Challenges and Opportunities for Early Career Researchers

10 Nov 2022

By Ahmed Gailani, Chair of the UKERC ECR committee

Early career researchers (ECRs) make significant efforts to transform research into a force for good to empower society. ECRs, spanning PhD students, research fellows, and junior lecturers, are central to deliver the government’s research and development roadmap. There are currently more than 200 UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) future leaders fellows aiming to solve world pressing and urgent research challenges [1]. However, many ECRs face challenges of their own such as career instability, and the lack of independence for research improvement activities [2].  With the increased attention from the UK government and research councils to the vital contributions of ECRs to the wider society, this blog explores the challenges and opportunities for ECRs in the UK.

Towards an inclusive ECR definition

Currently, there is no single definition for ECRs. Different organisations adopt their own definitions for research funding purposes (to align with the main funder’s terms and conditions), travel grants, and other ECR supporting activities. UKRI, for instance, has three ECR stages; doctoral, immediately post doctorate, and independent researchers, adopting different definitions and eligibility requirements according to the ECR’s career stage. The Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) defines ECRs as those within eight years of their PhD award or equivalent professional training, or within six years of their first academic appointment [3]. However, some ECRs may eventually be excluded from that adopted definition, for instance, those who do not have a PhD degree.

UKERC was one of the first organisations to adopt an ECR ‘self-definition’ option for informal occasions such as providing funding to attend workshops (See UKERC Inclusive Writing Retreat event)  and conferences (see the ECR Net Zero Conference). The ECR self-definition is a flexible and inclusive approach to improve ECR careers. For formal occasions such as applying for the Whole Systems Networking Fund, UKERC prioritises ECRs employed on precarious contracts (e.g. open-ended, fixed term or project-funded). This also include ECRs who have not previously led a project exceeding £100k’, without tiding them to PhD award or specific timeframe, to support their career stability.

While there has been much progress towards understanding ECR needs and creating suitable definitions, further work is needed from UKRI to set a common framework to define ECRs for funding purposes and be open to the idea of ECR ‘self-definition’.

ECR challenges

ECRs still face considerable challenges. Previous research conducted by the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) found that the main challenges include career instability due to short-term contracts, continuous mobility due to moving from one contract or university to another, and limited funding opportunities [4]. This is in addition to the profound challenges due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and the current cost of living crisis [5].

It is evident that job insecurities due to short-term precarious contracts are the main limiting barrier to ECR wellbeing and career development. Being on a fixed-term contract means there is a limited time/opportunity to apply for grants (which takes time and effort while also being on the line manager’s secured funding). Thus, ECRs are not always allowed to apply for funding or act as principal investigator because they are already committed to a contract. Yet, securing funding as an ECR is one of the main criteria to apply for a permanent academic position. While some universities are planning to move ECRs employed on fixed-term contracts to open-ended contracts [6], there will still be many employed on precarious contracts due to the UK’s funding landscape and job markets. Therefore, better coordination between the UKRI and the UK higher education institutes (HEI) is needed to mitigate this issue.

ECR opportunities

Several opportunities exist to support career progression for ECRs such as applying for small grants and travel funds, training to develop skills, participating in knowledge exchange programs, and networking opportunities. With coordination between organisation bringing several benefits for ECRs including multidisciplinary discussions and networking.

The ECR Net Zero Conference is a free to attend, two-day conference bringing together ECRs interested in net zero research. It is hosted by several UK organisations including C-DICE, CO2RE, CREDS, ERA, EnergyREV, IDRIC, TFI Network+, UKCCSRC and UKERC.

The Supergen energy networks ECR committee recently launched a travel fund to help ECRs attend events, covering travel costs for research collaboration meetings and conferences. The travel fund is available until Jul 2023, with two awards given each month.

Several other ECR opportunities are available via Research Professional, which many UK HEI subscribe to. Opportunities such as grant writing skills may readily be available via universities as part of their research offices.  Participating in workshops such as Pitching your Research is also useful to learn effective research communication.

As Chair of the  UKERC ECR committee, I am keen to hear from the wider ECR community, so please get in touch with  any comments, questions or ideas that can help empower ECRs.



  1. UK Government. UK Research and Development Roadmap. 2021; Available here.
  2. Kent, B.A., et al., Recommendations for empowering early career researchers to improve research culture and practice. PLOS Biology, 2022. 20(7): p. e3001680.
  3. UK Research and Innovation. Early career researchers: career and skills development. 2022; Available here.
  4. Bennett, A.G.R. Evaluation of support for ECRs. 2018. Available here.
  5. Byrom, N., The challenges of lockdown for early-career researchers. eLife, 2020. 9: p. e59634.
  6. The University of Leeds. Inside Track | Fairer future for all – reducing fixed-term contracts. 2022; Available here.