There has never been a more important time for universities to demonstrate their contribution to society in general and to our economic recovery in particular.
Universities will need to demonstrate their contribution to the nation’s recovery – not only through the research they do, but also through the skilled workforce they supply to the wider economy. While, as a sector, we are accustomed to describing the value of an undergraduate degree, we have been less good at telling that story for our postgraduate and early career researchers, most of whom will not have a long-term career as an academic.
Covid-19 might provide the impetus that universities need to focus on developing their workforce – financially challenged universities can no longer rely on buying-in leading talent, and so will have to develop their own.
To succeed, universities will need to move away from a culture that prioritises achievements within academia above all else. This culture damages the development of individual researchers and undermines the quality of the research itself. We argue a leverage point for changing the future is making the support of the careers of our researchers central to what we do.
In a reimagined future, the careers that academics enable in others will be as important as the papers they publish and the grants they secure. We must overturn the false notion that a “post-academic“ career is a second-class option. This focus on careers, and careers of all types, is not a substitute for excellence; rather, it is what will allow more of us to excel both professionally and in our contributions to society.
Making it happen
The hyper-competitive culture experienced by researchers stems from the UK funding structure, in which fewer than 10% of early-stage research staff will have a continuing career as an academic. This pyramidal career structure is not unique to academia, yet despite a 10-year old sector Concordat that was meant to focus attention on creating sustainable career paths, the sector hasn’t made enough progress. The new 2019 Concordat re-emphasises the problem, but it does not offer the mechanisms of change.
How might our support for careers be different? From the outset, everyone involved — researchers, line managers and support staff, but also funders and societies — needs to acknowledge the reality: that is a research-only post is not the failsafe route to a continuing academic position but instead is an opportunity to acquire new skills and grow one’s own networks both within and outside of academia.
Line managers are crucial here: they must be equipped to have supportive conversations with their staff, be willing to give them time to undertake continuing professional development, and share with them their own contacts. By the same token, research-only staff need to seek out their own development opportunities, taking advantage of the wider networks for placements and post-academic experiences that HEIs enable. But nothing happens without the right incentives.
Making it stick
Change is possible; but, keeping things changed is harder. We change behaviours by rewarding what we value. How might we put career support on a par with the traditionally valued research activities of papers and grants?
The CVs and websites of academics typically list papers published, grants awarded, and recognition earned. As already happens in some cases, they should also list the academic and post-academic careers of their former research group members.
Providing visibility of enabled careers has many benefits — it allows prospective group members to see the culture they may be joining, it defines an alumni network and importantly allows the institution to celebrate the value it places careers of all types.
More importantly, the same reward process should be applied to academic recruitment, promotion and appraisal. This focus on careers also needs to be reinforced by funders in their decisions by valuing the applicant’s support for the career of others.
We should be pushing at an open door – group leaders/line managers want to support their team, researchers want to succeed, HEIs want to develop their own talent and create a more attractive place to work, the sector needs to articulate the contribution it makes to the economy; and funders too are determined to create a better culture to drive better research.
In all complex systems, interventions are resource-intensive and too numerous to deliver. The key is to identify leverage points on which agendas converge and then intervene to drive change. The support of careers is one such leverage point which drives our economic contribution, improves our research culture, and develops our talent.