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Research Intelligence

The coronavirus crisis: What support for early career researchers?

From issue 143 of Research Intelligence, BERA's members' magazine.

At the time of writing, the future of the higher education (HE) sector in the UK – and across the globe – is one of great uncertainty. The shift of much of UK universities’ activity to various online fora on account of the coronavirus crisis has required much effort, dedication and creativity from academic and professional staff alike. It is noteworthy that this follows the latest wave of what was proving to be the most significant industrial action in the history of the UK’s HE sector, demonstrating staff’s commitment to supporting students by bringing the academic year to some sort of a conclusion, albeit one somewhat different to what they might have been expecting.

However, as the sector prepares for the exam season it is having to wrestle with considerable uncertainty about the near-future status of its core operations and those performing them, stemming from the financial implications of the coronavirus crisis and the lack of clarity around how these might be mitigated. For the moment, it is highly likely that student intake in the 2020/21 academic year will be lower than anticipated, particularly with respect to the international student cohort. Furthermore, at the time of writing, no clear guidance has yet been issued by the UK government concerning, for example, future research grant releases – although UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) insists that ongoing calls remain active, with extended deadlines – or the issuing of the next round of qualityrelated research funding now that Research Excellence Framework (REF) 2021 has been postponed indefinitely. The cloud over universities’ financial futures has provoked a mixture of responses from the sector. All institutions are engaging in some form of financial reorganisation, while perhaps also counting on a likely – though probably not universal – government ‘bailout’ (McVitty, 2020). However, it has been reported that some institutions are already resorting to redundancy strategies, starting with casualised staff (Batty, 2020).

Early career researchers (ECRs), particularly postdocs, are not unaccustomed to living with uncertainty (Djerasimovic & Villani, 2019), but the current crisis exacerbates the precariousness of their already destabilised professional lives and identities. A high portion of universities’ casualised and fixed-term contract workforce – more than a third of the entire academic workforce in 2018/19, according to the Higher Education Statistics Agency – is made up of ECRs. At the moment, many of these ECRs are engaging in a #coronacontract campaign demanding some level of employment contract security for precarious teaching and research staff. Simultaneously, the University and College Union (UCU) has addressed the issue in a letter to UKRI, asking for protection measures for such staff. Guaranteeing secure contracts, particularly for those whose work is tied into a research project grant, is an important first step in responding to the crisis in the short term and ensuring basic levels of existential security. Similarly, the provision of extensions to doctorates, especially where externally funded, and widened access to hardship funds for doctoral students, will assist those whose capacity to progress their doctoral research will have understandably been impacted by the crisis. In early April, UKRI announced six-month funded extensions for doctoral students due to complete their studies by the end of March 2021. While this is a positive step, it arguably does not go far enough to safeguard the interests of those in the earlier stages of doctoral study, who have been equally affected by the crisis.

It must be recognised that, at this time, ECRs are facing increased pressures not only within their professional lives but also in their personal ones. For many, the crisis has brought with it the need to care for children and families, along with supporting neighbours and communities. Measures need to be put in place to alleviate the burden for individuals with caring responsibilities, and it is heartening to see that many institutions are taking steps to assess the needs of their ECR cohorts and provide adequate support in this regard. However, it is important that these measures are successfully combined with resources that can help ECRs cope with the emotional and psychological effects of their changed (working) lives. ECRs need to be provided with enabling spaces of communication along with peer and supervisory support and exchange – the kind of support that has consistently been demonstrated to counter mental health risks and improve the doctoral experience (McAlpine, Skakni & Pyhältö, 2020; Mackie & Bates, 2019; Metcalfe, Wilson & Levecque, 2018). Such resources can include, for example, reading and writing groups, peer discussion fora and training sessions focussing on working strategies, as well as more general mental health and wellbeing support (see for example Lawrence, 2020; Longstaff, 2020). Importantly, support can be demonstrated simply by challenging the notion that we need to be productive during this time, which can itself make ECRs feel under a great deal of (unnecessary) pressure.

‘Early career researchers, particularly postdocs, are not unaccustomed to living with uncertainty, but the current crisis exacerbates the precariousness of their already destabilised professional lives and identities.’

As well as focussing on the immediate consequences of the coronavirus crisis, it is perhaps worth considering the long-lasting impacts it may have on the HE sector. It is highly likely that its negative implications will disproportionately affect ECRs, with reduced availability of doctoral studentships, a constricted job market and perhaps fewer grant application opportunities. Therefore, it is important to ensure that ECRs’ voices are appropriately recognised and given due consideration in measures to mitigate the effects of the crisis and promote the sector’s recovery. There has been a notable lack of representation thus far, and this will only serve to further disempower those disproportionally affected by the crisis – namely ECRs.

While the extent and duration of the crisis and the possible mitigation measures remain a matter of speculation, perhaps we should try to ensure that its resolution does not simply return us to ‘business as usual’. Instead, consideration might be given to what the sector could become. We – individual academics, our institutions, and the societies representing and developing our profession – must work to explore the benefits of a ‘decelerated’ academy, the opportunities it presents for a healthier and more meaningful approach to research and teaching, and how we might better support current and future generations of ECRs in order to build a sector that is not only sustainable but fair and just.


Click here to find out more about BERA’s Early Career Researcher Network


References

Batty, D. (2020, 2 April). Hundreds of university staff to be made redundant due to coronavirus. Guardian. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/education/2020/apr/02/hundreds-of-university-staff-made-redundant-due-to-coronavirus

Djerasimovic, S., & Villani, M. (2019). Constructing academic identity in the European higher education space: Experiences of early career educational researchers. Advance online publication. European Educational Research Journal. doi: 10.1177/1474904119867186

Lawrence, J. L. (2020, 23 March). Five ways to wellbeing when working from home [Blog post]. Retrieved from https://wonkhe. com/blogs/five-ways-to-wellbeing-when-working-from-home

Longstaff, F. (2020, 23 March). Keeping emotionally fit for the long term – starting now [Blog post]. Retrieved from https:// wonkhe.com/blogs/keeping-emotionally-fit-for-the-longterm- starting-now

Mackie, S. A., & Bates, G. W. (2019). Contribution of the doctoral education environment to PhD candidates’ mental health problems: A scoping review. Higher Education Research & Development, 38(3), 565–578.

McAlpine, L., Skakni, I., & Pyhältö, K. (2020). PhD experience (and progress) is more than work: Life-work relations and reducing exhaustion (and cynicism). Advance online publication. Studies in Higher Education. doi: 10.1080/03075079.2020.1744128

McVitty, D. (2020, 5 April). How can universities climb out of the coming financial abyss? [Blog post]. Retrieved from https:// wonkhe.com/blogs/how-can-universities-climb-out-of-thecoming- financial-abyss

Metcalfe, J., Wilson, S., & Levecque, K. (2018). Exploring wellbeing and mental health and associated support services for postgraduate researchers. Cambridge: Careers Research and Advisory Centre.

Authors

Sanja Djerasimovic, Dr

Research Fellow at University of Exeter

Sanja Djerasimovic is a research fellow at the University of Exeter, where she studies the broad but interconnected areas of higher education policy, academic identity and practice, particularly among early career academics, and citizenship. More...

Oliver Hooper, Dr

Research Associate at Loughborough University

Dr. Oliver Hooper is a Research Associate within the School of Sport, Exercise and Health Sciences at Loughborough University, having graduated with a PhD from the same institution in 2018. Oliver’s research explores young people’s...

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