African universities battle to attract post-doctoral researchers. Here's why

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Postdoctoral training is vital for new PhD graduates. This is a period of “apprenticeship” for a newly-minted researcher to hone their skills in a research environment. It typically follows completion of the doctoral degree. Depending on the scientific field and other factors, training can last a year or two and beyond.

This apprenticeship provides young postdocs with critical experience and helps to develop the skills they need to become seasoned research leaders. Yet, very few African universities offer postdoctoral training, primarily due to a lack of mentorship. There are simply not always enough senior, qualified faculty staff – those with PhDs – who can provide the necessary support.

And even if they are able to get postdoctoral places at African institutions, young early career researchers from the continent face four main challenges.

First, they lack access to resources at their home institutions. Second, they haven’t been properly trained in grant writing, an essential skill for accessing competitive funding for their research. Third, they lack mentors or supervisors. And finally, postdoctoral positions tend to be poorly paid.

Postdoctoral training is a critical element of building Africa’s population of researchers. The continent needs to develop its capacity for globally competitive postdoctoral training, as this is essential to promoting scientific and research excellence and leadership. These globally competitive scientists are key to transforming universities into research hubs equipped with skilled staff to mentor the next generation of well-trained scientists to feed ongoing knowledge-based African economies.

This level of talent can only be recruited and retained with sustained funding and infrastructure. For this to happen, African governments must commit to investing more in research and development.

Research infrastructure

Lack of access to resources is a big problem for postdoctoral researchers. Quality science happens in an environment where researchers have state-of-the-art infrastructure and receive good administrative support. This allows them to focus on their research. So it’s imperative for postdocs to be located in accomplished scientists’ laboratories in established and well-resourced universities.

But African universities tend to lack good research infrastructure. This means that PhD graduates can’t get the sort of postdoctoral training they need.

Instead, they often get sucked into teaching or administrative work. Data shows that the average ratio of lecturers to students is as high as 1:47. In Kenya, a lecturer can handle as many as 80 to 100 students. Academics become overwhelmed by their teaching loads and the associated paperwork. They are left with little or no time for research.

Not all PhD graduates choose to stay in Africa and go the teaching route. Many seek internationally competitive postdoctoral training abroad or are increasingly moving to South Africa because of its strong research infrastructure and postdoctoral programmes.

Many of these well-trained scientists then remain in their host country for their productive careers. This deprives Africa of the opportunity to build a world-class research infrastructure at home.

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