‘An EMCR by any other name would (still) smell as sweet’

Irene Suarez-Martinez and Gina Ravenscroft

EMCR Forum Executive members

@IreneSuaMar and @Gianina_Natoli

Recently the EMCR Forum Executive had a lively virtual debate about the nuances of defining an early-career researcher (ECR) and mid-career researcher (MCR)—specifically, in the context of access to funding schemes. This got us thinking about using a one-size-fits-all definition, or if there might be instances where it is useful to be more specific with the selection criteria. This might ensure support schemes effectively target their intended audience.

Some entities define an EMCR individual based on their age, the most common definition being under 35 years old. This definition is based on old-fashioned linear career trajectory, and we strongly advocate against it. Age is not a factor in identifying EMCRs and it should never be used.

A more inclusive definition is to define ECRs within 2–5 years post-PhD, and MCRs up to 10 or even 15 years, excluding career disruptions. Typically, an EMCR is still establishing themselves or not yet an independent researcher or group leader. However, the EMCR career experience can be diverse and support needs vary greatly. A lot can happen during the 15 years after completing a PhD.

Some researchers will face unique barriers, job instability or poor recognition affecting their career progression. Some might follow unconventional career journeys. On the other hand, others may have stellar career trajectories. They may already be group leaders, even professors, within 15 years post-PhD. Some may argue that these ‘high flying’ researchers are not in a ‘early’ or even ‘mid-career’ stage, but they are EMCRs according to the ‘post-PhD’ definition. Their efforts should be highlighted and celebrated. However, it is important to recognise that these are rare cases, not the norm, and we need to create structures that support all researchers.

Once upon a time, the ECR category was created to give researchers in their early years a chance to succeed without competing against their more senior counterparts in certain funding schemes. The idea behind these schemes was to consider a pool of researchers at the same career stage. So, we now ask the question, when applying for grants and awards which are aimed at developing the careers of EMCRs: is the post-PhD definition enough?

It is also important to recognise the impact of ‘falling through the cracks’ when a restrictive definition of EMCR is used. For instance, one of the most unsupported groups of women in STEM are level D academics, especially those without tenure. In many cases, these researchers are out of the EMCR ‘post-PhD age’ definition and thus have even fewer opportunities for support.

From our discussions, we agreed that a clear connection between the objectives of a specific scheme and the eligibility criteria is key to encourage applications from the desired cohort of EMCRs.  We also suggest that, when appropriate, including academic level in the selection criteria, as well as years post-PhD, might create a fairer comparison.

For example, if the key objective of a scheme is to develop the career of an emerging scientist in academia, then eligibility should be based on years post-PhD as well as specific academic level. This is because someone at professorial level (highest academic level) is not really ‘emerging’. If the objective is to retain a struggling cohort, then including years post-PhD, academic level and tenure status as part of the selection criteria is more appropriate. In all cases, the achievements of the individual relative to their opportunities should always be taken into consideration when assessing applications.  

While probably not helpful for grants and awards, at the Forum we maintain our original EMCR definition as someone who self-identifies as an early- or mid-career researcher. In our definition, we also give a typical post-PhD age of 15 years, excluding career interruptions. However, we acknowledge that within this bracket progression will vary depending on personal circumstances and access to opportunities.

If you feel strongly about any of these points, we’d love to receive your feedback so that we can use the collective sentiments and experiences to guide our work and provide better opportunities for all EMCRs. Contact us at emcr@science.org.au with your thoughts. 

© 2020 Australian Academy of Science

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