This article is more than 6 years old

Talking ‘bout a generation

Academic careers are becoming less and less easy for young early career researchers to sustain. Christine Drabwell tells us why.
This article is more than 6 years old

Christine works in the Media Relations team within the Communications Unit at The Open University.

Are we doing right by our early career researchers? At a time of so much shake-up in the higher education sector from the inside and out – institutions re-inventing and reshaping themselves ready for a new UK or global marketplace, the Government creating more assessment methods across the board – we could easily overlook the need to keep a healthy flow of research pumping into the system from young minds.

We cannot just expect, and we shouldn’t just hope, that early career researchers will enter the system as they have in the past. There are now many obstacles in the path of a keen would-be scholar.

The majority of young researchers, like other graduate entry-level employees, will begin their working lives with a sizeable university debt behind them. They won’t expect to earn a huge amount at the outset, so it’s really the desire and passion for research that drives them. Often a keen doctoral researcher is swayed, not unreasonably, to try the world of private-sector employment before deciding to commit to the intensity of university.

Early career researchers in general have to be very determined, self-motivated, and either rich or incredibly frugal (or have generous benefactors) to decide they want to return to study. Then, if they succeed in securing funding for a PhD, they will face the huge climb of getting a foothold in a university where tight budgets will inevitably mean unattractive contracts – frequently short-term – with possibly even zero paid hours.

A bit of juggling

Once inside an establishment, they will then have to learn to be a bit of a juggler – working long hours and with many incrementally additional tasks to help the institution keep, or raise, its place in ranking tables which measure teaching, student satisfaction and employability among other things. In the long term, they also have to contend with the pressures of home buying and ever-less-generous pension arrangements.

Then comes the even tougher battle to carve out a good career in the research world itself. Competition for funding and research time is always keen but could potentially get more difficult and means students will have to work much harder to secure funding, with the added concern that the post-Brexit funding system will be less generous still.

Threats to freedom of movement may also be felt by researchers as a result of Brexit, with no knowing what the future will hold in terms of job security and residency in the UK for some. Even further down the line, if these doctoral students do stick at it and make it up the lecturing ranks, life won’t get any easier in terms of career options. Many institutions are finding that the lack of an enforceable retirement age means that senior posts now take longer to become available as colleagues extend their working lives. The cumulative effect of all these issues could be to deter many from pursuing a worthwhile career in research.

A tempting carrot

Might the pay persuade them? Hmm well, that depends. The Vitae report: What do Researchers do? Early career progression of doctoral graduates 2013, showed earnings for most post-doctoral researchers in HE have risen slightly more than researchers in other occupational sectors – in a snapshot cohort from 2010, compared with a similar assessment in 2008, sitting at around £34,000, with variations. But the report also highlights the prevalence of portfolio working and fixed-term contracts in HE and the fact that the higher salaries are earned by post docs who combine the role with lecturing and/or teaching. Higher salaries were also more common among older post docs, who may have had earlier careers inside or outside HE. And I need not mention that even the higher £40,000+ salaries still fall far short of (ahem) some notorious salaries in Higher Education.

For every researcher, trying to find time and energy for thinking and exploring against a demanding background, there will be those who walk away. Some will have old friends from university who dangle a tempting carrot back in the outside world. A career in finance or business, or perhaps a start-up option at London’s Old Street roundabout, will lure some away. And we should not stop that. But collective and individual university study needs to be sustained. If we want our researchers of the future to produce good, impactful research which innovates then we should be supporting those that strive to achieve that goal.

University leaders are tuning in to the issue. Suggestions to support doctoral researchers include building their skills and giving them career guidance so that they are fit for posts both inside and outside academia. Another Vitae report, What do Researchers want to do? Career intentions of doctoral researchers 2012, goes further and advises work exchanges, programmes and collaborations between universities and industry. Because of course, not every post-doctoral researcher will stay in academia but they might well stay in a research role. According to the same Vitae report some 63% of the 4,500 respondents in 2010 said they definitely wanted to pursue careers related to their research and nearly half aspired to a career in HE. About 30% saw themselves leaving HE, primarily in biomedical sciences, engineering and technology – though mostly aiming to do work and in sectors related to their discipline.


Universities must ensure that they are agile enough to facilitate collaborations that branch out beyond the campus. The government’s Industrial Strategy aims to bolster research and development and encourage collaboration between academia and industry. Recent injections of funds into the life sciences for example show the attempts to encourage growth in both research and economic terms. Collaborations with industry (and others, such as the NHS) to support essential research exploration are encouraging and hopefully mean researchers outside HE are valued too.

The tech and gaming industries are among those where collaboration can enable a fusion of good research and economic growth. It’s got so much potential. In my early days in The Open University Press Office, I remember a young PhD researcher looking at how computer gaming techniques, particularly those that entice continual play, could be used as an educational tool. I hope she is still researching because I think she was onto something.

Yes, it is a tough ask to allow researchers freedom, space and favourable conditions for career progression that enable universities to keep producing world-leading in research. Yet when Nobel Peace laureates start worrying it’s another indication that on a global scale, especially in a climate of public scepticism of “experts”, the mood music is not good.

In one of the episodes of the (OU supported) Tomorrow’s World season, Britain’s Greatest Invention, the public was asked to pick their favourite from a list of world-renowned discoveries. When I think about those innovations, I also think about researchers embarking on their career journeys. It would be good to think that in years to come, some of today’s early career researchers might be part of such history, STEM or otherwise, advancing knowledge, for the benefit of this generation and those to come. But with many forces conspiring against them, they’re facing an uphill battle.

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