Early career researchers have always had difficulties in finding relevant employment that makes the most of their skills. Those who are attempting to enter the job market are likely to be encounter organisations that have employment freezes, fewer (if any) permanent positions available, and subsequently much tougher competition within the global marketplace. The experiences of many early career researchers is well documented (McKenzie, 2021). Early career researchers are often positioned as a cheap resource with poor job security, few employment benefits and poor pay often due to the multiple casual or fixed-term contracts they often possess (Bone 2019). Many of these contracts are also a year or less, and unlikely to be renewed. These working conditions are incredibly concerning when you consider the impact of COVID-19 on the academy (Baker et al. 2020), and the percentage of our research workforce who are both ECRs and work in academia. According to a Royal Society Te Apārangi report (2020) on the topic 65% are employed at an educational institution, 23% at a CRI and 12% at other institutions, including government ministries, commercial, IROs (Independent research organisations), iwi / hapū or non-profit organisations.
Writing about my career trajectory has given me a chance to reflect on the path of graduate through to professional researcher in an industry setting. My trajectory feels different to other ECRs in that I work as a research sociologist within industry (a research institute concerned with building and construction research). I had just happened to finish my masters at the same time an independent research organisation was looking for a graduate for their social science team. Most of my post-masters’ discussions with my supervisor were about how I should only do a Ph.D. if I had no other opportunities available to me. I had no idea that there were other opportunities available and had assumed it was natural to progress onto a Ph.D. in the social sciences. Being told how precarious the academic pathway was, alongside providing no viable alternatives, I was grateful for any other opportunity that presented itself and applied instantly. After going through the interview process, I began a journey of understanding and experiencing what it was like to be a fulltime, professional researcher.
I cannot speak to the challenges and precariousness of these early career trajectories, as I haven’t done a Ph.D. or a Post-doc. What is often lacking in these discussions about early career researchers is that our current academic pathways do not consider enough these industry trajectories, nor do they provide the training necessary for a transition into an industry role. This is where I hope my experiences might help. What I can speak to is my transition into industry and speak about how my graduate training prepared me for a career outside of academia. I hope my journey so far might be of value for those out there who are considering this pathway, but do not quite know what to expect.
Social science in an industry context.
The focus of my research has been on identifying how change occurs within the building and construction system. By understanding how change occurs, we can ensure that our best practice solutions consider the will and agency of actors who are in charge of implementing those solutions. Sociology should be seamlessly placed to help in this context. I am sure this must vary on based on the specific industry, but my current industry field, workforce skills and characteristics, is still coming to grips with social science and its role in multidisciplinary research. Where does that leave social science ECRs in industries that are still figuring out how disciplines like sociology fit? In my opinion it is an opportunity to demonstrate our strengths.
I knew very little about housing, climate change, construction skills, when I first started my job, but I did understand how challenging and complex it is to change behaviour. I understand how behaviour is socially reproduced. The ways in which we act and behave are structured and internalised. The practice of building is the same thing. We have a structured approach to building houses. Changing that because of challenges like climate change are not as simple as just introducing a new technology. It requires a complete overhaul of a complex socio-technical system where various actors have different motivations and constraints on their behaviour. An important part of my journey has been recognising the value of my discipline in an industry context. One of the key drivers of our research is to create impact by facilitating behaviour change. Sociologists are in a perfect position to understand the complexities of behaviour change in socio-technical systems and can bring that knowledge to support multi-disciplinary research.
Building your expertise and creating your own research narrative:
While our disciplinary knowledge as sociologists is valuable in industry, I have also recognised the need to bundle that with industry specific expertise. It is challenging learning about a new subject area. As valuable as our disciplinary knowledge is, you still need to learn a great deal about the building and construction industry before you can understand the system, and that takes a lot of upfront work.
At first, I worked on several different projects; conducting Interviews, focus groups, literature reviews, across a variety of topics that helped me learn more about research. Initially, I found this quite jarring compared to my experience at university, where all my studies were centred on one area and everything I did, built towards accumulating knowledge in that specific subject area.
I found it helpful to take that intent that I had learned from university and apply it to the various projects that I worked on in my research. My first research project in industry was focused on occupants and consumers and the ways they researched building a house. In subsequent projects, I have tried to focus on researching some form of skill and/or knowledge within the building and construction industry.
After those initial projects that helped develop my research capability, I’ve been able to cement and develop my research narrative and expertise through a focus on investigating the practice of communication on a building site, exploring the information gathering practices of new build clients, and understanding how changes to building and construction training and education are needed to support the transition to a net-zero carbon economy.
When I was given a project that had a tenuous connection with my research narrative, these became opportunities to fill gaps in my science training. These opportunities allowed me to try new methodologies, or to try a new theoretical approach, and continue to build my research capability in other ways. I have found it important to develop this subject matter expertise. Sociologists understanding of socio-technical systems is only enhanced as we learn more about the system itself. Subject matter expertise is also the door to future collaboration with industry, but also government.
Of course, as a ECR, you do not get to always choose which projects you get to work on in Industry, since need and demand shifts constantly. However, these were opportunities to develop other important skills which were absent from my training at university – learning to write grant applications, understanding project management, handling sub-contracted work, mentoring junior staff or other research assistants etc.
Connections with our subject matter:
When I first started, I found it difficult to connect with industry. One of the challenges for ECRs is having those connections for potential collaboration, as well as an established reputation for the type of research you deliver. This is true for any ECR, irrespective of where you are placed, industry or academia, how do you make your research heard?
One of the advantages of industry research is the highly engaged members of industry that are interested in collaborating on research from design through to knowledge transfer and dissemination. Any of our research ideas must have the backing of industry to get funded. Our research objectives are decided upon through co-creation with our subject matter. Due to this, there are plenty of opportunities throughout a research project’s lifecycle to connect with industry, which, from an ECR perspective, helps form those future relationships, and helps legitimate our research and create impact.
Institutionally, industry research is set up for collaboration and the co-design of research. It can be difficult from the perspective of leading research projects, but one of the benefits of working in an multidisciplinary team where research outputs connect across a team, is that it is easier to leverage the social capital of more experienced research team members to help form those collaborative connections.
Challenges of publication as an industry ECR:
Having a close connection to your subject matter is invaluable as an industry researcher, but it does come at a cost of connection with some of our other audiences, specifically our academic peers. Our intent is to enable change for our industry stakeholders, so our outputs are tailored more towards end users, rather than our peers. Connecting with our academic peers is crucial for our development. We cannot afford to pass up opportunities to hone our sociological knowledge and skills.
However, the ways we disseminate research are not necessarily conducive to an academic audience. One of the unique challenges of industry research is juggling the types of outputs required for our career development. In a study of academic ECRs’ publication records and priorities (Nicholas et al. 2017), academic ECRs would like to make their research findings more widely available through social media and online community platforms (similarly to an industry researcher). However, ECRs largely elect not to do this because they lack the time (busy as they are writing papers for high IF journals) and are not given any recognition for these activities. If the main currency for social science ECRs continues to be journal articles, there will always be a tension for industry ECRs to maintain a balance between the two. There is a wider question here about research and who our research is supposed to serve. If research is to help social and political outcomes, why aren’t outputs that support change and improve the outcomes of those we researched, recognised as much as those which speak to our peers?
Being an industry ECR now and in the future:
Industry holds a lot of value for early career researchers in sociology and the social sciences in general. Our expertise is highly valued by industry, we get unique opportunities to connect with our subject matter, we get to co-create both research objectives and solutions with those it will impact, and finally, we create outputs that help influence change with end users in our specific industry.
Working in industry, like academia, is an opportunity to DO sociology. While I have experienced differences between how the two function, industry, or academia, it does not change the knowledge, skills, and competencies we use to understand the social world. There are many changes needed to create a system that can allow ECRs to flourish in Aotearoa, but I would argue that those systemic changes need to consider industry alongside academia. We need to better recognise the commonalities in the ways we produce sociology, and the untapped potential of recognising and collaborating with those different applications of sociology in Aotearoa, New Zealand.
Orin Lockyer is a Social Scientist with BRANZ: email@example.com
Baker, T., et al. (2020). “Could the next generation of researchers be lost in the aftermath of Covid-19?” INGSA. https://www.ingsa.org/covidtag/covid-19-featured/ecr-future/.
Bone, K. (2019). “Dependent and vulnerable: the experiences of academics on casual and insecure contracts.” The Conversation. https://theconversation.com/dependent-and-vulnerable-the-experiences-of-academics-on-casual-and-insecure-contracts-118608.
McKenzie, L. (2021). “The Risks of Precarity: How Employment Insecurity Impacts on Early Career Researchers in Australia” in D. Mulligan & P. A. Danaher (Eds) Researchers at Risk (pp. 115-129). London, UK: Palgrave Macmillan.
Nicholas, D., et al. (2017). “Early career researchers and their publishing and authorship practices.” Learned Publishing 30(3): 205-217.
Royal Society Te Apārangi. (2020). “Early Career Researchers in Aotearoa: Safeguarding and strengthening opportunity after COVID-19.” Royal Society Te Apārangi. https://www.royalsociety.org.nz/assets/Aotearoa-ECRs-Post-COVID-August-2020.pdf.