Opening up recruitment for researchers in Europe

Anybody trying to make a career in research will be only too aware of the long-term obstacles that lie ahead of them. Continual assessment and subjection to scrutiny have become prerequisites for sustaining any research career, be it through mandatory research assessment exercises or necessary applications for new grants and sources of funding.

What many researchers may not be prepared for, however, are the hidden difficulties of securing a work contract in the research profession in the first place. Despite advancements in employment mechanisms for researchers in Europe over recent years, recruitment processes in the research career still leave a lot to be desired.

In countries where corruption is sadly still rife, it is not uncommon for posts to be created or, at the very least, earmarked for internal candidates, with little or no prior external advertising. Yet, even in countries where we would expect the values of fairness, openness and transparency to govern the recruitment process, there are plenty of tell-tale signs that something is still not quite right.

A fair and open framework

In 2005 the European Commission launched the ‘European Charter for Researchers’ and the ‘Code of Conduct for the Recruitment of Researchers’ in an attempt to enhance the attractiveness of the research career. Together, the charter and code are intended to encourage employers of researchers to provide fair and open framework conditions to improve recruitment and promotion procedures.

Universities and publicly-funded research institutions which have subsequently implemented the charter and code into their recruitment practices are now entitled to display the ‘HR Excellence in Research’ logo as a clear signal to budding employees that they can expect their applications to be treated in line with recommended standards.

To date, more than 180 European research institutions have been awarded the ‘HR Excellence in Research’ logo, with almost half of these institutions based in the United Kingdom. As impressive as these figures may seem, however, tales of prejudice and bias surrounding the recruitment process from researchers across Europe suggest that many research institutions are still only paying lip service to European guidelines.

Window dressing

Casual conversations with researchers currently engaged in a job search reveal that the general principles and requirements for the code of conduct are, for some institutions, merely convenient window dressing to mask existing preferences and partialities.

For example, some posts may well be advertised on institutional websites, yet access to their particulars remains restricted by member-only log-in credentials. Similarly, some job advertisements may well appear convincing and legitimate, but are let down by unrealistic submission deadlines or improbable turn-around times for interviews – ultimately suggesting that the ideal candidate has already been put in place for the job.

Stipulating that a research vacancy is promoted in the public domain is also not enough to guarantee openness in today’s global research community. How can the world’s best minds really be inspired to apply for a position if the advertisement for it only appears in the local language and no provisions are made to facilitate applications from non-native speakers?

Ensuring that new research positions are at least advertised online in English in addition to the local language is, however, only half the battle. If employers of researchers really intend to attract the best candidates from around the world, they need to demonstrate a clear understanding of the complex needs of today’s generation of ‘mobile researchers’ in their job listings.

Including links to the wider facilities and services of an institution as well as information on the local area should be standard if foreign candidates are to be inspired to apply and to make the move to a new environment.

Employers also need to recognise that both time and money are precious to applicants. Clearly stipulating the conditions of a vacancy – such as salary levels, the location of the work, the amount of hours required and additional benefits – not only allows researchers to make an informed decision about whether to invest precious research time working on an application, but also makes it clear to candidates what to expect if they are offered the job – thereby eliminating potential repercussions for both employer and employee.

Multiple interviews

Competition for research positions is fierce and applicants often find themselves having to attend multiple interviews at a variety of institutions in the hope of securing just one single contract.

Given the relatively meagre salaries of researchers and the global nature of the career, institutions need to explicitly acknowledge their responsibility either to reimburse reasonable travel costs or to make arrangements for alternative interview methods, such as phone or Skype, to ensure the best candidates are not deterred from applying.

Of course, legislating in this area at the European level is difficult, if not impossible, since there is a need to respect institutional autonomy as well as individual national employment procedures. With researchers increasingly being seen as the key to securing Europe’s future prosperity, however, isn’t it about time that steps are taken to respect researchers’ worth and their right to advance in their career without prejudice, corruption or exploitation?

The ‘Voice of the Researchers’, or VoR, network, comprising grassroots researchers from all over Europe, is now helping to get researchers’ voices heard on exactly these issues at the European level.

Since frustrations over corrupt recruitment practices and unstable employment conditions proved hot topics at the first VoR conference in 2013, its members have been given a seat alongside key stakeholders in the European Research Area in discussions about how to effect open, transparent and merit-based recruitment in the research career.

Only through vital researcher involvement like this can a toolkit be created to help employers of researchers throughout the EU to rethink and revise their current recruitment practices in line with researchers’ needs and expectations.

Dr Diana Beech is a research consultant at the Research Information Network and a research associate at St Edmund’s College, Cambridge, UK, where she currently manages a project exploring the role and relevance of values to contemporary European research policy. Beech is also an active member of the EURAXESS ‘Voice of the Researchers’ network, providing researchers with a channel to influence policy in the European Research Area.

If you have had negative experiences when applying for a research position or, indeed, have any suggestions on how to improve the process then let the ‘Voice of the Researchers’ know your thoughts on its new blog available here.