

This is to ensure that someone applying for a Fellowship is guaranteed to have a PhD.  As not all theses are passed and not all oral exams successful, the Foundation requires the PhD to have been awarded.

This does not strike me as a particularly good reason to risk losing our brightest students offshore, or into other careers, by making fellowships unavailable to them at the conclusion of their PhDs.  I think FRST should seriously consider making offers of fellowships conditional on completion of a PhD, rather than requiring a PhD to be complete before it will consider an applicant.

Has the scheme been successful?  FRST has been surveying people at the end of their Fellowships since 2006:

From 2006 to 2009, 165 people responded to the survey as having ‘continuing employment’.  Of this group, 125 people were employed in ‘their own speciality area of science’, and 90 people in this group were employed by the same institution with which they completed their Postdoctoral Fellowship.

Even if only 90 of the 165 respondents have stayed in New Zealand, this seems like an excellent retention rate.  This scheme obviously plays an important role in developing the careers of New Zealand’s emerging scientists.

One final question I have is whether the scheme casts its net broadly enough.  FRST is charged with supporting targeted research, so it is not surprising that applications are ranked in part by looking at the benefits to New Zealand from the proposed research.  However, for applicants proposing basic untargeted research programmes, this can be a difficult case to make, as the benefits from such research are usually indirect and difficult to predict.  I suspect the focus of the current scheme leaves a gap in the career paths of young researchers in the basic sciences, and likely forces such scientists to leave or remain off-shore.  Would a young Vaughan Jones be able to establish a career in New Zealand today?

4 Responses to “NZ S&T post-doctoral fellowships: A key part of New Zealand’s talent pipeline”

  • I realise that in some disciplines, a first and second postdoc have become important, but not all disciplines require this, and a particularly good PhD can skip postdocs altogether, depending on the tier of the university. At least, this is true for the US. I’m inclined to believe the brevity of the UK-style PhDs here rule this out.

  • Yes, that’s an interesting point. I did almost as much course work for my PhD as I did for my BSc. It wasn’t so much fun at the time but a broader education helped me change fields when I came back to NZ. I would add though that with the tenure-track system in the US, a new hire at a good university still has a considerable barrier to overcome to get that permanent position.