One of the most significant and prevailing challenges in academia over the last 10 years or so, has centred around how best to support early career researchers (ECRs) in an evolving landscape which has increasingly shifted towards a reliance on temporary insecure contracts, increasing workloads, and real terms drop in salaries. The criteria for defining who falls under the category of ‘ECR’ varies across institutions and organisations, and this is important if we need to identify where support is needed, and who to provide it to. In this blog I will be asking the question: What is an ECR?
The question of ‘what is an ECR?’ is something I have been thinking about over the last 12 months since I transitioned from postdoc to lecturer.
I still feel like an ECR, but since I now have a permanent position, am I technically no longer one!
You may think that it doesn’t matter at which point we are an ECR, or at what stage we cease to be one, but when opportunities for funding schemes or participation at certain events exclusively target ECRs, it very much does matter who falls under the category of ‘ECR’, and I’ll explain why shortly.
It should be easy to define an ECR, and it should be consistently applied, right? Except, on both counts, the answer is ‘no’. To understand why, we need to remember that the term ‘early career researcher’ or ‘ECR’ is relatively new in academia. When I was a PhD student over 10 years ago, I don’t remember the term existing, or at least it was not commonly used. Opportunities for PhD students and postdocs would be advertised for ‘young investigators’ or ‘young researchers’. There were variations across disciplines, but back then, after a PhD in the biosciences you would expect to do 3-5 years of postdoctoral research before getting a permanent faculty position. However, throughout my PhD, I noticed this started to change, and has continued to do so dramatically over recent years, with researchers finding themselves as perpetual postdocs trapped in successive short-term contracts, often moving from lab to lab, city to city, and sometimes country to country. It is no longer uncommon to see postdocs in contract 10 years+ following their PhD.
The issue then suddenly becomes apparent. If, for example, the term ‘ECR’ was to loosely describe any researcher at the PhD or postdoc career stage, we are lumping together individuals who have not yet been awarded their PhD, with those who are likely to have extensive experience supervising and maybe even the responsibility of running a lab on behalf of their PI. In this scenario, schemes for ECRs could leave PhD students greatly disadvantaged. This might sound like an extreme example to make a point, but it actually happened to me. I previously applied to a funding scheme targeted to ECRs, but there were questions raised about the eligibility criteria; specifically, who falls under the category of ECR. In order to maximise inclusivity, it was decided that ‘ECR’ would include anyone new to working in Higher Education in the UK, anyone within 10 years of being awarded their PhD, and anyone within five years of starting their first (tenured) academic post. Unsurprisingly, applicants ended up including, for example, a researcher with over 15 years’ experience, which included successful grant applications and supervision of PhD students and postdocs, and a senior lecturer who was within five years of becoming tenured. In the pursuit of inclusivity, those who would have truly benefitted the most from this funding, were significantly disadvantaged by having to compete with more experienced academics exploiting the opportunity. This is why it matters who falls under the ‘ECR’ category.
At the beginning of this blog, I deliberately set out to ask the question ‘what is an ECR’ rather than attempt to answer it, because it’s something that should be agreed collectively, and then applied consistently. The first step towards this is to expose the consequences of not having a standard definition, and then to examine whether consensus can be achieved by looking at the terms institutions and organisations are currently using.
Let’s look at some examples. In 2021, UKRI, a major research funder in the UK, launched the Early Career Researcher Forum to provide ECRs with opportunities to get involved with strategy and policy development. Their eligibility criteria included anyone who would ‘identify as an early career researcher’. So the category definition of ECR was so broad, you could simply identify into it. For a Wellcome Early-Career Award you must have no more than three years postdoctoral experience, which is considerably more rigid, but they do consider whether there have been significant factors which could have impacted on your career. Finally, European Research Council Starting Grants are even more rigid, but they do allow for more postdoctoral experience; up to seven years. These are just a few examples I have come across which illustrate the variability in defining ECR, and the challenge of trying to maximise inclusivity for a group which has become increasingly heterogenous.
It is right that institutions, organisations, and funders have schemes and opportunities exclusively for ECRs to help advance their careers, and it is essential that eligibility criteria for these things reflect the diversity of backgrounds of PhD students and postdocs, many of whom no longer follow a traditional linear career path through academia. However, this inevitably must be balanced with some criteria restrictions to ensure these opportunities truly benefit those for whom they were intended. One possibility would be to provide, alongside any potentially restrictive eligibility criteria, a statement that those of equivalent standing are also included. This would acknowledge that some researchers may not meet rigid criteria, but for a variety of reasons could still be considered to be at the relevant career stage. It would then be the responsibility of the researcher to make that case, and for the panel to judge accordingly.
As for me, I do still feel like an ECR. As someone who has not followed a linear career path through academia, I have benefited from there being no single definition. However, I have also been disadvantaged when criteria have been too broad. On balance, I think we could greatly benefit from consensus criteria that best reflects the current experiences of researchers, with the flexibility to change in step with the evolving landscape of academia.
Dr Kamar Ameen-Ali is a Lecturer in Biomedical Science at Teesside University & Affiliate Researcher at Glasgow University. In addition to teaching, Kamar is exploring how neuroinflammation following traumatic brain injury contributes to the progression of neurodegenerative diseases that lead to dementia. Having first pursued a career as an NHS Psychologist, Kamar went back to University in Durham to look at rodent behavioural tasks to completed her PhD, and then worked as a regional Programme Manager for NC3Rs.