Postdoctoral Fellows - An Overview

Postdoctoral Fellows - An Overview

Training and developing scientists is an important priority for the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute. We aim to provide a first class and well resourced learning environment in which individuals are equipped with the knowledge and skills they will need for a successful career in science.

The Institute currently has around 80 PDFs who play a key role in our ongoing research programmes and are often lead authors on many of the resulting publications. Since there is no other institute in Europe, possibly in the world, where genetic and biological data is produced and analysed in greater volumes, the training environment at the Sanger Institute is unique. The research facilities and resources available are exceptional, even at a global level, and therefore provide PDFs with unprecedented opportunities to develop their skills. We are aiming to train a cadre of internationally competitive scientists who understand genomic methodologies and analytical tools, so that they are able to work with large genomic data sets and biological resources. This training will enable these scientists to make significant contributions to the progress of biomedical research.

The Institute provides PDFs with a flexibly-structured programme of transferable skills training and excellent career guidance opportunities, which are overseen by the PDF Development Committee. PDFs have an annual performance review/appraisal meeting with their line manager, and their progress towards the attainment of research and development objectives is monitored.

The campus, which is shared with the European Bioinformatics Institute, provides excellent staff amenities including a well equipped library, restaurant and cafes, sports hall, sports field and gymnasium, and a free bus service. Employees at the Institute also have access to a range of benefits.

The key elements of our Postdoctoral programme include:

  • Provision of support for postdoctoral scientists through a period of early career research training
  • Planning, developing and carrying out research under the direction of a member of Faculty or other senior scientist
  • Acquisition and refinement of the knowledge and skills (field-specific and transferable) necessary to provide a foundation for a career in science
  • Flexibly-structured programme of core transferable skills training
  • Regular assessment of progress against research and development objectives
  • Formal review in final year to assess achievement against objectives and to evaluate career options
  • Time-limited positions with a clear expectation that individuals will move on to positions elsewhere
  • Personal salary support from either core Institute or third party funding. Encouragement to compete for prestigious and other well-resourced external fellowships

Recruitment and Employment

Recruitment Process

We welcome applications and approaches from committed and talented individuals who would like to spend time at the Sanger Institute as part of their postdoctoral training. There are a number of routes in:

  • Applying for advertised positions on our website and in the scientific press. Current opportunities can be found on the Sanger Jobsite where you can also register your interest in future opportunities by setting up a profile.
  • Approaching Faculty members directly, particularly where you already have well-developed ideas on a research direction.
  • Obtaining your own fellowship with the sponsorship of a Sanger Institute Faculty member. All Postdoctoral Fellows (PDFs) are encouraged to seek their own independent funding either prior to their arrival or once at the Institute.
  • Applying for the Janet Thornton Fellowship, if you have had a break from scientific research for one year or more.

Generally Postdoctoral Fellow (PDF) applicants will have recently completed their PhD or first postdoc and be seeking a period of early career research training. This distinguishes them from PhD qualified individuals following other career pathways. They may also be medically qualified individuals wishing to spend more time in research as part of their broader scientific training, after completing their PhD or an equivalent qualification. PDF positions are not intended for more experienced or established scientists.

PDFs may be in their first or second post doctoral position or other variation but must satisfy the training criteria. Some will have recently completed their PhD; others will already have held a postdoctoral position elsewhere. No PDF is likely therefore to be more than 6 - 7 years post-PhD by the end of their appointment. PDF positions are not intended for more experienced or established scientists.

Being employed by the Institute

The Sanger Institute has developed a career model for its PDFs.The model is underpinned by a workforce agreement which covers all PDF fixed-term contracts and will be provided to each PDF upon appointment. PDFs hold time-limited positions typically of up to 3 years duration and with a maximum length set at five years. Periods on third party funding will count towards these limits and should normally be contained within PDF tenure.

Typically, PDFs will be carrying out original research within a defined scientific area in a Faculty team. They may also be contributing on a broader level to large-scale and flagship projects. This distinguishes them from roles with more defined parameters which fulfill a longer-term requirement for a certain type and level of input, for example running significant elements of a team's activities, performing a recognised specialist and enduring role within a team or working as part of a research facility to meet the needs of other programmes.

In order to facilitate the transfer of postdocs between employers in the academic sector, the Sanger Institute operates a dedicated PDF incremental pay scale. Pay on appointment will take into account a range of factors including nature and extent of postdoctoral experience, academic and research record, publications and other scientific achievements. PDFs will receive incremental increases with the rate of progression, determined by an individual's level of contribution. In common with other staff, this will be assessed as part of the salary review each year with revised rates of pay taking effect on 1 January each year. Individuals who have submitted their thesis, but who have not yet had their PhD awarded, will be placed on a transitional pay point pending confirmation of their degree.

PDFs on a contract of employment will be entitled to the full range of benefits. PDFs on third party fellowships may receive a differing level of benefits due to a number of factors - taxation laws, terms of the fellowship etc - and individuals opting for this route are advised to contact the Human Resources team to discuss further.

Training and development

The Institute provides Postdoctoral Fellows (PDFs) with a flexibly-structured programme of transferable skills training and excellent career guidance opportunities.

PDF Development

PDF training and development is overseen by the PDF Development Committee, which consists of Faculty members, PDF representatives, a representative from Human Resources and the Institute's Graduate Programme Manager. The main role of the committee is to facilitate the development of all PDFs through the effective provision and evaluation of training courses and other development opportunities, such as career guidance. The committee is also responsible for reviewing any policies which may have an impact on PDF development.

The Institute provides a number of training opportunities for PDFs including:

  • EMBO lab management course
  • Project management
  • Science communication and public engagement
  • Scientific writing

In addition, PDFs are able to attend any of the courses scheduled as part of the Institute's overall Training and Development Programme and courses/events run by the University of Cambridge Graduate School of Life Sciences.

University of Cambridge affiliation

All PDFs at the Institute have access to the University of Cambridge Careers Service for Life Science Postdoctoral Researchers. They offer individual guidance, interactive workshops and careers conferences on the following themes:

  • Securing an academic career
  • R&D opportunities in industry
  • Non-research career options

PDFs are also eligible to become members the University of Cambridge Postdoc Society (PdOC). This provides PDFs with an excellent opportunity to network with postdocs based throughout the University and its affiliated institutions.

Personal Development

Progress towards the attainment of research and development objectives will be mapped and monitored through discussion with their line manager.

PDFs are expected to follow a flexibly-structured programme of transferable skills training to help provide a sound foundation for a career in research. This may include options such as: project management, scientific writing, presentation skills, time management and science communication skills. Advanced options for more experienced individuals might include: writing project proposals and grant applications, managing colleagues, finance and resource management.

All PDFs should have a performance review/appraisal meeting with their line manager on an annual basis. This provides a formal opportunity for review of their progress and agreement on research and development objectives for the next 12 months.

The position of all PDFs will be reviewed at least six months ahead of the projected end date for their appointment to ensure adequate preparation for the next career step. Career workshops will be available to support individuals in their assessment of career options moving forwards.

Life after the Institute

Experiences of Postdoctoral Fellows

The Institute continually assesses the value its students gain from its training programme. In 2012, we invited everyone who had been a member of our PhD programme from its start in 1993, and all our Postdoctoral Fellows who had left since November 2010, to tell us about their subsequent work experiences and to give any advice they wanted to pass on to future trainees.

We received an overwhelming response, out of the 78 former PhD students and 25 Postdoctoral Fellows, 82 (80%) gave us their views. Here is a snapshot of what they told us.

Employment prospects

Almost every former PhD and Postdoctoral Fellow (96 per cent) indicated that they were employed in full-time, part-time, self-employed or freelance work. The majority of whom (70 per cent) were continuing to pursue their scientific interests in academic research and/or academic teaching.


Approximately three-quarters of fellows had found employment in academia after completing their scientific training.

Of those employed in academia, 53 per cent were employed as Postdoctoral Researchers (17). Five ;were Group Leaders, one a Career Development Fellow, one a Lecturer and one a Bioinformatician.

The majority of those working in academia have fixed-term contracts (88 per cent), around half of which were for a period of three years. Overall, 15 were carrying out research in the same or a similar area to their postdoctoral work at the Institute.

Almost half of the former Postdoctoral Fellows still in academia (17) were based in the UK, with the others in the USA (3), Europe (4), Mexico (1) and China (1).

Outside academia

In total, 25 former Sanger Institute PhD students (34 per cent, 20) and Postdoctoral Fellows (22 per cent, 5) were working outside academia in science-related areas such as in the Biotechnology/ pharmaceutical industry, medicine and healthcare, science administration and policy and science communication.

The reasons former students and fellows gave for moving away from academia included: 'career prospects in science being very difficult', 'availability of suitable jobs', 'job stability', 'no permanent contracts' and 'better pay'.

Of those who left academia, men were more likely to leave academia than women, with only 7 out of the 25 being women (6 PhDs and 1 PDF). Also, almost half of those who had moved away from academia said that they are not considering a return to academic research at a later stage or that it would not be very likely.

Advice on starting an academic career

The Institute's former Postdoctoral Fellows had a range of advice for those just starting their careers in academic research. The key messages were:

  • focus on your interests
  • have a passion for the research you are doing
  • develop transferable skills
  • collaborate as much as possible.

They also highlighted the importance of being open-minded, flexible, enthusiastic, and proactive, and considering alternative careers at an early stage.