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The British Academy’s Early-Career Researcher Network: A view from one ECR

  • 21 April 2022
  • By James Riley

HEPI’s hybrid Policy Briefing Day is on 27 April 2022 and institutions that support HEPI are entitled to a free place.

This blog was written by Dr James Riley, a science studies scholar and an early-career researcher at the University of Birmingham. James is on Twitter @JamesIRiley.

If you get a group of early-career researchers (ECRs) together in a room and ask them about the state of academia, chances are you will not receive a glowing response. The majority are on precarious contracts and have no stability, little autonomy and limited opportunities.  For many, ‘progression’ is an alien word. ECRs feel let down by a sector they worked so hard to join, membership of which they sustain with unpaid overtime and often sacrifice their mental health and family life along the way. Exacerbated by the pandemic, the workforce is fed up, and there is a real yearning for a stable community. I know this is what happens when you get a group of ECRs in a room to discuss their lot, as I have been in such rooms twice in the last six months as part of a timely initiative by the British Academy. I have heard the above stories over and over again. 

Aware of the growing number of challenges and uncertainties faced by ECRs and keen to build on the support it already provides them, last year the Academy launched its Early Career Researcher Network, an innovative two-year pilot programme for UK-based postdoctoral researchers in the SHAPE disciplines (the Social Sciences, Humanities and the Arts for People and the Economy). Beginning with hubs in the Midlands and the South West of England, and now with a newly-launched hub in Scotland, the Network aims to provide opportunities for ECRs to strengthen their skills, build networks and develop ground-up initiatives in response to challenges like the above. 

As an ECR myself, I jumped at the chance to take part in the initiative and went along to the launch event in London in November 2021. Immediately, you could sense a camaraderie between those in attendance and an eagerness to see real change. We spoke with British Academy Fellows who not only shared their wisdom and advice but also, crucially, listened to our stories. After the launch, I put my name forward to be a ‘British Academy ECR Network Champion’ and, since then, I have been involved in the national level ‘think ins’ where the team from the British Academy and ECRs plan ways for the Network and its events to succeed. So far, I have helped organise the Midlands hub launch event which was hosted by the University of Birmingham, and I have attended online events on critical race theory, environmentalism, SHAPE activism and public engagement. But, most importantly, I have had the chance to speak to numerous other ECRs whom I simply wouldn’t have had the chance to meet otherwise.  

Sometimes, there is a danger of well-meaning initiatives devolving to the level of individual fixes (if you’re looking for three words to send shivers down an ECR’s spine, try ‘CV writing workshop’) which, though useful, cannot begin to tackle the sector’s wider structural issues. Fortunately, there has been no sign of this with the Academy’s Early Career Researcher Network. The meetings I have been part of have been galvanising and productive and there is already a sense of momentum building as we seek to take forward our ideas. We’ve discussed trying to facilitate shared study spaces for ECRs at network-affiliated institutions to overcome geographic distances and the sense of isolation which comes part and parcel of precarious ECR life, where one may live in one city and work in another or may be ‘between jobs’. We’ve discussed how, with the help of the Academy, we can create partnerships with organisations outside of higher education, not only for knowledge exchange and employment opportunities, but also to share best practices when it comes to career development. We have found pockets of best practice – such as guaranteed 15 days a year CPD for those on fixed-term contracts – that sometimes differ even between departments at the same institution. Our findings have initiated management conversations about how we can standardise such practices across the university. We’ve discussed how we can bring together institutions and funders to create a meaningful bridge funding for those between grants. And we have discussed how we can hold institutions to the promises they made when signing up to Vitae’s Researcher Development Concordat, to bring about the culture changes needed to see researchers and research flourish.

My call for any ECRs from the SHAPE disciplines reading this is to engage with the Network, to take part and organise events, to put yourself forward for committee positions, and to think of initiatives which can meaningfully shape the future of our disciplines and the sector. Use it as an opportunity to network and build a community. Share your experiences with others and investigate what your institution does well. Use the opportunity to talk to others from institutions across your region to map pockets of best practice. Think about the ways in which the British Academy can help facilitate trans-institutional initiatives of support. The greater potential of the Network can be realised only if a critical mass of individuals participates. For any senior management who may be reading this, I also call on you to participate in productive ways. Listen to the experiences of ECRs at your institutions. Ask what the issues are and how you can engage with them to meaningfully fix them.

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1 comment

  1. albert wright says:

    James Riley’s article raises awareness about the Early Career Researchers’ sector and paints a grim picture, unlikely to encourage others to join in.

    While the Network may bring some consolation to those who become involved, I am not hopeful that the efforts will result in the reforms and improvement they seek.

    It seems that more taxpayers money will be needed and I am not clear about what benefit tax payers / society / the public would get if funds were to be made available?

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