Professor Jane Elliott took up the post of Economic and Social Research Council Chief Executive and Research Councils UK International Champion in October 2014.
Before joining the ESRC Professor Elliott was Professor of Sociology at the Institute of Education, London, the Director of the Centre for Longitudinal Studies and the Director of CLOSER (Cohorts and Longitudinal Studies Enhancement Resources) programme. In September 2017 Jane will take up a role as Professor of Sociology at the University of Exeter.
A key priority for ESRC is to support the development of the next generation of social scientists. Formal consultations, as well as individual conversations, suggest this has widespread support among established academics, many of whom will remember the employment insecurity that they experienced in the early years of their career.
In my own case I went straight from undergraduate study to a temporary job as a research assistant in Cambridge. I felt very fortunate that I was paid a real salary (just over £7,000 in 1987 I remember) to analyse large scale survey data on mental health and cognitive function, even though at that stage I only had the limited experience of using SPSS to analyse data for my undergraduate dissertation. I then remained on temporary contracts for 12 years, working as a researcher on a number of projects in Cambridge and Manchester, until 1999 when I took a lecturing job at the University of Liverpool.
Recent research carried out by the Centre for Higher Education at the Institute of Education suggests that it is difficult to define an early career researcher. Some manage to get a permanent lecturing position just two or three years after they complete a PhD; this can then provide at least some opportunity and time for independent research. However, others spend many years on short term contracts and working in research centres on funded projects led by more senior researchers.
Over the past three years we have taken a number of steps at ESRC to consolidate and improve the support we provide for individuals in the early stages of their career. First, we have built on the successes of our existing Doctoral Training Centres and commissioned 14 Doctoral Training Partnerships (DTPs) including 73 different HEIs. In addition we have commissioned two Centres for Doctoral Training (CDTs) that focus on Data Analytics and Society, and Biosocial data. These form a network that provides each new cohort of social science postgraduates with a broad range of research skills, and supports them to access advance training and to complete their own original research project.
Over the last year we have piloted 30 postdoctoral fellowships with five different DTCs and we have focused these on topics relevant to the Global Challenges Research Fund. From 2018 onwards the plan is for approximately 50 postdoctoral fellowships on topics across the social sciences to be available across the Doctoral Training Network. We are currently working with DTPs and CDTs to implement the scheme.
In addition to providing support for individuals immediately after completing a PhD, we recognise the need to encourage early career researchers to become independent researchers and to secure their first grant as a principal investigator. In August 2016 we therefore launched the New Investigator Scheme which sits alongside our Research Grants open call, but provides more modest support of £100,000 to £300,000 (at 100% FEC). So far we have had 131 proposals submitted with 47 considered at the last two Grant Assessment Panel meetings and 11 awards made (with the other proposals currently going through peer review).
A further way that ESRC supports those in the early stages of their career is through the Secondary Data Analysis Initiative (SDAI) which provides support of up to £200,000 (at 100% FEC) for projects of up to 18 months in duration. Each project must have an early career researcher (up to four years academic research experience following completion of their PhD) as a principal investigator or co-investigator.
Research is inherently risky and a potential problem when resources are tight is that peer reviewers may favour proposals that appear more certain of success. In order to help combat this, since 2012 ESRC has had a Transformative Research scheme that aims to support research which pioneers theoretical or methodological innovation and engages in unusual disciplinary or interdisciplinary perspectives. Following a positive evaluation (PDF) of the first three rounds of the scheme by Technopolis, this scheme was relaunched in July with a closing date for applications in October 2017. This scheme is open to early career researchers, and the evaluation showed that researchers at all stages of their career had been successful in the scheme.
One of the main pillars of UK Research and Innovation is to support excellent researchers, and there is agreement across all councils that the UK government’s vision of an industrial growth driven by research and innovation needs a strong and agile research base, and new investment in talented researchers at postdoctoral and PhD levels.
If you have colleagues who are early career researchers please do tell them about all these varied opportunities for support. It’s vital that we support the best researchers in the early stages of their careers – they are the future of social science.
For further information on any of our postgraduate and early career opportunities, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also find more details of all these schemes on our funding opportunities page.
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