This week, myself and some QMUL researchers attended the National Postdoc Meeting, organised by the Postdocs of Cambridge (PdOC) Society – an analogous group to our QMUL Research Staff Association. The aim of this inaugural national meeting of postdocs involved feeding into the 10-year review that is underway of the Concordat to Support the Career Development of Researchers. The Concordat is a set of principles that guide both employers and funders of research staff to keep them mindful of and proactive about the career development support they provide for those they employ and fund. Its signatories and supporters include funders of research (both small and large, including RCUK), Universities UK and the HE funding councils, many UK learned societies, as well as organisations representing the various research-intensive universities in the UK, like the Russell Group.
So for two days, delegates from 15 universities and research Institutes across the UK reviewed the “unwieldy” document that is the Concordat, providing feedback on the 7 principles as set out in the current (2008) version, together with some very critical thoughts on how to better shape it moving forward. The meeting closed with a set of recommendations presented to a discussion panel composed of senior academics, researcher developers (some of whom sit on the Concordat steering group), and representatives from research funders (signatories). Some of these included:
- The Concordat “needs teeth” – this came from both postdocs and Cambridge’s Vice-Chancellor Prof. Sir Leszek Borysiewicz – meaning that while mechanisms like HR Excellence exist, they fall short of a measure of enforcement for institutions who under-support their researchers.
- More visibility and transparency for career development funding from the research funders. This could work by offering schemes for researchers to apply for funds to attend development activity.
- Those who manage researchers (e.g. PIs) should be offered more development opportunities; specifically, how best to advise on matters of career development for those they line-manage.
- An abridged version of the Concordat should be developed and distributed at the point of contract signing.
- The language used in the Concordat is not as relevant to non-science researchers.
The UK Research Staff Association (UKRSA) – a Vitae-funded UK-wide group that aims to network all of individual research staff and postdoc associations in the UK and provide a collective voice for research staff – will be providing a written paper with the feedback from the conference in more detail in time for the 10-year review.
An over-arching theme apparent in the feedback from UK postdocs reflected a relative unfamiliarity with the existence of the Concordat and its related HR Excellence in Research Award. This isn’t surprising as almost 60% of respondents from the national Careers in Research Online Survey (CROS2017) report to having never heard of either the document or the award – curious since most (>91%) of institutions responding to the survey also hold the award. About 55% of QMUL’s CROS2017 respondents echo this sentiment.
I must confess that as a postdoc (2007-2014), I’d never heard of the Concordat, either. I owed this to being ‘brought up’ by a different generation of academic, one who managed to climb the ranks largely on their own, “unsupported”, guided only by toil, trial and error, and the soft-spoken tut of their senior colleagues. Their mentoring was steelier, research-focused, and not overly-pastoral. Some would argue that today’s academic system places a different set of expectations on (early-career) researchers, so perhaps a sink-or-swim approach to fostering academics is no longer fit for purpose; a revolution that arguably goes back to the Roberts’ Review (2002).
As QMUL’s Researcher Development Adviser for postdocs, one of my responsibilities is to contribute to both the implementation of the Concordat, as well as leading of the HR Excellence in Research Award efforts (this monitors an institution’s adherence to the Concordat). I noticed a different kind of early-career academic competing for the few spots on that next rung of the academic ladder, and I think that this comes from a change in culture that began with Roberts’ and the Concordat. That isn’t to say, however, that there isn’t room for updating and future-proofing it.
The review of the Concordat will continue into 2018. QMUL’s progress towards upholding the tenets of the Concordat is available here, and our most recent action plan is available here. We will submit a new action plan to Vitae at the end of January 2018 in order to maintain our HR Excellence in Research Award. If you’d like to feedback to us about our plans and efforts, please contact me in Researcher Development.
edited: 11/10/2017 – added in information about UKRSA’s involvement.