Article Text

Download PDFPDF

Early career researchers’ thoughts on academic careers: updated evidence from the Society for Social Medicine and Population Health
  1. The SSM ECR Subcommittee,
  2. Catherine B Hayes
    1. Correspondence to Professor Catherine B Hayes, Discipline of Public Health and Primary Care, School of Medicine, Trinity College Dublin, Russell Centre, Tallaght Cross West, D24 DH74, Ireland; hayesc9{at}

    Statistics from

    Request Permissions

    If you wish to reuse any or all of this article please use the link below which will take you to the Copyright Clearance Center’s RightsLink service. You will be able to get a quick price and instant permission to reuse the content in many different ways.

    A 2015 Society for Social Medicine and Population Health (SSM) survey1 of early career researchers (ECRs) highlighted several challenges faced, including job insecurity, limited academic career development opportunities, and a lack of mentorship. Based on these findings, SSM introduced ECR workshops and networking events, a mentoring scheme, and publicised job and funding opportunities. To evaluate progress on these issues, we surveyed ECR members in 2021. The survey was conducted during the Covid-19 pandemic and occurred alongside the UK industrial action related to academic working conditions. Key findings are highlighted in figure 1. Below, for context, we provide some comparisons with responses in 2015,1 while recognising the limitations of drawing conclusions from repeat cross-sectional surveys.

    Figure 1

    Infographic highlighting key results from the 2021 SSM ECR Well-being Survey.

    Of 48 responses, three-quarters were female and at least one respondent came from every region of the UK and Ireland.

    Job security

    Job insecurity remains high; 57% of ECRs report receiving poor pay and conditions and 80% report experiencing unstable careers with short-term contracts, suggesting little if any improvement from 2015 (84%).1

    Limited opportunities for academic career development

    Although half of ECRs report limited opportunities to develop their academic careers, 68% believe that their workload reflects their personal career goals, which may suggest greater discussion of the 2019 Researcher Development Concordat.2 These findings suggest an improvement on the 2015 survey, which indicated ECRs had little time to expand their own research interests and develop their career.1


    Most ECRs agree that teaching (69%) and research (67%) workload are reasonable. Despite 72% reporting to frequently work more than the contracted hours, an increase from 61% in 2015, 58% say they rarely work what they consider to be long hours.


    Only 11% report to have signed up to the SSM mentoring scheme. Furthermore, 54% report a lack of adequate institutional mentoring or support, reflective of the findings from 2015 when 55% reported to not have a mentor.1

    Future plans

    ECRs report a high interest in non-academic careers: 66% are interested in government positions and 71% in working for non-government organisations.


    The experience of ECRs could be improved by:

    1. Urgently acting and advocating at all sector levels to address workload and working conditions.

    2. Prioritising well-being, for example, at SSM’s pre-conference ECR days.

    3. Increasing awareness of mentoring opportunities (e.g., the SSM mentoring scheme).

    4. Promoting rounded professional development and skilled career opportunities in all sectors.

    5. Continuing to monitor ECR experiences and challenges in the future.

    Ethics statements

    Patient consent for publication

    Ethics approval

    This study involves human participants but the submitted work is a service evaluation of members on behalf of a professional society and as such is exempt from ethical approval. Participants gave informed consent to participate in the study before taking part.


    We would like to thank all 2021 SSM ECR subcommittee members for their contributions in supporting the 2021 SSM ECR Well-being Survey and to all those who responded to the survey. For more updates, follow the SSM ECR Subcommittee on Twitter at @ECR_SSM.



    • Twitter @ECR_SSM

    • Collaborators SSM ECR Subcommittee: Florence Z. Martin; Amrit Kaur Purba; Maxwell S. Barnish, Kate E. Mason; Heidi T.M. Lai; Paul Henery; Kate N. O'Neill. SSM President: Catherine B. Hayes.

    • Contributors SSM ECR Subcommittee survey delivery, data collection, and analysis group 2021 consisted of AKP (MRC/CSO Social and Public Health Sciences Unit, University of Glasgow, Glasgow, UK); PH (Public Health Scotland, Dunfermline, Scotland); KNO'N (School of Public Health, University College Cork, Ireland); HTML (Department of Primary Care and Public Health, Imperial College London, London, UK).

      SSM ECR Subcommittee writing group 2021 and 2022 consisted of FZM (MRC Integrative Epidemiology Unit (IEU), University of Bristol, Bristol, UK); AKP (MRC/CSO Social and Public Health Sciences Unit, University of Glasgow, Glasgow, UK); MSB (Peninsula Technology Assessment Group (PenTAG), Department of Public Health and Sports Sciences, University of Exeter, Exeter, UK); HTML (Department of Primary Care and Public Health, Imperial College London, London, UK); KEM (Melbourne School of Population and Global Health, Melbourne, Australia).

      SSM President Professor Catherine B Hayes (Department of Public Health and Primary Care, Trinity College Dublin, Dublin, Ireland).

    • Funding The authors have not declared a specific grant for this research from any funding agency in the public, commercial or not-for-profit sectors.

    • Map disclaimer The depiction of boundaries on this map does not imply the expression of any opinion whatsoever on the part of BMJ (or any member of its group) concerning the legal status of any country, territory, jurisdiction or area or of its authorities. This map is provided without any warranty of any kind, either express or implied.

    • Competing interests None declared.

    • Provenance and peer review Not commissioned; internally peer reviewed.