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More questions than answers: How can we effectively support the careers and employability of research staff and students?

  • 16 July 2020
  • By Gabi Binnie

This blog was kindly contributed by Gabi Birnie, AGCAS Policy and Research Manager. AGCAS (the Association of Graduate Careers Advisory Services) is the expert membership organisation for higher education student career development and graduate employment professionals. @gabi_binnie @AGCAS

There is a clear difference between PhD students’ career ambitions and their career outcomes. Bethan Cornell’s policy note PhD students and their careers suggests that research (PhD) students have a clear preference for pursuing a career in academic research, yet 70 per cent had left academia after three and a half years. There is, therefore, a need for careers and employability support to help researchers understand and access careers outside academia. Indeed, the Concordat on the Development of Researchers stated that institutions must ‘ensure that researchers have access to professional advice on career management, across a breadth of careers’. Yet only 31 per cent of postgraduate research (PhD) students surveyed in the 2019 Postgraduate Research Experience Survey (PRES) reported receiving advice on their career options.

In this context, we surveyed over 50 AGCAS member services to understand how researchers access careers and employability support. We were keen to understand whether the population size of researchers correlates with the amount of careers and employability provision, or whether other factors, such as the status of an institution as a research-intensive institution, had an impact. In a scenario that will be familiar to many researchers, these simple objectives were deceptively complex, starting with the first question we asked ourselves: how are we defining ‘researchers’?

Who are researchers?

We decided to define ‘researchers’ as research students and research staff; where ‘Research students’ are postgraduate research (PGR) students and ‘Research staff’ are early-career researchers, such as Post-docs, Research assistants, Research Fellows, Teaching Fellows and Technicians. Although all respondents could readily provide the number of research students at their institution, nearly 20 per cent were unable to provide a total figure for research staff. The nature and status of early career research staff in institutions – often poorly defined, lacking aligned job titles and constantly shifting due to short term contracts – makes them difficult to tally.

Without a clear understanding of their researcher population, it is more difficult for careers services – who structure their provision around their understanding of the population they are supporting – to provide appropriate support. This led us to our next question: is support for researchers (research staff and students) provided by careers services or elsewhere in institutions?

Is careers support for researchers provided by careers services, or elsewhere in the institution?

The vast majority (83 per cent) of institutions surveyed provide careers and employability support for researchers via the careers service as well as through other institutional mechanisms, including: doctoral colleges/graduate schools; researcher professional development teams; HR/organisational development; faculties; academic supervisors; and other central professional services.

With support for researchers provided by such a broad range of sources, how easy is it for research staff and students to access the help they need? Are we risking providing research staff and students with overlapping, contradictory or inconsistent guidance?

Types of research staff supported by careers services

A further complexity we identified is that there are significant discrepancies in the research staff groups supported by careers services. The most commonly supported group (of those careers services that provide support to research staff) is post-docs (supported by just under 90 per cent of careers services). Post-docs are arguably the most clearly identifiable group within ‘research staff’, so it would be interesting to understand which careers services provide support to other research staff groups but not post-docs. At the other end of the spectrum, technicians are least likely to receive support through their careers service, with just 38 per cent of careers services supporting them.

A small number of institutions only support research staff who are alumni of the institution or have graduated within a certain period. It is easy to see how such stipulations, combined with an inconsistent picture of support for research staff across the sector, could cause confusion for research staff that move between institutions to build their career.

What does effective careers support look like for research staff and students?

As is often the case with research, we have generated more questions than answers. While we calculated that the greater the researcher population, the greater the number of careers and employability practitioners likely to be working with them, this was not unequivocal. A quarter of institutions with small researcher populations still provide dedicated support to researchers, leading us to another question: what does good careers support for researchers look like?

From the policy note we know that only 13 per cent of research students report seeing a careers consultant for a one-to-one appointment. We do not see this negatively, or as indicative that there is a lack of support available to research students. If a research student has not had a one-to-one appointment with a careers consultant, it does not necessarily mean that they have not accessed tailored careers support offered by their institution. They may have got the support they needed from workshops or networking events, leaving more one-to-one provision for those requiring additional in-depth support.

Bethan’s policy note recommends that:

Institutions improve access to specialist research careers consultants for PhD students. Where institutions already offer access to specialist careers provision for researchers, access to this service should be improved. Those institutions that do not currently provide such a service should look to do so in the future. Additionally, institutions should provide specific careers training to supervisors, so they are better placed to advise their students properly or direct them to those who can.

More resource for careers services to support researchers would be welcome but we wonder how likely it is that universities will provide this in the current climate. We therefore wish to add further policy recommendations to those proposed by Bethan, that do not necessarily revolve around increased resource:

  1. Further research should explore how institutional complexities affect researchers’ abilities to find out about the careers support available to them;
  2. Institutions need to be clear which groups of researchers can access careers support so that these colleagues know what to expect as they move between institutions; and
  3. Institutions need to ensure their support for researchers is consistently aligned around core principles, based on the needs identified through the datasets that careers teams often hold and carefully co-ordinated between the various departments responsible.

Researchers are front and centre of the Government’s Research and Development Roadmap, with the Global Talent Visa and ‘new deal for postgraduate research funding’ expected to grow the UK’s research talent pipeline. There is also recognition that researchers and technicians struggle to shift between academia and industry during their careers. Now more than ever it is vital that we provide careers and employability support to researchers that is clear, tailored to their needs and consistent across institutions. We recommend that government includes investment in researcher careers and employability support as part of their new deal for postgraduate research funding.

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