South African institutions have well-established research support offices to provide postdoctoral career pathways as well as support for developing strong applications.
We saw this first-hand at The African Academy of Sciences when, with the Royal Society, we offered fellowships to 30 postdocs as part of the Future Leaders African Independent Research programme. Those who came from South Africa or were at South African institutions received support ahead of their applications, which helped them to prepare budgets and ultimately to be more competitive in their applications.
Unfortunately, this is not the case for the rest of the continent. For the most part research support offices don’t exist, and applications are largely driven by an individual’s intellect, grit and determination to succeed, with little institutional support.
Lack of mentors or supervisors
African universities face a dire shortage of PhD level staff. The shortage of lecturers with doctorates means that institutions of higher learning aren’t preparing graduates that can be competitive in the academic world or the private sector globally.
Additionally, there are fewer accomplished scientists that can take up postdoc positions and fewer institutions with the capacity to host postdoc trainees. This forces PhD graduates either to delay taking up postdoc opportunities, or look elsewhere for opportunities.
The challenge is also reflected in the quality of postdoc applications. This has knock-on effects. To become research focused, universities are expected to attract world class researchers who will need the support of well-trained postdocs to help them achieve their personal and institutional objectives.
Universities need to provide attractive employment conditions if they want to attract postdoctoral fellows. An important part of this is being able to offer facilities and financial support. Postdocs need to be well funded to make the training attractive for early career researchers who are also often taking care of families while embarking on their research careers.
Our experience at The African Academy of Sciences suggests this can be done. We have a programme management platform, the Alliance for Accelerating Excellence in Science in Africa, that focuses on building well-funded postdoctoral programmes to create a critical mass of African researchers. Other organisations and research bodies could consider a similar approach so that postdocs have a better chance to make a decent living while growing their skills as researchers.
Judy Omumbo, the Programme Manager for Affiliates and Postdocs at The AAS also contributed to this article