Developing early career researchers

Do early career researchers know about their right to staff development? Mark Whelan finds that many do not

Mark Whelan is a Researcher Development Training Officer at the University of Surrey’s Doctoral College

In a higher education environment where no less than six research related concordats compete for attention, putting the aims of the Researcher Development Concordat (RDC) of 2019 into practice remains beset with challenges.

For those not up to scratch with the Researcher Development Concordat, the initiative is a sector-wide agreement between institutions, funders, and researchers, aimed at improving the latter’s career prospects and working conditions.

Proposed improvements in the twenty-page document range from specific policies, such as ensuring ECRs have access to effective careers guidance to guaranteeing every researcher a minimum of ten days of protected professional development time, to rather more amorphous aims that although laudable are difficult to define and capture, such as creating a supportive and inclusive research culture.

Making it work

The University of Surrey submitted its first action plan this summer aimed at converting the principles outlined in the RDC into reality for its population of around 400 Early Career Researchers (ECRs), but how best to implement the sometimes nebulous commitments of the concordat on the ground remains open to debate and contested..

Consulting on and composing the necessary documentation and actions plan at Surrey proved complex, drawing attention to the challenges that university leaders, researcher support staff, and ECRs, face in practice when aligning institutional practice and culture with the ideals and policies enshrined in the RDC.

We identified three key challenges that could benefit from further thought and attention, both for Universities UK, the custodian of the concordat, and for the individual institutions charged with delivering on the concordat’s principles in practice. These include making sure ECRs are aware of the RDC itself; not losing sight of the concordat amongst the numerous other concordats, codes of practices, and charters, diffused throughout the university landscape; and evidencing institutional adherence to the RDC’s principles in practice.

Awareness

An immediate issue faced when aligning university practices and culture with the principles of the RDC is that awareness of the concordat in the first place is low—very low, in fact, even among its supposed beneficiaries. When asked if they had heard of the RDC, almost half of the researchers who responded to the UK-wide Culture, Employment and Development in Academic Research Survey (CEDARs) of 2021 had never heard of it, while a further 32 per cent responded that they knew it existed, but did not know any details.

In other words, less than a quarter of researchers polled knew anything about a substantial concordat aimed at improving their lot.

There seemed little acknowledgement of this situation at the Research Culture and Practice Forum hosted by UUK in early July. Speakers, perhaps justifiably, seemed eager to espouse the good news that was the concordat, but perhaps more consideration needs to be given to its lack of penetration into the researcher community and that the rights and benefits the RDC affords researchers are of little use if they remain unaware of it.

At an institutional level, Surrey remains no different to the UK-wide picture: CEDARs data from Surrey in 2020 recorded that about 45 per cent of respondents had never heard of the RDC and a further 30 per cent that they knew of it, but not any of its details. Simply communicating the existence of the RDC to researchers at Surrey through presentations to the ECR Forum and other communication channels, let alone expounding upon the principles within, absorbed more time and energy than perhaps expected when drawing up the institution’s action plan.

The basic lack of awareness of the RDC has encouraged the Doctoral College to pilot a new ECR-focused induction that, among other things, explicitly mentions the concordat and what it offers researchers, and to signpost the RDC more strongly in the Postdoc Appreciation Week schedule and other ECR-focused events throughout the year. We await the results of CEDARs 2023 to see if attempts here at Surrey (and, in fact, across the UK) to raise awareness of the RDC among its beneficiaries bear fruit.

Visibility

That the RDC lacks visibility, even among its supposed beneficiaries, is unsurprising when you consider its place in the concordat-heavy higher education landscape in the UK. A scoping report undertaken by Universities UK in summer 2021 identified no less than six different concordats, as well as a further six charters, codes of practice, and commitments, all requiring institutional action plans with often complex reporting processes. Put simply, the RDC struggles for attention at a crowded table of twelve, where six of those seated share the same first name.

There is also a lingering fear among many university staff, discussed in a recent UUK report, that the combined administrative burden of these separate concordats may well outweigh the benefits derived from signing up to them.

Perhaps the best way not to lose sight of the RDC and maximise its impact is to make the crowded landscape of concordats work as an advantage, pooling efforts and aligning action plans across multiple initiatives wherever possible. The University of Cambridge has attempted to do just this through its Institutional Research Culture action plan, and here at Surrey discussions are taking place to consider whether the Steering Committee working on the RDC can develop into a broader group focusing on research culture, in recognition of the fact that the RDC naturally overlaps with the Concordat for Open Research Data, the Concordat to Support Research Integrity, and the on-going action plans in place for the Athena Swan Award and the Race Equality Charter Submission.

Pooling staff and resources and aligning planning not only makes sense from a resourcing point of view, but also gives formerly disparate actions related to one concordat much greater weight if they are made priorities across several interlocking action plans.

Evidence

Evidencing the cultural and institutional change for researchers that the RDC calls for within a provider is difficult. How, for example, can you demonstrate that institutions have provided researchers with sufficient time to (as the RDC puts it) “to develop their research identity and broader leadership skills”?

One important benefit, however, that the RDC gives ECRs and that can be counted in a meaningful sense is the provision of ten days pro rata protected development time per year. But even evidencing something as seemingly simple as this for reporting purposes soon gets complicated. What counts as protected development time and what constitutes a whole ‘day’ in reporting terms, and how to record it?

Here at Surrey we are exploring various ways to capture the investment of individual ECRs in their professional development, from using professional development trackers provided by external partners to working with colleagues in HR to revise some of the university’s systems. One area where the RDC will surely catalyse development is in the collection and assessment of different types of data that can meaningfully inform about the experience of researchers within the university.

Conclusions

The challenges highlighted above reflect just three issues faced by an institution when tasked with making the principles of the RDC work on the ground. Discussing just what ECRs can spend their ten days of protected development time doing is, of course, important, and that is why this topic was addressed at UUK’s Research Culture and Practice Forum in July. But it remains important not to put the cart before the horse, and it would perhaps be equally beneficial, at least at this stage in the concordat’s lifecycle, to focus just as much effort on ensuring that a majority of researchers were simply aware of the document and the benefits contained within.

Aligning with concordats where there is scope for cooperation or areas of overlap also makes sense, and thinking about the data collection and reporting processes needed to evidence institutional adherence to the RDC’s principles deserves to be a central plank in any planning, in order to evidence a university’s success in making the lived experience for their ECRs a better one.

Surrey’s engagement with the RDC remains, however, a positive one, providing opportunities to reflect on how best to support researchers. It has also served in focusing colleagues from across the university on supporting the often-forgotten cohorts of ECRs.

ECRs are, in effect, transitory and vulnerable fixed-term university staff, stuck somewhere in status between Postgraduate Research (PGR) students and established academics, but without the benefits of either position (such as the protections afforded students or the security of a permanent academic contract) and who frequently suffer from lack of institutional attention. Anything that encourages universities to spend time thinking about the challenges ECRs face in establishing their careers is, therefore, welcome.

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