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How to help researchers navigate the turbulent landscape

Janet Metcalfe and Sarah Nalden of Vitae explain what’s been achieved for early career researchers, and what’s still to do.
This article is more than 5 years old

Janet Metcalfe is Head of Vitae.

Sarah Nalden is Communications and Marketing Executive at Vitae.

It’s safe to say there could never been a more challenging time to be a researcher in HE.

With significant and unpredictable policy changes, increasing supply of doctoral graduates, and the sector’s reliance on research staff employed on fixed-term contracts, researchers are now required constantly to adapt if their research and their careers are to remain on track.

Over the horizon

As the research culture shifts to more internationalisation, more open research, and a focus on responsible research and innovation, at Vitae we know we must equip researchers to develop the attributes, competencies, and understanding required to navigate these uncertain times. It is also imperative to ensure that our supply of highly talented researchers for the sake of the UK research base, not least with Brexit looming. It is good to know that supporting research talent is one of the early priorities of UK Research and Innovation.

The key to equipping researchers (and those involved in the development of researchers) with the right support lies in identifying where the emerging “hotspots” are. With our researcher developer community we have identified our four priorities for action which are:

  • creating an inclusive research environment where all researchers can flourish, with good mental health and wellbeing;
  • enabling researchers to develop the competencies and attributes to navigate successfully an unpredictable and highly competitive research environment;
  • signposting to researchers the wide range of employment opportunities open to them so they can articulate their competencies and experiences to potential employers, including beyond academia;
  • measuring the contribution of researchers to society and demonstrating the value of researcher development.

These are some of the topics that Vitae and our c.200 member institutions have identified and woven into our annual programme of activities. An emerging focus is around supporting work-life balance and the wellbeing of researchers (and those who help researchers develop e.g researcher developers; learning and development staff; HR staff and supervisors). We are pleased that the last HEFCE (now Research England) Catalyst Fund call focuses on the mental health and wellbeing of postgraduate researchers, and we are collaborating with some of our members on several successful projects. Conducting open research is gaining traction, particularly through open publication and open data, but how are we developing the abilities of our researchers – at all levels – to work in this environment?

Taking a bearing

Although these are uncertain times, there is plenty to celebrate: the UK leads the world in supporting researchers’ career development. Our 2017 Five Steps Forward report demonstrates how far we have travelled since the 2008 launch of the “Concordat to Support the Career Development of Researchers” – an agreement between funders and employers of research staff to improve the employment and support for researchers and research careers in HE. We have 100 institutions which have achieved the European HR Excellence in Research Award – significantly more than any other European country and the Concordat has had significant impact on UK institutions’ policies and practices relating to the career development of researchers.

We also have the most open, merit-based recruitment processes in Europe. 72% of research staff participate in performance reviews which is up from 32% in 2002. 76% of research staff feel encouraged by their institution to engage in their personal and career development. 85% believe their institution is committed to equality and diversity, and 67% are satisfied with their work-life balance – considerably more than principal investigators at 45%. These are all signs that the research culture for early career researchers is changing.

Tough terrain

Nevertheless, there is still more to do. 72% of research staff are still employed on fixed-term contracts, with a fifth of these on short-term and often multiple contracts of a year or less, according to our biennial Careers in Research Online Survey 2017 (CROS). More than a third of research staff do not feel recognised or valued by their institution for managing or giving career support to other researchers.

We still need to deal with some challenging dichotomies. We want to ensure that the UK remains world leading in research and that we have a supply of highly-talented researchers, but we have a mismatch with academic career opportunities – and expectations. Our CROS data consistently reveals that 80% of research staff aspire to an academic career, with around 60% expecting to achieve this – an unrealistic expectation in today’s landscape. These high expectations are not surprising as our language, explicitly or implicitly, reinforces success for researchers as being an academic career. We – including some working in researcher development and careers guidance – increasingly try to talk about “alternative careers”, the “leaky pipeline”, and having a “plan B”.

New directions

Vitae encourages doctoral candidates and research staff to look beyond academia when exploring their career ambitions – to discover the wealth of diverse, interesting, and challenging opportunities that are out there. However, at present few researchers get the opportunity to gain such intersectoral experience. Research staff particularly do not feel they have time or “permission” to participate in activities outside their direct research. The pressure to publish to have any chance of an academic career is by far the greater driver for researchers currently.

However, there are highly rewarding career paths for researchers “beyond academia” – the best career-neutral expression we can come up with – other suggestions welcome. In our 2016 report What do research staff do next?, which surveyed research staff who were employed in occupations beyond academia, four-fifths were satisfied with their current employment (with half very satisfied); while only 18% would consider going back into academia. The biggest challenge was deciding whether to leave academia, including dealing with the perceived loss of status, sense of failure, and feeling judged by their peers. Researchers’ social identity can be tightly connected with becoming an academic, as one respondent noted: “Only a year into my new role am I finally ready to embrace my post-academic identity.”

Preparing for the road ahead

The current 10-year independent review of the Concordat to Support the Career Development of Researchers, couldn’t have come at a more timely juncture. Vitae were pleased to submit a detailed response to the consultation, highlighting the continuing relevance of the current principles and taking into account the changes to the researcher landscape over the last decade by proposing new principles for the future.

We are looking forward to the review panel’s recommendations being published this summer, providing a blueprint for our future researcher talent development strategy. Our annual Vitae Researcher Development International Conference on 17 and 18 September will bring the researcher development community together to explore how we can ensure the UK remains world-leading in supporting our researchers.

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