Skip to content
The UK's only independent think tank devoted to higher education.

The lived experiences of early career researchers – New report by HEPI and the British Academy

  • 29 February 2024

The Higher Education Policy Institute and the British Academy have jointly published a set of essays entitled The lives of early career researchers (HEPI Report 169) written by early career researchers that highlight their experiences and offer solutions to the challenges they face.

The 11 chapters cover issues including ‘The PhD Parenting Penalty’, ‘Chronic Illness and Disability in Academia’, ‘The Impact of Biased Student Evaluation of Teaching on Early Career Researchers’, ‘Getting in, Getting on or Getting over a PhD’ and ‘Imposter Phenomenon and the Early Career Researcher’.

Professor Simon Swain FBA, the British Academy’s Vice-President for Higher Education Research and Policy, said:

‘In the face of an increasingly precarious higher education sector, we can’t afford to lose sight of those who will shape the sector’s future: the academics themselves. Their voices, particularly those in the early stages of their academic careers, play a central part in informing the decisions we take to futureproof our universities.  

‘This collection of essays offers vital insights and creative solutions to help steer a bright course for early career researchers in UK higher education. It underscores the British Academy and HEPI’s shared commitment to support and advocate for the next generation of academics, ensuring their invaluable contributions continue to drive progress.’

The collection includes a Foreword by Molly Morgan-Jones, the British Academy’s Director of Policy, and an Afterword by the Academy’s Director of Research, Alex Lewis.

Nick Hillman, the Director of the Higher Education Policy Institute, said:

‘Today’s early career researchers will go on to transform our lives and our society through their discoveries and innovations. So it is vital that we nurture them rather than demoralise them.

‘At the moment, mean-spirited rules and long-standing prejudices often get in the way of their personal development. This important collection records early career researchers’ lived experiences in their own voices and makes a series of constructive recommendations for a better future.’

Short extracts from each chapter are provided below.

The PhD Parenting Penalty by Sarah Howard of Birkbeck, University of London:

‘I became a parent while studying for a PhD. Having a baby was life-changing in many predictable ways, however prepared I thought I was. The biggest shock, however, was something I had not fully absorbed: that PhD parents are specifically penalised in an already failing childcare landscape. Despite the low level of PhD income – the minimum full-time annual stipend paid by research councils is £18,622 – PhD parents in England are excluded from virtually all available means of childcare assistance.

‘The costs of this situation are felt in the career, research impact, health and family life of PhD parents. They result in discrimination on gender grounds and disproportionately affect students — or potential students — from working-class and ethnic minority backgrounds, compounding inequalities already entrenched in academia. They impact the ability of students to produce high-quality work with unquantifiable but serious costs to both the economy and the furthering of knowledge in the broadest sense.’

Journey into Academia at the Intersection of Race, Class and Gender by Blessing Marandure of De Montfort University:

‘[R]acialised minority early career researchers face a fraught, Herculean journey into the academy. The number of barriers they need to overcome at each stage is significant, particularly considering intersections of disadvantage. Clearly, several barriers are present that negatively impact on chances for admission into research-intensive institutions and into postgraduate research. Without funding, those from working-class backgrounds are unable to pursue their PhD due to financial constraints. Those who do finally make it into the academy are faced with a very evident glass ceiling, particularly for Black female academics. It is thus imperative for universities to understand that access to university is inextricably linked with inclusion at university.’

The Importance of Networking and Mentoring: Nurturing the Non-Academic Academic by Joanne Mills of the University of Wolverhampton:

‘[A] network of supportive academics in the field is crucial for early career researchers, both for encouragement in exploring ideas and providing mentorship and support. Networking is a key skill as a researcher, both to remain aware of the current and changing landscape of research within our fields, and to make connections with potential collaborators and stakeholders. …

‘The pandemic has led to a new digital or hybrid scholarly normality where remote working has become standard academic practice. This format enables more flexible participation for attendees and presenters across multiple locations and is particularly valuable for students and emerging researchers working in non-academic fields.’

Everyone Struggles: A Cautionary Tale of an Independent Early Career Researcher by Anastassiya Mahon, an independent researcher:

‘Non-institutionally affiliated early career researchers face a unique set of challenges. For an independent researcher there is no help with the administrative, legal or institutional workload that goes into research, and especially into securing funding. Also, many funders require an institutional post in order to apply for funding – often funding requires a 20 per cent or even 50 per cent contribution (match funding) – thus preventing independent researchers from accessing it. As an early career researcher and an independent researcher, I do not have access to a support network or a mentor who would help me to navigate academic employment. Since many funders’ eligibility criteria rule out early career researchers interested in conducting independent research, this lowers the chances of independent early career researchers securing funding as much as it affects the desirability of pursuing independent research. The situation with securing funding becomes even more dire for independent early career researchers from under-represented backgrounds or those with caring responsibilities.’

Code-Switching Higher Ed: The UK and US Systems for Early Career Scholars by Anna Meier of the University of Nottingham:

‘In both countries [the UK and the US] early career scholars are likely to enter their first job post-PhD in a state of financial distress, exacerbated if they have had to move long distances or go months without pay. Nevertheless, US early career researchers may be marginally better positioned thanks to having received a stipend during their degrees, and it remains appalling that UK PhD students are not guaranteed funding, turning access to a job in academia into a pure pay-to-play game. Doing a PhD is a job and should be treated as such, with a living wage and benefits, especially given universities’ professed commitments to equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI). Otherwise, PhDs will continue to be restricted to those with generational wealth or the capacity take on considerable debt, with ever-greater competition for limited funding.’

The Road Less Travelled to Academia by Louise Oldridge and Maranda Ridgway of Nottingham Trent University:

‘[An] unexpected challenge we encountered during our career transitions was a prevailing sole-trader mentality. In a practitioner setting we were used to shared resources and collaboration as a standard way of working. Upon joining academia, we found a reluctance, or even refusal, to share materials or allow attendance at lectures and seminars to support our on-the-job learning. Having worked in academia for a while we have a better understanding of why this is the case. However, as a first experience of the industry it was a significant culture shock. …

‘We have more control over our workloads in academia than we ever had in industry and while we have made financial sacrifices, we have gained greater flexibility and work-life balance’.

Chronic Illness and Disability in Academia by Rebecca Williams, University of Glasgow:

‘The COVID-19 pandemic rapidly altered the provision of higher education with large-scale shifts towards online teaching and student support. For academics, a large shift to working from home was experienced – often to the relief of disabled academics who can struggle with the physical teaching and support demands of the job, such as long teaching days, commuting and administrative meetings. …

‘Overall, the path of disabled academics and early career researchers is not an easy one. Implications of the post-COVID academic world places additional strains on disabled staff, with divergence between staff and student provision of support for those with chronic conditions, leaving disabled academics unsupported. The current unsustainable and standardised nature of higher education does not accommodate for the reality of the academic workforce that includes disabled people and other marginalised groups. Shifting towards a social model approach in higher education will enable more than piecemeal solutions to these issues to ensure disabled people can contribute to the academy in a way enjoyed by their able-bodied peers.’

Demystifying Funding Applications by David Grundy of the University of Warwick:

‘Those assessing the applications will want to see that the project is realistic and manageable, and that you are able to manage the considerable resources you will be offered. Personally, I found that there was so much money involved in the early career fellowships – not just a salary, but all the funds for archive trips, conferences and so on – that it seemed almost impossible to conceptualise this myself. Struggling to pay the rent and operating on temporary teaching contracts while finishing my PhD, I was suddenly talking about these huge sums of hypothetical money the likes of which I had never seen in my life. …

‘There is no point in sugar-coating things. Early career academics, particularly in humanities subjects, increasingly bear an unreasonable burden, with little job security, constant anxiety and material shortage as universities cut departments, slash salaries and rely on precarious short-term labour. During my Fellowship, I have seen these conditions become even more pernicious in combination with the effects of the cost-of-living crisis. The stakes of funding success can seem higher than ever.’

Hanging onto the Ladder – The Impact of Biased Student Evaluation of Teaching on Early Career Researchers by Jing Zhao of the University of the West of England Bristol:

‘In navigating the job market or hanging onto the first rung of the academic career ladder, early career researchers are even more disadvantaged by gender and cultural bias in student evaluations than their established academic counterparts. Negative evaluations resulting from these biases in a job interview or probation panel could have a significant negative impact on their confidence, hindering their leadership aspirations and career progression in academia. In turn, this could increase career precarity for researchers, if not burying their academic career altogether. It is critical and urgent, more than ever, to shed light on the fairness and representativeness of SET upon which teaching effectiveness is assessed.’

Getting in, Getting on or Getting over a PhD by Dr Gemma Tidman of Queen Mary University of London:

‘Those just out of a PhD need money: this much we know. But they also need time. Time to rest and recalibrate after years with all eyes on the finish line. So, what could you do if you are a funder? Append a three-month stipend to all PhD funding. Activated upon thesis submission and available to all those without a salary above the living wage, a “post-PhD transition fund” would relieve new post-docs of the pressure to accept any old work, however poor the conditions. Three months is not much, but it could be a lifeline for those needing the headspace to recover, complete PhD corrections, job hunt or retrain. Such post-PhD support should be available to all PhD graduates, regardless of funding status. But while we wait for that to arrive, funding bodies are well-placed to lead the way in piloting such a scheme, and conducting research into its outcomes for careers, health and wellbeing.’

Imposter Phenomenon and the Early Career Researcher by Debra Cureton, University of Wolverhampton 

‘[W]hat can organisations do in the long term to value diversity and help early career researchers feel that they belong? The first step is to evaluate institutional culture. When, where and how does a lack of diversity show itself? Work with minoritised groups to eliminate it, including early career researchers. It is also important to foster an organisation philosophy where every voice is encouraged, valued and listened to. When issues are raised, respect it and act on it. Do not prejudge the issue especially when these are raised by younger or less experienced colleagues, such as early career researchers. They may have an innovative solution that you might not have thought about. Also be open, honest and transparent about any areas of your organisation where a lack of inclusivity exists, and about the plans to tackle this. Include a diverse staff group in the related work groups and ensure that early career researchers are included.’

Notes for Editors

  1. HEPI was established in 2002 to influence the higher education debate with evidence. We are UK-wide, independent and non-partisan. We are funded by organisations and higher education institutions that wish to support vibrant policy discussions, as well as through our own events. HEPI is a company limited by guarantee and a registered charity.
  2. The British Academy is the UK’s national academy for the humanities and social sciences. We mobilise these disciplines to understand the world and shape a brighter future. We invest in researchers and projects across the UK and overseas, engage the public with fresh thinking and debates, and bring together scholars, government, business and civil society to influence policy for the benefit of everyone. @BritishAcademy_

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *