Navigating the academic ladder as an early career researcher in earth and environmental sciences

Danielle Alderson, Lucy Clarke, Daniel Schillereff, Emma Shuttleworth

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


There is growing concern in Higher Education around job security, work–life balance and inequalities, and early career researchers (ECRs) must make difficult trade-offs and life choices. Literature confirms that women navigating academia face additional challenges compared to their male counterparts. Few studies connected contractual circumstances, employment priorities and their impacts on the life choices of individual academics. We report results from a survey exploring the experiences of 37 ECRs who completed PhDs in the United Kingdom (UK) navigating the academic ladder in geomorphology and earth/environmental science, and contextualize these findings by drawing on personal experiences and wider literature. We find evidence of multi-directional pressures that have materially negative effects on individuals' life choices, including concern that academic employment is a barrier to living where and with whom one may want to. The level of precarity amongst survey respondents is stark in terms of number of years they have held fixed-term contracts (maximum 10 years), the number of individual contracts held (maximum 14) and number of different institutions worked at (maximum six). Women respondents were less prepared to be employed on precarious contracts and put more emphasis on job security when applying for academic posts, with men being generally more satisfied by financial aspects of university employment; which will amplify the leaky pipeline and gender gaps at more senior levels. We also find that perceived institutional prestige was a surprisingly low priority for the majority of respondents, and there were notable divergences between career advice given by more senior colleagues and the priorities of ECRs seeking guidance. We put forward a set of key considerations: improving policies on parental leave and flexible working; formalizing and improving mentorship; more considerate recruitment procedures; reducing contract precarity; and, transparency on pay and promotion. We believe these are within the scope of action by departments, laboratories and research groups.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)475-486
Number of pages12
JournalEarth Surface Processes and Landforms
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - Feb 2023


  • academia
  • academic progression
  • early career
  • geomorphology
  • women


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