It’s an ECR life?

Author: Alan Parker, 27th November 2017

Who’d be an Early Career Researcher (ECR) these days? Long gone are the halcyon days where you complete your PhD (commonly taking between 5 and 10 years to do so) then walk straight into a permanent academic role. My own institution (Cardiff University) is far from unique in now insisting that before being considered for a permanent academic position, an ECR must bring in a Fellowship (for him/herself, plus associated staff costs), followed by a Senior Fellowship (again for own salary plus associated team). Then, and only then, having supported their own salary and built up a research team for ~10 years (and supporting the salaries of associated staff also), can they be “considered” for tenure.

Perhaps “Expectations Contradict Reality” would be a more appropriate acronym for “ECR”. Let’s face it, tenured positions these days are as rare as hens’ teeth, and there has never been a more competitive era to be trying to secure personal Fellowships. With this in mind, it is perhaps less shocking than it ought to be that according to a 2014 report by the Royal Society only ~4% of all PhD graduates remain as permanent academic staff, with just 0.45% (i.e. 1 in every 222 PhD graduates) ending up as a permanently employed academic professor (see Figure 1) .

Figure 1: The transition points in typical academic scientific careers following a PhD and the flow of scientifically-trained people into other sectors (modified from the Royal Society document “The Scientific Century, securing our future prosperity”)

Of course, you will not be expected simply to support your own research and build up a research team.  The modern academic must be an all-rounder, much like the academic equivalent of an Olympic Heptathlete.  In addition to publishing a couple of Nature Papers and a bringing in million pound grant each year for your REF return, you’ll be expected to contribute to teaching (for the TEF), as well as sit on endless panels to ensure you are a “good citizen”, get involved with public and patient outreach and engagement activities, give talks, nationally and internationally (to ensure you are meeting your home institutes “internationalisation” agenda), as well demonstrating Impact of your research. Oh, and do not forget that you will need to protect that intellectual property also!

So, you will need to be a researcher, author, leader, teacher, accountant, lawyer and diplomat, all rolled into one!  An analogy I commonly use refers to that mainstay of 1980s Saturday night light entertainment shows – the plate spinner.   Only in the analogy, each plate represents an aspect of being a modern academic, and we desperately scrabble about in the middle trying to keep each plate from crashing to the floor (Figure 2).  And all of this on top of attempting to maintain some form of work: life balance and (commonly) attempting to raise a young family on top.

Figure 2: The modern academic. Like the plate spinner, the modern academic struggles to maintain all his/her professional commitments (plates).

In this day and age, ECRs certainly need all the help and support they can be offered.  For this reason, our BSGCT subcommittee, previously titled “Professional Collaboration subcommittee” is evolving, to help “do our bit” to give ECRs a helping hand.  Avid scanners of the BSGCT website may have already noted that this subcommittee has now morphed into the “Early Career Development and Collaboration” subcommittee, with a new and dynamic mixture of committee members, reflecting a 50: 50 mixture of engaged ECRs and established PIs (listed below).

This committee will continue to forge selected key links with international societies, however, we will now also focus on helping to foster and develop ECRs, facilitating networking and collaboration. Our remit will be to establish an annual networking meeting for ECRs to pitch ideas and look to develop collaborations (interspersed with careers talks and advice from established PIs), as well as offering support, impartial critique and advice for ECR grant applications, and to disseminate information related to ECR opportunities to the community.

We have been very fortunate to have been awarded a small grant by the Welsh Government (Life Sciences Research Network Wales Endeavour Grant which will allow us to physically bring this subcommittee together, in Cardiff, early in the new year to flesh out our plans for a 2018 ECR networking event.

As Bob Dylan once sang “Times they are a changin’”, and so it is with academia and the life of an ECR.  And so it feels right that BSGCT evolves too, to do the bit that we can to help our ECRs achieve their full potential.  We are keen to get your feedback and ideas, so please feel free to get in touch with us to let us know your thoughts, or even just to register your interest in such an event and to keep up to date with our plans.

The BSGCT Early Career Development and Collaboration subcommittee