A new Concordat – are better times ahead for postdocs?

This week sees the publication of the new ‘Concordat to support the career development of researchers’ – a bold and aspirational set of principles outlining how universities ought to manage and support their postdocs. Over the next few months, you’ll probably start to hear more about ‘The Concordat’, as it’s more affectionately known in the wider world of academic administration, and you should certainly begin to feel some of the positive changes that will be driven by it, as Universities start to address the principles they’ve signed up to.

The original idea of hands stacked in agreementa concordat, or agreement, between universities to set standards for supporting and managing postdocs dates back to 1996. The landscape for postdocs has changed enormously in those 23 years, but each new version, one in 2008, and now in 2019, recognises that postdocs are crucial to the success of the UK’s world-class research base, and institutions that employ postdocs should make sure they support them with the many challenges they face.

What does it mean for me?

The latest Concordat goes beyond previous versions in setting out expectations for all the stakeholders involved in creating a healthy research culture. There are obligations for institutions, funders of research, managers of postdocs, and postdocs themselves, divided in to three ‘Principles’.

The first, ‘Environment and culture’, aims to promote an equitable, inclusive and positive research culture by considering issues such as diversity & inclusion, behaviour, wellbeing, and mental health.person reaching the peak of a mountain

The ‘Employment’ principle sets out the importance of transparent and merit-based recruitment, progression and promotion, and effective performance management.

The third principle, ‘Professional and career development’ recognises the importance of access to good professional development and career support in for postdocs aspiring to success in a wide range of careers.

Of course, when you’ve got your head down in a research project, and you’re focused on your next publication, being on top of the policy changes going on at your institution, let alone across the UK academic sector, are probably not top priority.

The good news is that the effects of the Concordat will filter down to all postdocs.

One of the headline obligations is that postdocs will be entitled to 10 days per year of protected time for their own professional development. Alongside expectations that managers will engage in regular career discussions with their postdocs, and that institutions will recognise the broad range of career paths they pursue, this could be the start of real culture change in terms of how we define career success in academia.

The Concordat will be a big driver for change in UK universities, individually and collectively. But it also serves as a useful guidance tool for researchers who want to understand their rights and responsibilities, what they can reasonably expect of their PI and institution in terms of supporting their career. The latest version is brief and accessible – it’s well worth having a look.

At Cambridge, a small working group drawn from across the University, including postdocs, will be putting together an action plan for how we, as an institution, will meet our obligations. Cambridge has a long history of providing world-leading support for postdocs, but there will always be more we can do. Look out over the autumn for our Concordat sessions, where we’ll be helping postdocs to understand more about what it means for them, as well as giving them the chance to have a say in how we make being a postdoc at Cambridge better for all.

More information about the Concordat.

Liz Simmonds is Assistant Head of the Office of Postdoc Affairs, and chair of the Concordat working group at the University of Cambridge.

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