The Welfare of Early Career Researchers

ApprenticeshipThe Welfare of Early Career Researchers

The challenges facing early careers researchers in the UK and globally have long been recognised [1].

  • Unstable careers with short-term contracts
  • Limited opportunity to develop a research career
  • Lack of adequate mentoring and support

Unstable careers with short-term contracts Long hours are a cultural artefact within academia, with many working at evenings and weekends. For early careers researchers (ECRs), this can be exacerbated with the pressure of competition for jobs. A recent survey found that ECRs report work 55 hours a week on average [2], far above the maximum number of hours recommended by the European Working Hours Directive [3]. Paradoxically, zero hours contracts are also being increasingly offered.

Women account for well over half of all postgraduate students and postdocs in health sciences, where there is also a tendency to start and complete PhDs later than in the natural sciences. There are recognised challenges for universities in recruiting and retaining women in scientific careers [4]. Following guidelines set out by Athena Swan (http://www.athenaswan.org.uk/) would enable universities to create and follow adequate family friendly policies (such as access to parental leave while a student), and support parents by access to career development opportunities.

The national minimum doctoral stipend for UK PhD students in 2014 was £13,863 [5]. This is hardly an income to tempt or retain the most highly qualified people in the country – and is likely to exclude people from participating in academia.

Furthermore, the provision of clinical salaries for postdocs with medical degrees is weakly justified as retention of the best candidates [5]. However, this basic inequity does not foster the development of close working relationships between clinicians and other health sciences professionals and researchers. Universities should consider the retention of high-quality candidates from all backgrounds a priority, and provide appropriate professional salaries as an incentive.

Limited opportunity to develop a research career

Short-term contracts are challenging, with pressures of writing papers and grant applications – writing grant applications to secure the next contract can take precedence over writing papers and in turn affects career progression. Job insecurity is the norm, with many researchers doubtful about their chances of ever achieving permanent employment [6].

Universities are required to teach ever-greater numbers of students, who themselves require more feedback and engagement than previous cohorts. Much of this workload falls on researchers at the beginnings or mid-career stages of their careers, often in short-term posts which have no provision for research or publications, on which career progression depends [7].

Many PhD students and post-docs carry out teaching for their departments, often for free. We believe that while a beneficial career opportunity, this teaching should be appropriately remunerated, with access to training and mentoring provided by universities.

Lack of adequate mentoring and support

For those who remain in academia, PhDs are often followed by a series of short-term research posts. In addition to the practical problems (moving house repeatedly; poor pay and conditions; insecurity of employment; time spent on job applications) there are also serious career consequences, such as being employed for the duration of the project, but being excluded from papers which appear subsequently. This lack of support is often compounded by lack of adequate mentoring.

In conclusion, ECRs face many challenges, often including zero hours contracts, poor pay and conditions, short-term posts, heavy teaching loads and lack of mentors and support. This is an unacceptable way to treat academic colleagues. It is also a grossly inefficient use of a key UK resource, our best young brains.

The Society for Social Medicine therefore believes that:

  • Universities must do more to promote equality of access to secure and rewarding academic posts for high-quality candidates from all backgrounds
  • Universities must take more responsibility to ensure career progression of early and mid-career researchers
  • Mentoring, career development and support are essential to the recruitment and retention of high-quality candidates for permanent academic jobs
  • Post-docs should be valued as members of universities, and their importance to academic groups should be recognised though professional salaries and secure employment

The Society has developed initiatives to support ECRs in their careers, such as a mentoring scheme, and career development workshops. For more details please contact ecr.ssm@gmail.com

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this statement are put forward by the ECR Subcommittee within the Society for Social Medicine, and are not necessarily those of their employers or funders. Furthermore, this statement is supported by the ECR SSM survey results 2015 [8]

[1] https://www.vitae.ac.uk/policy/concordat-for-the-career-management-of-contract-research-staff-1996-vitae.pdf

[2] http://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/news/europes-early-career-researchers-gloomy-over-prospects/2010834.article

[3] https://www.gov.uk/maximum-weekly-working-hours/overview

[4]https://royalsociety.org/~/media/Royal_Society_Content/policy/publications/2010/4294970126.pdf

[5] http://www.rcuk.ac.uk/media/news/rcuk-doctoral-stipend-levels-and-indicative-fees-for-2014/

[6] http://www.interacademies.net/File.aspx?id=23352

[7] http://cdbu.org.uk/campaigns/early-career-researchers/

[8] ECR SSM survey results 2015

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