Revisiting the Leaky Pipeline – short-term contracts and career planning – 5th Annual SEPnet EDI Workshop

SEPnet partner, University of Sussex, recently hosted a half-day online workshop to share good practice in addressing barriers to career progression for women and other under-represented groups in STEM with particular focus on the impact of short-term contracts on career choices on early career researchers (ECRs). The number of people from under-represented groups reduces at each career stage of the academic career path in physics and other STEM disciplines. This workshop focused on the postdoctoral phase of an ECR’s career and explored how the typical series of short-term contracts affects their career choices.

Professor Matthias Keller, head Sussex’s School of Physical Sciences EDI committee, chaired the event. Professor Kathy Romer, also at Sussex, focused on the challenges of managing a successful academic career including dealing with imposter syndrome, the expectation to move institutions (and countries), managing relationships and competing academic careers and dealing with childcare issues. Dr Gregory Ashton at Royal Holloway gave the early career researcher’s perspective highlighting some of the benefits around flexibility and opportunities to travel and gain broad experience and provided tips for ensuring job security and avoiding stagnation. He drew attention to the need for better structural support through clear policies, pointing out that ‘heroes are often examples of failed policy’.

Rana Marrington, ECR Career Consultant at Surrey discussed the value of mentors, the expectation that under-represented individuals are expected to ‘fit in’ and adapt to an existing culture which favours only a few and the benefits of the UKRI’s narrative CV which helps to recognise individuals’ broad skills and experience beyond research. She went on to highlight the benefits of unconscious bias training, transparent progression routes and the importance of having a team of personal and professional individuals on your side. Finally Annika Lohstroh, Lecturer and EDI lead in the School of Physical Sciences at the Open University, identified some of the steps needed to address these issues including the need to move beyond box ticking and truly embed inclusive working practices, clear incident report mechanisms and effective training for managers and supervisors.

Group discussions following the presentations included recommendations for mandatory training for supervisors in supporting their PhD students, addressing the top down culture within universities and regulations regarding processes that can hamper effective communication eg lack of transparency relating to career progression opportunities, complaints procedures etc.

To contribute to this discussion, request to join SEPnet’s Equality & Diversity Champions Network here: SEPnet Equality & Diversity Champions Network | Groups | LinkedIn. To sign up to SEPnet’s Diversity jiscmail group to share information on EDI events and initiatives, email