Forging prosperous pathways for early career and postdoctoral researchers

As the National Postdoc Conference gets underway today, Saneeya Qureshi and Annette Bramley discuss the importance of research talent development

Saneeya Qureshi is the Head of Researcher Development and Culture at the Academy, University of Liverpool


Annette Bramley is Director of the N8 Research Partnership

“Never let a good crisis go to waste” is a saying often attributed to Winston Churchill. This insight could very well be useful for today’s early career and postdoctoral researchers who have had to cope with the impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic on both personal and professional fronts.

With so much change and focus on mental health over the past 18 months, we believe that there is now a once-in-a-generation opportunity to realise a new vision for a more inclusive, dynamic, productive and sustainable UK R&D sector, in which a diversity of people and ideas can thrive”.

Postdoctoral and early career researchers work in hyper-competitive, research-publication focused environments, where line management support varies from “fantastic” to “sink or swim” and their employment status is often dependent on funding secured by others.

It is easy to see how many of these crucial colleagues do not feel secure in their roles for one reason or another. This can prevent them from being as creative, curious, and collaborative as they could be, and is a drag on the performance of the sector as a whole.

New realities

As universities transition to new, hybrid ways of working, the sector is now perfectly poised to enact specific and concrete actions around research talent development. We need to define and implement new ways of “doing things around here” that will create healthy, inclusive working environments, enable research excellence, and support the aspirations of individuals for meaningful, secure, and fulfilling careers within and outside of universities.

A critical question in relation to career visibility that institutions and individuals need to answer as they go about planning researcher development programmes is “How can you want what you don’t know about?” A particularly timely issue to unpick, so as to enable postdoctoral and early career researchers to widen their gaze and foreground their value to employers both within and outside the HE sector in a post-Covid world.

We propose four concrete actions:

  • Giving individuals access to self-assessment tools that help them clarify what they are both good at and like doing.
  • Affording individuals access to career coaches who can help them articulate their worth to current and prospective managers.
  • Co-creating and co-designing development opportunities with researchers and wider stakeholders, such as managers of researchers, supervisors, and going further afield to involve employers in industry and the third-sector.
  • Harnessing the benefits of Communities of Practice that are equitable to access, diverse, and inclusive and that offer opportunities for individuals to build their skills, knowledge, and attributes of personal and professional effectiveness.

Many of the activities above are already being implemented to some degree across institutions. However, the challenge in post-Covid, hybrid ways of working is to ensure that institutional norms and cultures match the messaging that is conveyed in development and recognition activities. The onus is now more than ever on institutions to put their money where their mouth is.

Stronger connections

Creating better research cultures and environments is not solely the responsibility of those specifically tasked with developing strategies and action plans to deliver them.

This is an organisational, team, and individual challenge. We all have a contribution to make – from recruiters, funding agencies, policy influencers, career development professionals, academic editors, industry stakeholders, technicians to librarians, and all the other roles we cannot mention here.

We all have a role to play in creating new, kinder, more collaborative, inclusive workplaces where creativity and innovation can thrive.

Insightful examples of the diversity and range of researchers and innovators that help drive progress for burgeoning research and innovation are showcased on UK Research and Innovation’s (UKRI) 101 jobs that change the world project.

We know that by 2030, we will need at least 150,000 more people employed in R&D in the UK alone, across all disciplines and sectors. There are great futures to be made, if we can support our early career and postdoctoral researchers to thrive and to see the opportunities that there are all across the UK.

Cross-sectoral examples of institutions taking the lead on these kinds of development projects include Prosper – unlocking postdoc career potential, and C-DICE, the Centre for postdoctoral Development in Infrastructure, Cities & Energy.

Prosper, led by the University of Liverpool, is now recruiting its first cohorts of postdoctoral students from Lancaster University and the University of Manchester – all members of the N8 Research Partnership. Strategic partnerships between universities are one way of building connections and sharing good practice in supporting early career researcher development.

Successful futures

As a sector, we will face challenges delivering the ambitions of the R&D People and Culture Strategy and the Innovation Strategy. Even so, we need to take advantage of the current conditions and appetite for change across the sector. These provide a potent crucible within which there is the opportunity to think strategically, work collaboratively, and to nurture early career and postdoctoral research talent for benefit across the whole research and innovation system.

The third biennial UK National Postdoc Conference 2021 (NPDC21) could not be taking place at a more timely point in the conversation about the talent development of early career researchers, and to explore, discuss, and recommend ideas for how we can shift the dial on research cultures and careers at organisational, team, and individual levels.

The N8 Research Partnership has been a champion of talent at all levels within our member universities and we are looking to take the next step in working together to improve research culture and careers.

Participation is powerful

To address concerns about narrow assumptions of the causality between overall performance indicators and postdoctoral and early career researcher development, we have modelled one of our main contentions in this article – the genuine co-creation and co-design of development activities with those at the heart of the R&D system.

The framework and content for the NPDC21 has been developed by 24 representatives of the early career, postdoctoral, and researcher developer community.

Drawn from 14 institutions from all the nations of the UK, both research-intensive and non-research-intensive, these individuals have identified the gaps in development needs in the research careers space which this event will help to fill.

They have also pinpointed conversations that are needed across the sector to help manage the tensions that are being encountered for the first time as we seek to reconnect following the lockdowns of 2020-21.

Our underlying argument is that if the estimated 70,000-80,000 postdoctoral and earlier career researchers in the UK see themselves reflected in the R&D and research culture initiatives and conversations across the HE sector, and if they see genuine actions being taken by those with positions of power, it will amplify their engagement and motivation. This will have knock-on positive effects on both individual and institutional performance for the long haul.

Let’s kick off this new academic year by having the courage and creativity to lead a recalibration of support and recognition of the immense postdoctoral and early career researcher talent that we are privileged to host in our institutions.

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