Early Career Researchers are not all ‘young’

We should be careful about conflating early career researchers with young researchers.

An article in the Guardian on how to take the pressure off young academics made me question why people conflate early career researchers (ECR) with young.

I turned 21 years in my 1st year of my undergraduate degree.  By the time I graduated with my PhD I was 30.  The idea of ‘young’ varies.  My dad was 40 when he had me, so when I got my PhD he was 70 and would very much call me young.  Indeed, now I’m just into my 40s he still thinks of me as young.  Interestingly, I think of him as a young 80, given he has a full head of curly hair, and golfs three times per week! So, I appreciate the idea of ‘young’ is hard to pin down.

However, in the context of dealing with people in academia at a certain point in their career, it is rather foolish to hold the view that all ECRs are young in the sense of chronological age.  Some are at that point after working in a different sector prior to doing a PhD or perhaps life took over and their entry into that stage of academia came a bit later in life.  What I’m saying is that we cannot assume ECRs are all fresh-eyed 20-somethings.  (Not that one is necessarily fresh-eyed in one’s 20s either!)

I have friends who did their PhD a bit later in life so technically they are ECRs in their late 30s, and I was PhD supervisor to someone in their 50s. One issue I found was the age cut-off for certain funding.  Not only did you have to be a certain time period since gaining your PhD you also had to be under age 35 years.  By the time I did a few research contracts and thought about applying for my own money I was too old.    If I’d gone straight to university from school, I’d have been under the age limit. I felt penalised.

I’ve always recoiled a bit at ‘young academies’ for their age-limits.  By putting an age cut-off, you’re excluding people and not fully embracing the fact that people enter academia through various routes.  Some leave school and go straight through the system, so to speak; others gain professional experiences before moving into academia (e.g., being a health practitioner).  Indeed, others may move in and out, with periods of time between degrees spent working outside of academia.  My own experience has taught me to think of ECRs as a heterogeneous group. It’s a bit ignorant to think of ECRs as ‘young’.