Supporting research careers – written by Judith Squires, Deputy Vice-Chancellor and Provost

Portrait of Judith Squires
Professor Judith Squires, Deputy Vice-Chancellor and Provost

As signatories of the Concordat to Support the Career Development of Researchers, we are committed to addressing the challenges around insecurity of employment and career progression of all researchers. A clear issue is the use of fixed-term contracts. Over the last ten-years, as shown in the graph below, Bristol has made significant progress in moving our researchers onto open-ended contracts, going from a peak of 62% of researchers on fixed-term contracts in 2014/15 to 17% in 2021/22.

This is excellent progress, but we recognise that this is only one measure and isn’t the whole solution. Open-ended contracts support our researchers by enabling them to secure mortgages or other financial support, but we are aware that the funding is still fixed so they alone do not improve job security.

The Academic Career Development Programme has focused in more detail on these issues with several projects to support our researchers. One is career development and promotion for Research Associates and Senior Research Associates on Academic Role Profile Levels a and b respectively. Recognising that opportunities for researchers at the early stages of an academic career have been inconsistent across the University, from August 2023 we will change how researchers are costed, recruited and developed (formal communications forthcoming). We agreed a set of principles, which includes designing research roles to support career development. It means extending the Academic Promotions Framework to all academic staff so all researchers will be in scope for promotion (subject to there being funding and a role at the higher level). Having one Academic Promotions Framework for all career stages also means that we are providing a clear framework of what is expected at each stage.

We are also aware that the transition to independence beyond levels a/b is difficult. It is where many researchers can get stuck, particularly those who encounter additional barriers due to their individual circumstances or sector-wide systemic barriers that have a negative impact on research careers. It is also worth noting that there are jobs outside academia that we can help people prepare for, e.g. by booking a one-to-one appointment through Bristol Clear.

Graph showing decline in use of short-term research contracts over time

To begin to address the transition to independence, we have piloted a Career Development Fund for 25 early career researchers this year. It has been put in place as a trial to see if a small amount of internal funding can have a positive impact; for example, in supporting researchers to have time to work up research ideas and apply for fellowships or grants, publish key work, and fill any development gaps to support their next career step. A showcase event to highlight the impact, both personal and career, will take place in September 2023 to celebrate achievements and review and decide next steps.

For our more established researchers who still face issues of job insecurity, we have been testing options with key stakeholders such as Finance and HR. We wanted to investigate interventions that will have real impact by conducting interviews with research fellows to test assumptions and fully understand the issues. We are currently piloting and reviewing a number of talent retention and talent development opportunities to enable us to better support researchers at this career stage. These include reviewing a transfer to core funding process in Health Sciences and an externally funded fellows process in Life Sciences.

To start to address the challenges around insecurity of employment, we also need to support researchers to recognise and develop skills that are valuable and transferable as they progress in their careers. These will make them competitive for core funded roles and enable them to be responsive to a changing funding landscape by increasing their options for continued employment. By providing researchers with the skills and development opportunities, we want to enable them to make sustainable employment choices. This is further complemented by activities that form part of our research culture programme, including work to ensure professional development time – another key part of the Concordat – is protected and properly resourced.

The work has also highlighted a lack of understanding around how university finances and research funding work in practice. For example, externally funded research doesn’t cover the full cost of the work (only around 80%) and so relies on other income from teaching, etc. Being part of a successful university is, therefore, a shared endeavour that requires a range of contributions. The Academic Promotions Framework captures this along with our aspirations as a university to help ensure that there is alignment between institutional and personal goals. As people progress their academic careers, their contribution changes and requires the development of other skills. This is why we have a core-funded research and teaching pathway alongside more focused research and teaching career paths. All are essential to our success and so getting the balance right is key, which will be the focus for follow-on work as we implement our 2030 strategy.

I hope that describing the work we are doing and planning to do helps to articulate the challenges we face and how we are working together to tackle them. Research is fundamental to our success and so it is essential that we create the right environment within which researchers can thrive.