Most early career academics face funding cliff edge, survey suggests

Responses to survey of junior research staff and PhD students suggest majority have major concerns about their future as they deal with stresses of working under lockdown

May 18, 2020
Cliff edge

Just one in 10 UK early career researchers whose contract is ending this year reports having received extra funding given the Covid-19 crisis, according to new survey results.

In addition, only about 12 per cent of final-year doctoral students in the UK say they have been given the option to extend their studies.

The worrying statistics come from the early findings of a survey of almost 5,000 doctoral students and early career staff working in UK universities during the lockdown, which finds that half report being very stressed about their work.

Two-thirds of those responding to the survey – carried out jointly by the Student Mental Health Research Network (SMaRteN) and Vitae – said they were very worried about their future plans, while 70 per cent were concerned about finances.

Respondents consistently reported that the lockdown had caused them difficulties in continuing research: three-quarters said it had affected activities such as data collection and discussions with colleagues; while more than a half said there had been a negative impact on data analysis, writing papers and making funding applications.

There was also clearly a heavy burden on doctoral and early career researchers with caring responsibilities, which made up about a quarter of those responding to the survey.

Of these, about 90 per cent said their responsibilities had increased since the lockdown, with almost nine out of 10 of this group saying this had led to a negative impact on their ability to keep up with work.

The general results of the survey indicated that, overall, about four in five respondents were showing some level of mental distress, with this being higher among doctoral researchers, women and non-UK citizens.

However, mental distress was lower among respondents who felt that their university had provided clear guidelines about how they would be supported in managing changes in their ability to work.

Most did report that they had received clear guidelines (60 per cent) and two-fifths agreed that their institution had done all it could to support them, but two-fifths said their institution could do more. Meanwhile, for both doctoral researchers and early career staff, about two-thirds of respondents said supervisors and line managers had done all they could to support them.

The survey was launched on 16 April and has received responses from some 4,800 researchers, with about two-thirds being doctoral researchers and one-third being research staff. Publication of the early findings was timed to coincide with Mental Health Awareness Week.

Janet Metcalfe, head of Vitae, said: “These researchers are at critical stages in their careers, and the restrictions due to Covid-19 are not only having a significant impact on their current research activities, but are likely to have long-term implications for their future careers.”

simon.baker@timeshighereducation.com

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