The revised Researcher Development Concordat (https://www.vitae.ac.uk/policy/concordat) is here and Universities across the UK have been working through the new requirements and signing statements of commitment.
The key Principles of the Concordat are Environment and Culture, Employment, and Professional and Career Development. These principles require Universities, the academic managers of researchers (read: PIs), and researchers themselves to all take actions to tackle systemic challenges.
On the face of it, there's no problem here - after all, Universities have long taken post-doctoral researchers (a.k.a. Early Career Researchers) into their research groups, and once they've earned their stripes they move on to tenured positions as lecturers, and progress smoothly to a professorship in time. Right?
Sadly it's a long time since it's been that simple. The numbers of people completing PhDs vs the number of Professorships are vastly different. The Sankey diagram below shows science PhD graduates entering the flow on the left, and the flows of those people as their careers progress thereafter.
Source: 2010 Royal Society policy report entitled “The Scientific Century: securing our future prosperity” (Various caveats apply - ably discussed in this blog https://www.sankey-diagrams.com/careers-in-science-diagram-remake/ for those who enjoy digging into the details behind diagrams)
Caveats aside, the diagram shows that vanishingly few science PhD graduates will attain the dizzy heights of Professorship, and that the vast majority will pursue careers outside academia, and in many cases outside science.
So it is clear that Universities and PIs/'managers' need to think far more broadly about what constitutes career and professional development for ECRs; hence the emphasis on this in the Concordat. It is similarly important that researchers themselves are proactive in exploring career options, and avoid a single-minded focus on academia at all costs - while determination and focus are key strengths, being unprepared for alternative paths is a high risk strategy. Key commitments in the Concordat in relation to this include ensuring that all researchers undertake a minimum of 10 days' professional development pro rata, per year, and that they are supported to actively explore a range of career options (full summary here: https://www.flintinnovation.co.uk/researcher-development-concordat). While the Concordat stops short of saying 'those 10 days must not be anything to do with academic careers), the intent is clear - we need to work together to ensure that researchers are supported to explore widely and develop skills that will serve them well should they pursue a non-academic career.
So why is this an issue? Well, Universities vary widely in their preparedness for this commitment, and in their existing culture and support for researchers. Careers services are overwhelmingly geared towards undergraduate students, and as many senior academics have successfully pursued careers solely in academia, are they well placed (and comfortable) supporting researchers to plan other career paths?
Added to that, being a researcher is tough. Long hours, a sense that you're letting the side down if you don't eat, sleep and breathe research, insecure contracts, and feeling invisible in your own institution. That sounds harsh, but having talked to hundreds of researchers across the UK this is the experience for many.
Universities are also facing extremely challenging times financially speaking, in the wake of the pandemic. They simply can't afford to hire additional teams of professional support staff at the moment, and when there is money to invest it is focused on student recruitment.
All of this is making it difficult for Universities, their senior academics and their researchers to fully grasp the opportunity of the Concordat. We think it can be made easier, and more consistent across the sector, and it's great to see the cross-sector work that's already taking place. Here at Flint Innovation we're on a mission to try to make things as painless as possible. We've developed an offer to help Universities truly deliver their commitments under the Concordat, ranging from a menu of professional and career development courses, through supporting academics and researchers on a one-to-one basis, to supporting strategic planning and implementation. More information on our offer is available here, and you can contact our founder Liz for an initial conversation around your particular challenges and needs at firstname.lastname@example.org
We'd love to hear your thoughts on the Concordat and how implementation is going at your institution - do add your experiences in the comments or contact us privately to let us know what you think!