What’s in a name or why terms like “ECR” can be alienating

Many researchers do not relate to terms like “ECR” or “postdoc” so when events seeking their engagement are advertised using these terms, the unintended consequence is that a considerable part of the target audience feels excluded. Here, we explore why some terms and assumptions about research staff can be alienating and propose solutions to be more inclusive.


“How can we engage ECRs (early career researchers) more in the School?” “Why is there so little engagement in some postdoc societies?” “I organised a social for PDRAs (postdoctoral research assistants/associates) last week and only three people turned up”. Do any of these sound familiar? Why?

The first, most obvious, reason why research staff (by which we mean staff in fixed-term employment on research-only contracts) engagement can, at times, seem low is because of the nature of their contract. Research staff are on short-term contracts, people come and go, so it can be hard to sustain engagement. But while it is the most obvious answer, it would be naïve to believe it is the only one.

Enter Judith Butler, philosopher and gender theorist: “The development of a language that fully or adequately represents women has seemed necessary to foster the political visibility of women”[1]. Replace “women” by any marginalised population, for example, replace by “research staff on precarious contracts”; it is less catchy, but bear with me. “ECRs”, “postdocs” or “PDRAs” are certainly catchier terms, but, for research staff who have been in long-term employment on short-term contracts, they can be alienating (albeit one step up from “young researchers”). With one third of research staff estimated to have been on precarious contracts for more than 10 years [2], should there not be a point when the “early” of “ECR” becomes “mid”?

“Postdoc” can also be problematic. Semantically, the inclusion of the prefix “post” in “postdoc” or in the “P” of PDRA, implies that such positions fall within a defined chronology in an academic career: post-doc but pre-lectureship perhaps? With 88% of “postdocs” never securing a lectureship, should we start to consider the implications of providing job titles that situate the persons concerned within a career pathway that they are statistically unlikely to enter?

Of course, for many researchers terms like ECRs, postdocs, PDRAs accurately describe who they are and the career stage they expect to be at, at this moment in time. But advertising events to “ECRs” when, in fact, seeking engagement from all research staff will likely have the unintended effect of excluding a considerable part of the target audience. Preliminary responses to a survey aimed at researchers in long-term employment on short-term contracts [3] shows that they prefer self-describing as “senior researchers” or “long-term researchers” (LTRs). Arguably, these terms also each have their flaws: in many HE institutions, the difference between someone whose job title is “PDRA” and another who is “senior researcher” is one of pay scale. As for long-term researchers, which I coined and therefore have a strong bias towards, unless it is clearly defined, it can be misinterpreted to mean “a permanent member of staff in a research-only position”.

A “one size fits all” approach to engaging research staff is also problematic. At the 2016 US presidential election, some commentators seemed shocked that not all women voted for Hilary Clinton. They realised that not all women were, ahem, the same. Again, replace “women” by “research staff” in the previous sentence and the analogy starts to make sense. Only 12% will secure a lectureship, some will leave academia and others will stay in research on precarious contracts, sometimes up until retirement. Different types of engagements will attract different types of researchers. For example, some researchers may be keen to engage in socials (translate: going to the pub) after a 4pm seminar on a Friday afternoon that a researcher who has caring responsibilities or another who does not drink alcohol could not attend. It also is not always clear whether some meetings are relevant to research staff. School meetings, Institute meetings, strategy days can seem too high level for some so, if research staff engagement is sought, it should be clear. The organiser of a recent event sent an email to all research staff which left no room for doubt: “I was asked to what extent the research day is also for you: it is! Definitely! It is pitched at all career stages”. The turn out showed that the message had been heard.

One final important point. The Concordat to Support the Career Development of Researchers has prompted universities to include more research staff representation on various Schools/Colleges/University committees and working groups. Although such representation is to benefit and to increase the visibility of research staff, it can still be surprisingly difficult to find volunteers to be representatives. Academics at the University of Edinburgh have a 20% citizenship allocation on their contract; researchers have no such allocation. Unless some types of engagement, such as being asked to sit on a committee, are recognised on research staff contracts, in annual reviews or in promotion rounds, anyone volunteering is doing so on top of what they are contractually obliged to deliver. This is a luxury not all researchers can afford.

Ultimately, to misquote unashamedly Abraham Lincoln’s apocryphal words of wisdom “you can engage some of the people all of the time, but you cannot engage all of the people all of the time”. The key is in proposing diverse engagement outlets, hoping there is enough of a variety for all to find one that suits them and in developing an inclusive language that describes the whole of the research staff community. “What’s in a name?” asked Juliet [4]. Quite a bit, it turned out.

[1] Butler, Judith. 2006. Gender Trouble. Routledge Classics. London, England: Routledge.
[2] Mellors-Bourne, R, Metcalfe, J. Five Steps Forward, Vitae. 2017. Available from: https://www.vitae.ac.uk/news/vitae-news-2017/five-steps-forward
[3] A survey investigating the circumstances behind the career path of researchers in long-term employment on short term contracts was open from 8 June to 15 July 2022. It is anticipated that results will be published in the IAD blog in 2023. Contact the author of this blog post for more information.
[4] From “Romeo and Juliet”, Act 2, Scene. Shakespeare, W. 1597.

Dr Cecile Menard, the author of this blog post, splits her time between IAD and the School of GeoSciences. Her research focuses on how our research practice and culture (the decisions, assumptions and biases researchers make and have) influence our research paths and outcomes. You can contact her on cecile.menard@ed.ac.uk.


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