Early-career researchers pursuing an academic career in Ireland: mind the training gap

It’s not easy being an Early Career Researcher! Establishing your professional identity, developing your independence as a researcher, teaching, competing for grants, coping with increasing levels of administration and—oh yes—developing your ‘output’.

Gerry Czerniawski, 16 Oct 2017 – BERA Blog

These opening sentences, which appeared in a post on the British Educational Research Association blog, caught my eye. The post itself offered 20 tips to early-career researchers (ECRs) regarding their career development, which covered topics such as publishing, writing, communicating, networking and training. I thought it was solid advice, but what was missing in it was any advice concerning teaching.

In many national contexts, the Irish one included, if an early-career researcher wants to have an academic career, especially in teaching-focused programmes, pedagogical, technological and content expertise are usually required. However, what we witness in reality is that early-career academics have plenty of opportunity to develop their research expertise, but few opportunities for developing their teaching expertise. In other words, an academic training gap.

IRC is working on developing a clear career structure for researchers, so they can pursue diverse career paths and establish themselves as independent researchers and thinkers.

Looking back at my own path, coming from a long line of educators in my family it was no surprise that I chose to become a physics teacher at second level education. Instead of going into teaching immediately, I chose to do a Masters where I caught the “Research” bug. I followed that up with a PhD, but I always felt inclined to teach in some context. During my PhD I was tutoring, which I loved and I taught at both second and third level thereafter until 2011. That’s when I decided to become a researcher and worked in a few Irish higher education institutions as a postdoctoral researcher.

I thought being an ECR could enhance my academic career prospects, because up to that point I had teaching and some research experience (undergraduate, masters and PhD theses), but had only one publication, hadn’t secured any funding, wasn’t reviewing for journals or conferences etc. In essence, I was managing my own professional development in order to increase my employability, with limited guidance and no clear plan.

The result was a mixed bag. On the one hand, I did gain experience in the areas I mentioned above (and more, such as organizing events, networking, collaborating). On the other, due to the short, fixed-term contracts, I was unable to get any teaching hours or supervise postgraduate students, both of which seem to be key for an academic position these days.

Ireland is now in the privileged position of having a framework to support the professional development of those who teach across the sector, which was published in 2016 by the National Forum (National Professional Development Framework for all Staff Who Teach in Higher Education). The framework aims among others to support the professional development of those who teach across the higher education sector. It clearly defines four distinct typologies of academic professional development, namely:

  • Formal (e.g. Postgraduate Certificate/Diploma in Higher Education);
  • Non-formal, structured (e.g. MOOCs, workshops, conferences);
  • Non-Formal, unstructured (e.g. Reading articles, following social media);
  • Informal (e.g. conversations with colleagues, keeping a blog).

ECRs are lacking the opportunities and/or time to gain teaching-related experience and skills.

Another important development is the Innovation 2020 initiative, within which the Irish Research Council (IRC) is working on developing a clear career structure for researchers, so they can pursue diverse career paths and establish themselves as independent researchers and thinkers. To that end, the IRC seeks to ensure that doctoral researcher are supported with training opportunities in the following areas:

  • Research skills and awareness
  • Ethics and social understanding
  • Communication skills
  • Personal effectiveness/development
  • Team-working and leadership
  • Career management
  • Entrepreneurship and innovation

If you are an ECR with no interest or ambition to work in academia, this could meet your needs. However, if you do want an academic career, these training opportunities do not offer a clear path to supporting you in getting more knowledge, expertise and practice in teaching. This makes the search for a tenured academic position a long and hard process with an uncertain outcome.

The situation is, therefore, clearly not favourable for ECRs interested in having long-term careers as academics. ECRs are the backbone of the research community, and yet they hold precarious, short-term contracts. Ireland is not unique in this respect and we see similar issues and concerns elsewhere these days.

While ECRs gain a great deal of experience and expertise in research skills, publishing, grant writing, presentation and networking, they are lacking the opportunities and/or time to gain teaching-related experience and skills. They may be engaged with collaborative projects that require significant travel for meetings/training or they may be conducting a project that requires flexibility in terms of timetable. On the other hand, even if they are able to take continuous professional development in higher education teaching and learning, they can’t avail of it without regular teaching commitments.

ECRs are the backbone of the research community, and yet they hold short-term, precarious contracts.

If we revert back to the National Forum’s Professional Development Framework, the formal professional development route for teaching (as it currently stands) does not appear to be a viable option for ECRs. What about the remaining, non-accredited option? Is building an equivalency between the former and the latter a realistic or desirable option? Could ECRs have a portfolio of non-accredited professional development undertaken that would be deemed equivalent to the formal professional development?

Working myself on these issues, I was curious to find out how ECRs in Irish higher education institutions could be given a helping hand to make it easier for them to pursue an academic career if they wish to do so. With that in mind I hosted a seminar that included a discussion on the professional development opportunities of ECRs in other national contexts, namely the UK and Croatia. The seminar will be followed up by a round-table discussion at the Canadian Society for the Study of Higher Education, which aims to identify types of professional development opportunities that enable and empower ECRs in shaping a path to an academic career from a variety of national contexts.

The hope is that this will result in a best practice guide and a set of recommendations for making the transition of ECRs into academics as seamless as possible.

Yurgos Politis is a Learning Developer at the Technological University Dublin, Ireland. He teaches on the MSc in Education and the PG Certificate in University Learning and Teaching. One of his current areas of research interest lies on the professional development of academics, and in particular of early career researchers in pursuit of a career in academia. You can follow him on Twitter, ResearchGate & Blog.

Image by TheOtherKev from Pixabay

2 Replies to “Early-career researchers pursuing an academic career in Ireland: mind the training gap”

  1. This article purely addresses practical issues for those who have an early interest in doing research projects along with the studies, yet have no specific career determination in mind like me. Thank you, Yurgos!

  2. Cheers Hong,
    hope this piece can get a conversation going. I’m actually chairing a roundtable at the Canadian Society for the study of HE (CSSHE), where i hope to advance the conversation. Here is a link to the call for contributions for those who wish to share experiences from other national contexts:

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