ECR Survey Responses and Looking Ahead to 2021

Well friends, we made it to the end of 2020. This has been an incredibly difficult year for so many reasons, and quite frankly we all deserve a pat on the back for getting through it. And although the various hardships that have dotted 2020 of course won’t immediately cease on 1 January, we’re looking ahead to 2021 with hope for a smoother and less stressful year.

But first, we’d like to use this final blog post of the year to reflect on where our community is, and think through how we can move forward together in the new year. A key part of this exercise for us, your representatives, is reflecting and acting upon the ECR survey that was distributed in September and October of 2020. We were pretty chuffed to receive over 50 responses, so right at the top we’d like to thank everyone who filled it out — we really appreciate your taking the time to fill us in on what you are thinking and feeling in what has been (and continues to be) a very challenging time for our sector. The responses we received were illuminating and insightful, and have helped us to develop some new ideas and initiatives that we hope will foster networks amongst ECRs and with the AHA community more broadly, provide opportunities for career development, and give you more information about the various components of academic life. However, the responses also indicated just how tough it is to be an ECR (or PhD student) right now. Thank you to everyone for the honesty and vulnerability you showed. For anyone struggling right now, please know that you are not alone, and that you can always reach out to either Chelsea, Joel, or Anna if you need.

Our main takeaways from the responses to the survey are that:

  • a sizeable number of you reported having parenting or carer responsibilities, or having a disability or chronic illness, which affects the ways in which you engage with and experience the academy and the discipline.
  • community-building with other ECRs and the history discipline is seen as important.
  • there was a mixed sentiment about whether the AHA is doing enough to support ECRs. Some felt it is doing enough, while others were critical of what they see as, for example, a lack of support from senior academics or a failure to challenge escalating track record expectations for those applying for jobs and grants. Others wrote that they thought the AHA was “sort of” doing enough or that the question was difficult to answer, as they felt their interests were being represented but also that the AHA had limited capacity to affect change within institutions and government.
  • there is a clear demand for more concrete initiatives to support career development and opportunities, such as mentoring schemes, advice on publishing and job applications, grant-writing workshops, etc.
  • a number of you want to be more aware of career opportunities and pathways outside of academia.
  • many are anxious, frustrated, and concerned about the state of the sector and the difficulties of finding sustained and meaningful employment. These fears are not new but have been exacerbated by the events of 2020 and the ongoing crisis in the higher education sector.

We are using these findings to shape and inform the work that we will be doing over the remainder of our term as your ECR representatives. The AHA Executive Committee has been highly responsive to our reporting of the survey results, and is particularly concerned about the low morale and confidence in the sector reported by many respondents. We’ll be working with the Executive Committee in the new year to deliver a number of initiatives that we hope will provide both ECR and HDR members with valuable opportunities for career development, networking and community-building. We’d particularly like to acknowledge the strong support of AHA President, Prof Melanie Oppenheimer, in developing this program of member activities.

Initiatives already underway:

  • We have worked with the Australian Centre for Public History at UTS to redevelop their previous Research Assistant Database as a centralised register to facilitate connections between those looking to hire an RA and looking for RA work. The database will make ECRs available for RA work across the country and internationally more visible. The initiative also supports the Working Paper on Sustainable History, which was endorsed by the AHA Executive Committee in September 2020, and which calls for scholars to reassess their research travel needs and where possible consider hiring remote RAs as an alternative.
  • Applications are currently open for the AHA CAL ECR Mentorship Scheme, which provides six ECRs with a stipend, the opportunity to be formally mentored, and both academic and public avenues for publication. This scheme has been running for the past few years and we are not only happy that we can offer funding for 2021, but we are working with PhD representative Joshua Black to think through new schemes of small grant funding, for PhD students and ECRs alike, in the years ahead.

Initiatives we’re working on:

  • We are working with AHA President, Prof Melanie Oppenheimer, to produce a series of monthly online seminars and workshops focusing on career development, grants and publications, and more. This will be a great way to engage with senior scholars, build networks across the country with other ECRs and HDRs, and explore different facets of academic life in a difficult climate. The series will be a major program of member activities that responds specifically to the calls in the survey for more concrete initiatives to support junior scholars.
  • Stay tuned in early 2021 as we announce a new mentorship scheme that will provide ECRs with the chance to act as a mentor to an HDR scholar. The scheme will provide ECRs with experience offering support and guidance to an emerging scholar, and the opportunity to develop their mentoring skills to take into supervisory relationships. For HDR candidates it will provide mentorship from a person who’s just been through it, who can offer advice on navigating academia in this tricky climate.
  • We’ll be harnessing the blog to continue communicating with you more information about different opportunities, non-academic career options and pathways, and life in academia from a variety of perspectives, including those highlighted by the survey responses.
  • We are already thinking about the ECR session at the next AHA Conference at UNSW in November-December 2021 – if you have ideas, do get in touch!

We are really excited to get to work in 2021, putting these plans into place and working with the AHA Executive Committee and you, our ECR community, to try and foster a more supportive and positive experience for us all. Don’t forget that you can always get in touch with us if you have any suggestions for a seminar or blog post, or if you have any questions or thoughts about ECR life more generally. Most of all, we’d like to wish you all a safe, happy, and restful holiday break, and a wonderful new year celebration. See you all in 2021!

The below breaks down the responses from the survey (all kept anonymous, of course!). There were 53 responses in total. The survey was open to AHA members who are are ECRs or are ECR-adjacent, including those nearing the end of their PhDs.

1. How do you define your current career situation?

Early ECR32.1%
Mid ECR13.2%
Late ECR7.5%
Mid-Career Researcher1.9%
Finishing PhD24.5%
Did not answer/did not specify20.7%

2. How do you define your employment situation?

Casual/Fixed Term (Academic)50.9%
Continuing (Academic)11.3%
Honorary Unpaid1.9%
Casual/Fixed Term (Non-Academic)15.1%
Unemployed17.0% (13.2% current PhD candidates)
Continuing Part-time (Non-Academic)1.9%
Casual/Fixed Term (Unspecified)1.9%

3. Do you have an institutional affiliation (including honorary)?

Prefer not to say3.8%

4. Are you currently pursuing an academic career?


5. Do you identify with/belong to any of the following groups?

Parent/Carer Responsibilities35.8%
Disability/Chronic Illness18.9%
Non-Binary/Gender Diverse5.7%
Ethnic/Religious Minority1.9%
Prefer not to say3.8%
People who identified with two or more of these groups3.8%

6. Have you attended any of the AHA conferences? If not, please indicate why, if you’d like.

Did not answer9.4%

Additional comments (Yes):

  • Yes, but high cost has prevented respondent from attending more
  • Yes, but only because it fell in school holidays
  • Yes, but as an independent scholar it was expensive and isolating
  • Yes, but it is extremely difficult due to travel and registration costs

Additional comments (No):

  • Interdisciplinary scholar with limited funds who has to choose between conferences
  • Cannot leave kids
  • Too expensive
  • COVID cancellation prevented 2020 attendance 
  • Holds limited interest for those not working on Australian history
  • New to Australia and not integrated into Australian history community

7. Have you ever read the AHA ECR blog?


8. What are the main reasons you maintain your AHA membership? Please select all that apply. 

Weekly newsletter73.6%
Prizes, awards and funding opportunities69.8%
Conference attendance54.7%
History Australia subscription39.6%
Community engagement58.5%

Additional comments:

  • Feeling part of a community
  • Solidarity
  • To support the discipline
  • To build connections in the community
  • Job information
  • A way of maintaining connection to the profession

9. What are your primary concerns, or what do you believe are the biggest issues facing ECRs at present? This could relate to the university sector broadly, individual issues such as access, mental and physical health etc – anything at all that concerns you. 

Comments included:

  • Employment precarity / lack of opportunities / lack of stable opportunities
  • Uncertainty around the sector
  • Structural shifts have produced a reliance on ECR labour with lack of compensation/benefits
  • Attacks on the humanities and on research funding
  • Mental health
  • Grant-writing
  • Career prospects, amplified by COVID
  • Low quality of life compared to PhDs who move into non-academic work
  • Lack of action from senior colleagues and institutions to improve employment precarity for ECRs / lack of understanding of the pressures and stress for ECRs
  • Not enough postdoc positions or options before the DECRA
  • Reducing access to libraries which restricts ability to research
  • Severe imposter syndrome
  • People who benefit from current system need to fight for those who don’t
  • Lack of positions for First Nations scholars/people of colour
  • Lack of solidarity from people with ongoing jobs
  • Public value of the discipline
  • Difficulties in applying for funding without first having confirmed employment
  • Academics in regional areas being overlooked

10. Do you think the AHA is doing enough to support ECRS?

Prefer not to say20.8%
Sort of/it’s complicated 1.9%
Did not answer1.9%

11. If you responded “No” above, please provide some details, if you’d like. 

Comments included:

  • AHA as an organisation is conservative and slow to act
  • Recent report on casualisation an important initiative, but has not resulted in meaningful change
  • AHA does not speak out on issues of importance to ECRs
  • Mentoring opportunities wanted
  • “Sort of” – unsure what more the AHA could do to effect change within institutions and governments, or to create more jobs
  • Feeling alone and disconnected
  • AHA fails to challenge escalating expectations of ECRs applying for jobs and grants
  • “Difficult to answer” – there is individual effort to represent ECRs, but AHA dominated by the interests of mid-career and senior academics
  • Writing or other interest groups wanted

12. What areas do you think you would most benefit from in terms of support?

Transparent and honest discussions around academic wellbeing56.6%
Community engagement and solidarity56.6%
Opportunities for CV building such as mentoring post-graduates37.7%
Advice on career development52.8%
Advice on publishing54.7%
Advice on grants and post-doc applications56.6%

13. Please share with us any thoughts you have on how we, as your ECR reps, can act in support of you. Is there anything in particular you would like to see us do or accomplish? Would you like to see us expand platforms such as the ECR blog? Anything you can think of!

  • More collaboration/building solidarity, less on building competition
  • Publishing/grant-writing workshops
  • Resurrection/expansion of the ECR blog and its established series
  • Tighter relationship between ECR and postgrad reps
  • Honest conversations about what to do with a PhD beyond the academy
  • More engagement with those who transitioned to non-academic jobs
  • ECR reps at the forefront of online conversations re precarity
  • Social functions outside of AHA conferences
  • Seminars with non-academic history PhDs


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