Early career researchers doubt fairness of promotion processes

Major UK survey finds established staff much more likely to have confidence in university over progression issues

February 23, 2021
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Only one in three early career researchers in UK universities feel that promotion and progression at their institution are fair, a major survey says.

Junior researchers were much less likely than established staff to think that the processes were fair, according to the survey of 3,025 academics spread across 22 campuses, conducted by researcher development organisation Vitae.

Overall, only 29 per cent of early career researchers felt that they were treated fairly in relation to promotion and progression, compared to 58 per cent of lecturers, senior researchers and professors.

Only 33 per cent of junior researchers felt that their institution had equitable opportunities for career progression, compared to 50 per cent of more senior staff; while just 34 per cent of early career researchers felt that promotions at their institution were made on merit, compared to 49 per cent of established staff.

Early career researchers were less likely to feel that they were treated fairly in other areas, too, particularly when it came to inclusion in submissions for the research excellence framework: just 37 per cent of junior staff felt that they were treated fairly in this regard, compared to 81 per cent of senior colleagues.

And while all respondents agreed that on the whole they were valued by their institutions, early career staff were less likely to feel that their contributions in several key areas were recognised. For example, 34 per cent of early career researchers did not think that their contribution to funding applications was recognised, compared to 14 per cent of established staff. On teaching and learning, the divide was 32 per cent to 10 per cent; similar gaps were seen for knowledge exchange (46 per cent to 31 per cent), administration (51 per cent to 31 per cent) and peer reviewing (57 per cent to 47 per cent).

The results may reflect the contractual status of early career researchers: 76 per cent of these respondents were on fixed-term contracts compared to 10 per cent of other academics.

And while eight in 10 early career respondents said that more than four-fifths of their contracted time was allocated to research, only 54 per cent said that they managed to achieve this.

Reflecting the results of previous surveys, 72 per cent of early career researchers aspired to an academic career, but only 59 per cent expected to achieve this – a figure that remains, according to sector data, over-optimistic.

The Culture, Employment and Development in Academic Research Survey (Cedars) was conducted by Vitae last year to measure progress against the goals of the UK’s main sector guidelines on academic careers, the Concordat to Support the Career Development of Researchers.

Overall, 72 per cent of early career researchers reported good job satisfaction, only 2 percentage points lower than established staff.

However, 22 per cent of female junior researchers said that they had felt bullied or harassed over the past two years, as did 13 per cent of males. While established staff were more likely to have experienced bullying or harassment, they were also more likely to report such incidents, or say that they felt comfortable reporting such incidents.

Eight per cent of female early career researchers and 10 per cent of males said that they had felt pressured into compromising on research standards or integrity. While this was broadly comparable with the figures for established staff, senior colleagues were again more likely to have reported this, or say that they would feel comfortable doing so.

Janet Metcalfe, head of Vitae, said: “By identifying the successes and importantly, the challenges of the researcher environment – especially during the current pandemic – we can collectively work towards creating improved support around culture, employment and the professional development of researchers so that research can continue to flourish and thrive.”


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Reader's comments (1)

That’s an interesting statistic: 58% of academics who had achieved promotion or a permanent contract felt that promotion or progression routes were fair as opposed to 37% of those who had not achieved promotion or progression. This is the trouble - everything seems rosy from the top.


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