Researchers at all stages of their career face many of the same challenges, but when it comes to progressing from PhD study into their first academic jobs, early career researchers encounter some unique obstacles. The ECR academic job market is highly competitive, and a period of precarity – often involving multiple, short-term contracts– is typical and increasingly longer. Many ECRs are also trying to negotiate the competing demands of long-term goals needed to secure a permanent job, while meeting short-term, immediate needs such as staying employed from contract to contract. Below I highlight three common career priorities for ECRs and offer some suggestions for how scholarly and scientific societies (and publishers) can help the next generation of researchers to succeed:
In the UK, one of the key factors influencing ECRs’ publishing decisions is the connection between employability and the Research Excellence Framework: the need to be “REFable” in order to get a permanent job, and then to meet expected REF targets in the early years of employment. My work on the impact of the REF 2014 on early career researchers shows that ECRs’ publishing decisions in the context of the REF largely come down to:
- quality of publication output (standard of peer-review; journal impact factor / comparable book publisher impact);
- speed of publication (publisher’s response times; peer-review turnaround; length of production process);
- timing within the REF cycle (ensuring that work is out in time for the submission dates or “holding back” work for the next cycle);
- overall publication profile (balance between different types of output, e.g. articles/ monograph).
How can publishers and societies help with this? Providing clear, accessible information about the publishing process is one way of enabling ECRs to make informed decisions. There are some excellent examples of this already: Wiley’s Author Services pages take authors through information about various processes; Palgrave Macmillan also has a dedicated ECR hub with similar guides. Societies can also provide advice tailored specifically to their field: the Royal Historical Society has an excellent resource center for Early Career Historians with advice on choosing a journal, publishing a monograph, and the REF. Outside of the UK, the pressures to publish vary, but providing information relevant to national higher education contexts remains a valuable means of supporting ECRs in publishing.
Producing publications is often dependent upon a second factor: having the time and money to undertake the research and writing required. Funding carries weight for employability, too, as many job specifications will ask for evidence of research grants. Applying for funding can also be a way for ECRs to develop their networks– for example, working on a postdoctoral fellowship application with a department different to that in which PhD study was carried out can build new professional relationships.
While big postdoctoral fellowship grants are hard to come by, even smaller amounts of funding can be useful in progressing an ECR’s career. A grant may provide a bridge between job contracts, or enable international research that wouldn’t otherwise be possible. It also helps to build up the track-record that can provide a stepping-stone to larger awards.
For societies and publishers, providing an ECR research grant or short-term fellowship is a highly valuable way to give practical support to ECRs; this might be to undertake research for a defined length of time, or to work towards publishing the doctoral thesis (the University of Oxford’s Women in the Humanities program offers a Postdoctoral Writing Fellowship, while in the US Barbara Thom Postdoctoral Fellowships at The Huntington supports thesis-to-monograph work related to the Library’s collections).
Establishing professional relationships is another key way in which there is scope for societies and publishers to offer support. Networking is vital for ECRs to become known in their respective fields, and to increase the visibility and potential impact of publications, both of which help employability. It can also be a valuable way of getting career development support, whether that’s through more senior mentors or peer-support from ECRs. However, access to networking is often inhibited by the realities of ECR life, i.e. having the time and money to travel to events.
Societies have strong potential to offer support on this: providing opportunities for networking might involve hosting events that bring together ECRs and established academics to discuss issues such as publishing and employability (see this example run by The History Lab at the Institute of Historical Research). Online resources can also be helpful, for example hosting an online webinar or discussion forum, or by setting up a members-only website section for mentoring opportunities.
These are just a few suggestions as to how societies and publishers can support early career researchers, and getting in touch with your early career authors and members to find out what is most relevant to their needs is a useful way for any organization to get started. While early career academia is likely to remain challenging, societies and publishers can play a crucial role in building up initiatives to support and advance the next generation of researchers in years to come.
Dr Charlotte Mathieson is a Lecturer in Nineteenth-Century English Literature in the School of English and Languages at the University of Surrey. Dr Mathieson has focused on early career researcher support for several years, you can learn more about her work at charlottemathieson.wordpress.com or see the presentation she gave at the 2017 London Wiley Society Executive Seminar on supporting ECRs at www.wileyexecutiveseminar.com.
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