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The leaders of tomorrow: our work with Early Career Researchers

01 December, 2023

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 considered anyone who had not been a Principal Investigator (PI) on a grant of £100K or over to be an ECR, a definition that now has traction across several energy consortia. We also allowed ECRs on temporary contracts to apply.

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, which is 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 was 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
  • A studentship programme, funded through the Oxford EPSRC DTP, for twelve PhDs, four of which are international.

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 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 were inducted into our programme and joined the nine 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, permitting people on non-permanent contracts to apply, was 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.

This work featured at our final CREDS in Celebration event as one of the four major impacts of CREDS. In preparation for that event, we wrote to each of the researchers who received funding to ask about its impact. One ECR, Janine Morley, wrote a blog on her reflections on the fund’s impact on her personal circumstances. In the blog, she highlights the systemic issues ECRs face, and states that the fund made a pivotal difference to her career and personal life.

The research funded by this call has resulted in papers and other academic impacts but the ECR’s reflections when we wrote to them resulted in more universal learnings that might be widely useful for funders and other centres:

  • The first experience that most ECRs reflected on was ambition vs reality. COVID hit right at the start of these projects and had a significant impact on ECRs but, even had this not been the case, most felt they had been over-ambitious. There always seemed to be less time and money than expected and there were unexpected changes in circumstances (new jobs, caring responsibilities etc.).
  • We learned some lessons that might help others better support ECRs:
    • Project and people management is not included in academic training so some extra support in this area would have been helpful.
    • Facilitating research processes such as accessing stakeholders or data, which is overwise somewhat daunting for ECRs, would be valuable.
    • Though they were part of a CREDS theme, some researchers said they would have liked to network with each other more.
  • However, the funding filled a gap that still exists – between the ‘just finished your PhD’ phase and open calls for everyone, where ECRs are competing against experienced researchers. We noted that the people funded by this call were mostly what we might think of as ‘mid-career’: people who have held a couple of post doc positions but have not quite managed to launch their own research yet. This funding helped them do that.
  • It was striking that the funding has had a clear impact on everyone’s careers. A couple moved out of academia to quite prestigious roles, others were promoted and face a less precarious future as a result and others were able to remain in academia who might otherwise have had to drop out because of caring responsibilities.
  • The funding also helped other ECRs and researchers who were employed by this money.

One of the great joys of this funding has been watching this group of researchers find their ‘academic voices’, as most of them will have previously had to work on other people’s projects.

Meanwhile, CREDS also funded a handful of its own ECRs, using the flexible fund to help them write papers, run short projects and cover gaps between the ending of CREDS and the start of the Energy Demand Research Centre (EDRC)Opens in a new tab. This flexibility has been much appreciated.

We also received funding from the Oxford EPSRC DTP to fund six studentships starting in 2022 and another six starting in 2023, with four students to be recruited in 2024 for various reasons. It is unfortunate that this funding arrived so late in the lifetime of CREDS. The 2022 cohort attended a couple of Whole Centre Meetings, received an induction and were invited to the Cross-Consortium ECR Conference we helped to organise but the second cohort started just as CREDS was winding down due to the end of the project’s five-year funding. We have, however, arranged for them to be ‘adopted’ by EDRC, so they can continue to exist as a group and be welcomed into the community of energy demand researchers.

Though much remains to be done to resolve the precarity faced by ECRs, it has been our privilege to utilise a significant percentage of the resources of CREDS to support ECR opportunities and, we hope, to have moved the dial a little further in their favour.


…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

“Without the award from the CREDS ECR Flexible Fund Call, I wouldn’t be where I am today: still working in my own field of research whilst also living with my family in the same location. Without doubt, it has made a pivotal difference. Beneficiary of CREDS’ ECR Flexible Fund

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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