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The leaders of tomorrow: our work with Early Career Researchers

12 December, 2020

The leaders of tomorrow: our work with Early Career Researchers

Sarah Higginson

Case study  

Sarah Higginson

The term Early Career Researcher (ECR) has many definitions: it can refer to someone within five years of their doctorate, but might include PhD students or anyone new to academia. At CREDS we encourage self-definition of an ECR: ‘if you think you are one, you are’.

There are many challenges for ECRs: academia can be very hierarchical, contracts are short-term, people with non-permanent contracts often cannot apply for funding, payment rates and benefits are relatively low, line management is often poor and career progression is limited. The result can be a stressful environment with poor retention rates which is bad news considering the public investment in ECRs and the fact that they tend to be more diverse, something we need to encourage in academia.

CREDS has committed to providing support to ECRs to begin addressing some of these issues in a variety of ways:

  • A significant funding call dedicated to ECRs (£1M at 80% FEC, which is the largest single use of the Flexible Fund)
  • Further funding opportunities and ongoing capacity-building for ECRs within CREDS
  • Ongoing monitoring and reporting, related to our equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI) agenda

The ECR Flexible Fund Call, for researchers who had not led a project of over £100,000, provided significant support for applicants. There was a five-month window for proposal writing, 49 people attended a webinar explaining the call, 66 people participated in mentoring circles provided by seven members of the Executive committee and we developed a dedicated area of the website for ECRs that includes resources and funding advice. Feedback was offered to all applicants: tailored written feedback to the 19 shortlisted candidates and individual phone mentoring sessions for the 50 unsuccessful candidates.

We received 68 valid applications and funded eight projects, which have been inducted into our programme and joined the CREDS themes.

A comprehensive Evaluation report of the call was published and disseminated to relevant stakeholders, including the CREDS consortium, UKRI Energy System programmesOpens in a new tab and UKRI. It concludes that the call was well-run and well-received by ECRs. The support offered was, for the most part, enthusiastically taken-up and well-regarded. The use of a new qualification criterion on ECRs and permitting people on non-permanent contracts to apply, was both important in giving career development opportunities to applicants who are not normally eligible. It is also clear that more dedicated funding for ECRs would help career progression, retain people in academia, increase the diversity of our research community, and represents a very small risk from a public investment point of view.

Future plans

Our ECR Principal Investigators will continue to receive targeted support. Meanwhile, the ongoing CREDS ECR programme is extending the contracts of non-permanent contract holders to finish papers and build their capacity through small projects, work designed to improve their career progression and raise their profile.


…It made me reflect on the fact that you are doing so much to help early career researchers, so I wanted to drop you an email to say thank you so much! I have never seen anything like this level of support for ECRs, it is such a positive step and very much appreciated! ECR in CREDS

It’s great to see the evaluation of the ECR flexible fund call which demonstrates the centre is serious in its thinking around supporting ECRs and diversity. Senior Portfolio Manager, ESRC

Publication details

Higginson, S. 2020. The leaders of tomorrow: our work with Early Career Researchers. Centre for Research into Energy Demand Solutions. Oxford, UK. CREDS case study.

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