Lawrence McKay (PSA ECN Committee member) 8 July 2020

You don’t need to crunch the numbers to know these are tough times for ECRs, and those approaching the end of their doctorates, contracts or postdocs, or even laid off by their institutions, have faced a historically difficult job market. However, it has been challenging to determine exactly how badly the crisis hit recruitment. My own impression has been formed by experiences at my institution, those of my friends and co-workers, and by horror stories on social media. Hard data has never entered the equation. In this blog, I have strived to put actual figures to the collective experience of precarious ECRs in the discipline in 2020. is undoubtedly the preeminent platform for academic recruitment in the UK, used by over 700 organisations, including 88 in the UK alone. In 2015, institutions in the UK and Ireland collectively placed over 25,000 ads for academic, research or teaching roles. Therefore, it provides an excellent window to consider the impact of Covid-19. do not share data for research purposes, but there is a simple way to analyse the Covid effect. For many years, the website main page has been archived on a regular basis by the Wayback Machine. The main page lists the number of ‘jobs’ that were then being advertised, by academic discipline, including ‘Politics and Government’. By recording the figure at certain times between when the Covid impacts became globally felt (in early March 2020) and now, we can show the impact of the pandemic. What is more, we can compare this to the same points in 2019, to see whether the trend is truly abnormal. Finally, we can compare the impact on Politics recruitment with what happened in other disciplines: how bad did we get it?

There are some important caveats readers should consider. These figures include various types of academic employment: lectureships, postdocs, teaching contracts and so on. They include UK and non-UK roles, although a large majority (currently 75%) are UK-based. HE institutions dominate, but commercial and public sector organisations also use the service, along with research institutes and FE colleges. Though a more detailed picture would be valuable, these figures give a snapshot of all the opportunities our members could feasibly access*.

The graph below** shows a stark picture. From early March, when the pandemic was declared, there is a stark fall in postings, continuing until late April when the trend bottoms out. Overall, the number of postings declined by three-fifths in five weeks. In 2019, postings remained stable through this entire period. However, there are signs of a modest recovery in recruitment, with the latest figures showing the number of postings down only around one-fifth compared to the same time in 2019.

How badly hit was Politics, compared to other disciplines? The following graph shows the percentage decline over a two-month period for all the discipline areas, including STEM subjects. No disciplines escaped unscathed, but Politics was indeed one of the worst hit[MDW1] , with the third largest reduction in advertisements out of 21 discipline areas. It is not clear why this should occur, but humanities, arts and social sciences in general are particularly reliant on institutional rather than external support, and it could be that the former was cut off harder, faster and in a more indiscriminate way.

Covid-19, then, has caused a crisis of recruitment in Politics over a sustained period, and ECRs seem to have borne the brunt of this. While green shoots are emerging, recruitment has not yet recovered to 2019 levels. I am concerned that this situation may have been institutionalised by the conditions of the university bailout deal, which, as well as failing to address the underlying solvency risks, incentivises universities to freeze hiring. However, there are signs that the prospects are better for obtaining postdoc project work, funded by research councils and other sources, than finding lectureships. Research funding may have been shored up by the new government package, although given the heavy STEM-focus, Politics ECRs may not see much benefit. Overall, the situation remains highly challenging and we risk a general ‘brain drain’ of talented researchers from the sector.

In particular, casualised short-term contract workers let go during the pandemic will have entered a scary situation, with few immediate alternatives. In light of these data, universities which took costly steps to protect staff must be applauded, and the decision to grant extensions to final-year PhDs has also offered a valuable reprieve for many. I hope that, to the best of their ability, HE institutions and research councils will continue these efforts.

I would also like to see institutions share more timely data about the situation in HE, including for research purposes. Universities have generally been good at giving PhD students the information they need to make informed career choices – such as the extent of competition in the academic job market. However, throughout Covid-19, ECRs have been largely in the dark, unable to obtain any wider perspective on their situation. In this blog, I have hopefully opened a crack in the window: it is for the HE establishment to shine more light on the world we face.

The views and opinions expressed here are solely those of the author, and not necessarily those of the Political Studies Association.

* The figures also include PhDs - not technically an option for ECRs. As we can assume PhD ads would not decline as much, this would suggest the figures will if anything underestimate the decline in ECR opportunities.

** Due to the arbitrary nature of when pages are archived, we don’t know the number of ads every day, but every 10 days on average. Furthermore, we do not have data for the exact same time points for each year. However, I do not consider these caveats to alter the picture in important ways.