Improving support for early career researchers

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Professor Christina Boswell, Dean of Research in the College of Arts, Humanities & Social Sciences, understands what it’s like to wrestle with uncertainty at the start of a career in academia. Here she shares why early career researchers have been hit so hard by the pandemic, and explains how the University is improving the support available.

The years between finishing a PhD and landing your first tenure-track job are really tough – and my first years in academia were no different. After finishing my PhD in London, I had to move to Hamburg to secure postdoctoral funding, and spent the next six years living from one grant to the next. It was a time of real uncertainty – about job security, where I would live next, and serious doubts about whether I could make an academic career work. So while on paper it may have been a case study in EU researcher mobility, and certainly provided a crash course in grant applications, it was a stressful time, and a huge relief when I was offered a Lectureship in Edinburgh.

Since my days as a post-doc, the problem of early career insecurity has become even more pressing. But the higher education sector is beginning to take the problem seriously. Indeed, a number of bodies – including the Research Development Concordat, the Russell Group Research Culture and Environment Project, and the Wellcome Trust initiative on research culture, to name just some – are converging around a number of key principles. These include the crucial role of a supportive and inclusive research environment, which actively supports career development; promoting and rewarding a wider range of skills and activities within research careers; and providing more secure employment for research staff in host institutions.

These principles are more crucial than ever, as Covid-19 throws up new challenges for early career researchers (ECRs). The pandemic has disrupted ECRs in myriad ways – including through the closure of labs, libraries, and restrictions on travel; through compelling people to work at home, often under difficult conditions; and by creating onerous caring responsibilities for many.

Added to this, those on fixed-term contracts face heightened uncertainty, in the face of a volatile academic job market. These challenges are likely to be most acute for those groups we should be supporting the most – women, those from less advantaged socio-economic backgrounds, and Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) colleagues, all of whom already face a range of structural barriers to advancing their careers.

So, what can the University of Edinburgh do to improve its support for ECRs? Early on in the Covid-19 pandemic, I was asked to lead a working group as part of the Adaptation and Renewal process, to develop a plan to address the challenges faced by ECRs during the pandemic. The ECR group brought together colleagues from across the three Colleges, including ECRs. We were able to draw on the expertise of colleagues in the Institute for Academic Development and Edinburgh Research Office, both of which have been active in developing resources and programmes to support ECRs. We agreed we needed a concerted set of measures to address the particular issues raised by the pandemic.

A key part of the plan involves working with ECRs and their line managers, principle investigators and mentors to identify how Covid-19 has impacted ECR research. We are rolling out a standardised template for clarifying the level of disruption to your research – similar to the kind of statement used to indicate maternity leave. This should be inserted into academic CVs, personal development reviews, promotion materials (from 2021), and early career grant applications.

We are encouraging Schools and Deaneries to prioritise ECRs for various forms of research support – such as assistance with grant applications, seed funding, or additional time for working on research and career development. And we will be using a Scottish Funding Council grant to roll out a series of schemes to help ECRs adapt and reboot their research – including a new research career support programme.

The pandemic may be with us for months or years, and many ECRs will need to adapt their research – learning new methods and skills, accessing new types of data, or using new digital tools. To this end, we are compiling resources to help, including the College of Arts Humanities & Social Sciences’ Supporting Research during Covid Hub (SERCH), and a new Research Adaptation grant.

The University is also investing in 30 new Chancellor’s Fellowships, to offer tenure-track roles for internal applicants who are currently on fixed-term contracts. This is the first time the University has adopted this kind of internal scheme. It has been set up in recognition of its responsibility to support the careers of its own postdoctoral researchers. We are aiming to appoint at least 50 per cent female and 20 per cent BAME fellows, to boost the careers of colleagues who are under-represented in most of our Schools and units.

These are volatile and stressful times, and universities face more acute challenges than ever. But I’m proud that we have managed to carve out a series of measures to help those whose careers are most in need of support right now. Of course, it doesn’t solve all of their problems. But I hope that this focus on supporting early careers sets us on the right trajectory for ‘building back better’ as we eventually emerge from the pandemic.