Realising the Full Potential of Research Returners

25 August 2022 | Blogs, Dr Andy Clempson blog

Research is a fundamental component of a modern successful society, expanding knowledge, driving economic growth, and enriching lives. Those that undertake research on a professional basis must be encouraged and supported throughout their careers. This includes people from all walks of life and all career trajectories – including those who have had career breaks.

Career breaks in research are not one-size-fits-all. Family, caring or health reasons are common factors and the implications of a career break are significant, including:

  • potentially lower wages,
  • a deterioration of skills,
  • falling behind on the latest developments in a research field,
  • balancing the huge challenges of complex home and work commitments
  • potentially relocating to find a new job.

Over the course of a series of blogs, I’m going to talk about the barriers returners face when re-starting their research careers after a break – and most importantly, how we might tackle them together. This is no simple job! Returners face a huge number of barriers, and everyone’s experience is individually unique. But to start things off, this first blog sets out some of the main barriers that returners face.

Barriers facing Returners to Research Careers

Firstly, let’s clarify what I mean by research returners: these are people who have qualified and started their research career prior to taking a career break, typically for starting a family, dealing with health problems or providing care to someone else.

When I first started thinking about barriers, I was swamped by the sheer number of academic papers, articles, tweets, newsletters, media stories, vlogs and blogs, interviews and so much more – all talking about barriers. However, many of the articles were generic to non-returners across predominantly biomedical fields.

I wanted to find out more specific information from research returners so I created a survey using a platform called Crowdoscope that had just one question:

What do you think are the main barriers to career progression for research Returners?

Here’s where the software did something clever: respondents didn’t just answer the question, but they also saw a selection of other respondent’s anonymised answers. They were then asked to rank how much they agreed or disagreed with the other respondents, and how significant they thought the barriers they raised were.

This transformed the data gathering exercise into something much more informative. It became about returners collectively: How many people experienced the same barriers? How much did they agree with one another? Did they have any solutions? Did everyone agree that certain barriers were more impactful than others? You can read more about the methodology and see the raw data here.

What did we find?

The results were distilled into three main barriers – all equally highly scoring in terms of impact and significance. They are reflective of research careers in academia as the vast majority of the survey respondents followed this career path.

 

Relocation

Returners said that relocation is a significant barrier influencing their return to a research career in academia. They report a commonly held viewpoint that staying within a single institution for a prolonged time is seen as being unambitious, lacking commitment and ‘detrimental to developing a more rounded research and workplace experience’. To be ‘successful’ (or rather, how success is perceived), an unwritten expectation is for early career researchers to move around to different institutions, work alongside different research groups, gain new experience and forge new connections.

While this view has merits, for returners that reality is often incompatible with their personal obligations such as raising a family, caring for relatives and dealing with health issues. The impact of relocation easily outweighs the merits: the impact of moving home, a child’s school, on a partner’s job and career (who may have a more stable income), the effect on local family and support networks to name only a few are hugely important. This is compounded by the fact that many research contracts are short term – in some cases just 12 month’s duration – meaning that relocation is simply not practical.

Many returners said that they were facing (or have already faced) an almost impossible decision:

  1. To follow their career and relocate – ‘following the money’ – something often at odds with ideals of following the best arrangement for a career that is compatible with someone’s personal circumstances.
  2. Seek out local opportunities, relying on the emergence of local positions, funding and successful interviews to stay in research in the hope that they may eventually secure a tenured position. Outside of big cities, the pool of potential employers and opportunities can be vanishingly small – even more so in niche research areas.
  3. Avoid relocating by changing career to a more stable arrangement outside of academia, but still utilising their research skills and experiences in other ways.
  4. Change career entirely (i.e. to a non-research career).

Many researchers said they have been forced to select the latter option, representing a huge loss of knowledge, skills and talent from the sector.

It’s hard not to be frustrated by this: is it really still appropriate in a modern-day workforce to discriminate against individuals that don’t have the luxury of relocating for a new role? And why are we still forcing individuals to make impossible choices between their careers and personal lives?

 

Bias

Our survey showed that bias often takes numerous forms and occurs through single or multiple lenses.

  • Age bias: most returners are, by nature of the fact they have had a career break, older than their colleagues at the same stage in their careers. In some cases, colleagues misinterpret a returner’s older age with somehow ‘failing’ earlier in their career, drawing false conclusions because they have fewer published papers – particularly first or last authorships, and have a correspondingly lower H-index than researchers of comparable age. Some returners report they are less competitive when securing new jobs and promotions because of this. Matters are made even worse if the returner does not qualify for REF.
  • Skills bias: returners may require additional training to refresh their skills, experience, confidence, management and leadership capabilities. This leaves many with a sense of ‘imposter syndrome’ which can severely undermine their confidence. The lack of role models, mentors and support networks make it even more difficult to feel a sense of belonging.
  • Gender bias: all too often, women report they are treated differently than their male colleagues. This is reported as being in part due to self-sustaining male-dominated hierarchies that exist at senior levels within academia. Fear of confronting the status quo by speaking out and being labelled as ‘awkward’ discourages many women from challenging this. Similarly, fear of reprisal professionally in terms of securing new grant funding, being selected for promotion or appointments to senior positions deter women from pursuing complaints, particularly where the individual(s) hold a position of power over them, such as their status on funding panels and appointment boards.

Other forms of bias including race, disability and sexual orientation are hugely problematic within academia. These have not been overlooked by their omission here, however due to the lower number of responses from our survey, the data were not robust enough to report on them. Clearly further work is needed to explore this and we would welcome the opportunity to connect with other organisations looking into this.

 

Perceptions of part-time working

Part-time working is viewed negatively by many within academia, despite this being commonplace in other sectors. ‘Presentee-ism’ is a significant factor, and those working in part-time positions report their colleagues can perceive them as being less committed to the field and less interested in career progression. Some part-time returners report that their managers have unrealistic expectations about their research outputs: in the worst cases, expecting publication parity with full-time colleagues.

Others said that the funding landscape is heavily weighted towards full-time contracts. The majority of research jobs advertised are on full-time bases with little effort made to welcome part-time applicants. Some went as far to say that peer reviewers more harshly judge part-time researchers as they have fewer outputs and less impact. The lack of part-time research positions at a senior level perpetuates the issue.

Part-time working is however a necessity for many returners balancing complex work and personal lives. Dealing with a culture in which individuals predominantly work full-time creates barriers for returners working part-time who are left constantly justifying their time, outputs and commitment against their full-time colleagues.

Summary

This paints a pretty gloomy picture and I wanted to end this first blog by stressing that everything raised here should be balanced against the overwhelming positive experience that many returners have. However, these barriers are the product of significant structural and cultural problems that need addressing. We know that by working together, they can be dismantled.

In the next blogs, I’m going to map out what I think the different components of the research ecosystem can do to tackle this. I’ll be covering:

  1. Funders
  2. Returners
  3. Supervisors
  4. Host institutions
  5. Policy makers

If you want to drop me a line to discuss this more, please email me, Dr Andy Clempson, at a.clempson@surrey.ac.uk

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