Who’s who? Profiling the UK postdoc population

Posted on: 27 May 2020 by Catherine Kennedy in Blog posts

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In our latest blog, Prosper's Evaluation Researcher, Dr Peny (Panagiota) Sotiropoulou, dives into the data and looks at what it can tell us about the UK postdoc population.

Recent international literature identifies postdocs as an ‘invisible’ population, driven by a lack of readily-available and accurate data depicting their characteristics and experiences within Higher Education Institutions (HEIs). Although postdocs’ visibility has increased within the last decade, collecting data related to postdocs still proves to be challenging and time-consuming, oftentimes requiring cross-referencing of multiple institutional and national sources. This is a challenge that we at Prosper have encountered since the beginning of the project. However, we know that it’s impossible to effectively address the needs of our postdocs unless we really understand who these people are. Consequently, one of our first tasks at Prosper was to create a benchmarking dataset to monitor the postdoc population across our 3 partner institutions – the Universities of Liverpool and Manchester and Lancaster University- and compare it to national trends.

To create this baseline data, our first point of reference was the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA), which annually collects and publishes a variety of background data about staff employed in UK HEIs. This blog post focuses on HESA data from the last two complete academic years (2017/18 and 2018/19), while also referring to previous years, when necessary, for context. Although we acknowledge that understanding who postdocs are is not solely confined to their background characteristics, previous literature highlights how “we hardly know who [postdocs] are demographically” (Van der Weijden et al. 2016: 26) and HESA data provide a useful starting point to begin demystifying this ‘invisible’ population.

Postdoc population size: General overview and disciplinary insights

In previous blog posts, we’ve touched upon the difficulties of defining the term ‘postdoc’ for the purposes of Prosper. Identifying postdocs within HESA data is also challenging, but we decided to use individuals on research-only contracts as the best proxy measurement. Over the past 2 years, the percentage of postdocs nationally has remained unchanged at just under 13% . Moreover, postdocs are predominantly and increasingly employed on fixed-term contracts. These facts can be linked to the shrinking likelihoods of postdocs attaining full lectureships and/or permanent contracts in academia, a recurring theme in recent literature. They also demonstrate that the need to open up employment opportunities beyond academia for postdocs and afford these equal standing with academic pathways is timelier than ever and is a principal very much at the heart of Prosper.

Using the HESA data to look specifically at postdocs in the 3 Prosper partner institutions, their population size differs significantly. The University of Manchester has the highest number with roughly 2000 postdocs, accounting for about 20% of the institution’s academic staff. The University of Liverpool follows with 865 postdocs, accounting for almost 15.5% of academic staff, while Lancaster University has 325 postdocs, making up 10.5% of academic staff. These figures reflect 3 diverse institutions ranging in overall size and research focus. Crucially, these differences lend themselves to the creation of a Prosper model that can be rolled out across the diverse institutions that make up the wider UK HE sector.

In terms of disciplinary make-up, during the last 2 years, Biological and Biomedical Sciences is the most densely populated both nationwide and across the Prosper partners with around half of the total postdoc population. Physical and Environmental Sciences come second with about 35% of the total postdoc population. Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences have by far the smallest postdoc population, which is unsurprising given historic preferences in these areas for other routes, like fellowships or teaching-only contracts. However, it’s worth noting that these disciplines’ population share has grown within the last 5 years, from just below 10% to above 11%.

Gender: Overall picture and disciplinary differences

There’s still gender disparity within the postdoc population, with men forming the majority of researchers across the globe. Our research shows that this pattern is also reflected within the UK researcher landscape. A first look at the total number of female postdocs gives the misleading sense of an increasing population. However, looking at the percentage share of female postdocs within the total population is a more accurate way of examining the gender gap still present in UK HEIs.

Starting with the wider picture, the percentage of female postdocs has remained stable within the last 2 years, at just under 46%. The size of this population has been roughly the same within the past 5 years, with figures ranging between 45.5% and 46%. Focusing on the female population at the 3 Prosper partner institutions, female postdocs remain the minority compared to their male counterparts, echoing the wider national picture. The underrepresentation of women in research posts has been attributed, amongst other things, to systemic gender bias in hiring and funding, challenges with work-life balance and caring responsibilities.

As well as looking at the wider picture, it’s also important to note that the gender make-up of the postdoc population varies across disciplinary lines, with Health Life Sciences as well as Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences being traditionally female-dominated, as opposed to Physical Sciences and Engineering, where male postdocs form the majority. These trends are reflected both by the UK and the Prosper partners’ data.

It’s important to stress that these statistics have real-life consequences, often leading to the workplace experiences of many postdocs being impacted by their gender. Studies highlight how many female postdocs work in environments where they do not feel supported as women or as academics, something which is more pronounced within male-dominated fields, such as science. Furthermore, many postdoctoral women report feeling unsupported by institutional structures and policies relating to their career development, which can hinder them from reaching their full potential. Prosper seeks to address these inequalities through removing gendered barriers to career development opportunities and resources across all disciplines.


The global academic landscape is not only predominantly masculine, but also ‘white’ and this is apparent in the ethnic make-up of the UK postdoc population, too. Encouragingly, the disparity between white and BAME postdocs has been closing in the last 5 years, a fact which could potentially be attributed to targeted policy initiatives aiming at widening participation, such as the Race Equality Charter. During this period, the percentage of BAME postdocs has increased both in the national average figures (from 18.7% to 22.8%) and the Prosper partners’ average (from 19.6% to 24.7%).

Although the ethnicity gap is closing, there is still plenty of scope for development in BAME postdoc inclusion. Importance should be placed not only on the number of BAME postdocs, but also on if and how the experiences of these researchers are different to their white peers. Thus, keeping track of the ethnicity characteristics of postdocs is essential for Prosper, as one of the project’s main principles is democratising access to professional development opportunities for all. By collecting relevant data, we can build our strategy around recruitment and representation of ethnically diverse postdocs in the project, making sure that we are reaching out to them, listening to their experiences and needs, and using this information to inform our resources and practices as we move forward.


Disability figures in academia are generally low, as counts are based on self-declared information. The literature points out that, historically, disability disclosure amongst the academic community has been low due to fear that this may hinder career progression. To put this into perspective and give a sense of the under-disclosure of disabilities in UK HEIs, according to the most recent national statistics, around 8% of the country’s employed population has a disability, which means that the 4% currently declared amongst postdocs both nationally and across our 3 partner institutions is likely to underrepresent the real picture on the ground.

Despite the Equality Act 2010, which provided legal protection against workplace discrimination, little has changed within academic culture to facilitate equitable opportunities for individuals with disabilities. However, as with gender and ethnicity, Prosper must understand the experiences of disabled researchers within academia so that we can address structural barriers that hinder their access to and opportunities for professional development. For the model to be truly inclusive, we must acknowledge researchers with disabilities and co-create with them an inclusive professional development framework that can be utilised by all researchers, independent of their disability status.

What does this all mean for Prosper?

This blog post is a first attempt at identifying some basic background and EDI characteristics of the Prosper postdoc population, as well as comparing them to the national picture. With democratisation of access forming one of the project’s three pillars, understanding who postdocs are and what this means for how we develop the Prosper model is key. In future blog posts, we’ll delve deeper into the challenges and opportunities of collecting and evaluating data related to the postdoc population, its experiences and needs. We’ll present findings from a range of sources and highlight how we are using those in our co-creation of a new, effective and equitable professional development framework that speaks to all postdocs.

Profiling the postdoc population isn’t straightforward, as we’ve discovered! Can you share your experiences of working with information (or the lack of it) about UK postdocs? Get in touch with the Prosper team at prosper.postdoc@liverpool.ac.uk or find us on Twitter.