By Lawrence McKay (PSA ECN Committee)23 November 2020

In July, I wrote about the drastic hit to recruitment in the politics discipline caused by Covid-19. In April and May, recruitment bottomed out after a 60% fall in advertisements on Having been on the other end of the market myself, this just confirmed my experience and what I was hearing from friends and colleagues. At the same time, the data pointed to a light at the end of the tunnel, as the figures by early July showed hiring nearing 2019 levels.

A meme of a dog using a laptop with chaos in the background, text above says "Applying for jobs in the middle of a pandemic"

The most relatable image of 2020.


Where do we stand, another four months on? Far from a ‘return to normality’, this has been another tumultuous period for the academy, in a way which profoundly disrupted planning for the 2020-21 year and beyond. However, these plans, which generally involved tough retrenchment, were hardly favourable to ECRs in the first place. We predicted that, as student numbers would defy expectations by holding up well, universities could be in better financial health than expected (loosening the shackles on departmental hiring) and that universities might be forced to make up staff shortages from the ECR talent pool. However, the institutional tendency of recent years has been to push current staff further and further rather than relieve pressures and this may only have worsened with Covid-19. Therefore, we were uncertain how the year might progress.

We can again take stock of the impact through analysing the figures, extending the analysis to the end of October. is used by 88 organisations in the UK alone, and in 2015 more than 25,000 ads were placed there: ECRs are similarly reliant on the service. Although do not share their data, as in July, we use the Wayback Machine to show the number of job advertisements on given days in the past few months and at similar times last year, before Covid struck. Due to the arbitrary nature of when pages are archived by the Wayback machine, we can’t know the number of ads every day, but we have enough data points to form a trend.

As before, I must stress the many caveats to using this data. 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. In light of these limitations, we take these headline figures as a snapshot of all the opportunities our members could feasibly access (although very few will be attractive or available for any one individual)*.

The drastic impact of the events of March is again plain to see. Yet, perhaps more worrying for our members, job postings have continued to lag 2019 figures; if anything falling again further behind in recent weeks. September and October, supposedly ‘peak’ months for recruitment, seem more like a damp squib. Moreover, few of the jobs on offer provide the security that our members crave (perhaps more than anything in the current climate). Of the jobs available on the 26th October, just one-in-six is labelled ‘permanent’; substantially down from the proportions of permanent jobs available before the crisis**.

Line graph of job postings over time, comparing 2020 to 2019. Shows 2020 has less jobs being posted in comparison

The crisis of recruitment caused by Covid-19 has, then, continued. ECRs will most likely be bearing the brunt of this, as secure work is strikingly scarce and insecure work is perhaps more insecure than ever. While there will no doubt be nuances we cannot pick up on – such as research project postdocs holding steadier than lectureships – the picture is nonetheless revealing.

Not only will late-stage PhDs be worried about entering this challenging new world, the majority of ECRs who work on short-term contracts may share their fears. I wrote before praising universities who, by extending staff contracts, protected employees from this hostile environment. Yet in UK HE, I suspect that simply hoping for institutional benevolence is rarely wise, and we must also applaud the campaigners for standard two-year #CoronaContracts, which will help a promising generation of researchers last out the crisis.

I hope that as well as our peers, the crisis will be recognised by senior academics also. It’s not just that – as department administrators and as supervisors – ECRs are directly in their care, but also that under- or unemployment for ECRs almost certainly means overwork for permanent staff. Covid-19 may have driven us apart physically, but we need each other more than ever.

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. However, our analysis suggests that there are not systematically fewer ‘Politics and Government’ PhDs being advertised at similar times compared to the previous year. Therefore, jobs not PhDs drives the 2020 shortfall.

** The ‘Politics and Government’ page shows this breakdown, but it is only archived on very rare occasions by the Wayback Machine. Fortunately, it was archived on January 22 2020: at this time, 41% of jobs were permanent as opposed to 17% today. However, these results should be interpreted with caution as we have no data from an equivalent seasonal period to today (i.e. October 2019).