OECD Study: Precarity of Academic Research Careers

published 28 June 2021 updated 30 June 2021

Academic careers have become increasingly precarious, endangering rights, subjecting workers to difficult working conditions and stress. The OECD, at the initiative of its Global Science Forum (GSF) has published a study that makes nine recommendations to improve the situation.

The report, which focused on post-doctorate researchers, showed a high degree of precarity. Most were on short-term contracts or did not have any employment relationship. The policy paper, “Reducing the Precarity of Academic Research Careers”, shows that, although hardship has been aggravated by the COVID pandemic, the problem has long been severe and has gotten worse over time.

It describes the rapid increase of PhDs (an increase of 25 per cent between 2014 and 2019, overall, in OECD countries) with a falling number of opportunities in academia. This means, according to the report, that, “Many countries are experiencing the emergence of a dual labour market, with the coexistence of a shrinking protected research elite and a large precarious research class that now represents the majority in most academic systems.”


Temporary and insecure work has disproportionately affected young researchers and women. Women are often over-looked for hiring and career opportunities. Many are working part-time or in teaching positions but also doing “hidden” research work.

Although there is a lack of data in many OECD countries and it was not always comparable, there are indications that ethnic minorities and others also suffer. Many researchers are on a series of short-term contracts, often with breaks with no compensation. That provides an advantage for those with independent means, who can afford to be patient until a longer-term or permanent position opens.


The report highlights the unhealthy effects of the work environment. The conclusion says, “There is evidence that high levels of competition and lack of recognition have created unkind and aggressive working conditions.” The toxic work environment is not only caused by limited opportunities, but also what they call, “current research culture, in terms of assessment processes, power relations between senior and junior academics, and individual and institutional incentives.”

However, the stress of precarious work has consequences beyond the workplace. The report highlights that, “precarious working conditions and a lack of long-term prospects have implications for these researchers´ personal lives, for instance in terms of family formation and access to housing.”


The report is more than individual points. It is a set of recommendations that emphasise the need for concerted action and systemic changes both for work in academia and as well as better preparation for employment elsewhere.

The nine recommendations are:

1. Improve the working conditions and offer more transparent, predictable, and flexible career prospects for postdoctoral researchers

The recommendation focuses on employment status, mentioning stipends and fixed-term contracts, many short-term and part-time. In many cases, the duration of contracts corresponds to funding contracts. They recommend action to end insecure, particularly, short-term contracts as well as the careful gathering of data so that progress can be measured.

2. Offer broad professional development during postdoctoral training

As there are limited opportunities for academic careers, education institutions should offer professional development that would facilitate gaining employment elsewhere.

3. Promote equal opportunities, diversity, and inclusion in research careers by identifying and addressing existing biases and challenges

Transparency and outreach in recruitment to avoid “academic inbreeding” and promoting diversity through, “targeted policies that address the barriers faced by under-represented groups in research.”

4. Establish better links between research assessment and funding, and human resource management policy objectives

The report argues that too much research is driven by projects. Results measurement often determines success within strict limits that stifle creativity. Externally imposed performance standards interfere with good human resources policy and contribute to precarity. They may also affect the ability to conduct independent research.

It states, “inclusion of criteria that value the career development of researchers, the societal impact of research, the quality of the research environment, and institutional strategies and practices on equity, diversity and inclusion can have a positive impact on the career development of researchers and the research system.”

5. Improve institutional practices regarding human resource management in research

The study recommends giving greater priority to research staff. It calls for the development of “an integrated approach to recruitment, professional development, career guidance, performance assessment, promotion decisions, and career paths.”

6. Promote the inter-sectoral mobility of researchers

This recommendation urges institutions to offer preparation to post-PhD researchers for work opportunities outside of academia, including in non-research areas.

7. Support the international mobility of researchers

The report writes about barriers to international research, including restrictive measures on visas related to COVID-19. The recommendation stresses the importance of international work as part of research careers and the importance of facilitating that process.

8. Develop the evidence base on research careers

The report says that there was uncertainty on the quality of comparative information as there were differences in national reporting systems with some data that was not reported in certain countries. To move forward with this work, the study recommends the use of statistical guidelines to strengthen the evidence base.

9. Include all relevant stakeholders in the governance and coordination of research careers and ensure concerted, systemic action

The report stresses that academic careers have become very competitive and individualistic, which is not a good climate for productive work or evolution. It suggests, “Formal collective agreements or less formalised concordats can be important to embed such collective approaches and muster the necessary support. The governance structures in research performing institutions as well as in relevant policy-making processes at national level, need to involve postdoctoral researchers, recognising their role as integral actors in the research system.”


This is an early stage of a much longer process. The Global Science Forum of the OECD (GSM) has set up an expert group to focus on PhD and postdoctoral training and initiatives to promote alternative and more flexible career paths, and appropriate performance criteria. In addition to experts from member governments, the Trade Union Advisory Committee to the OECD (TUAC) will be be represented on the group.

In addition to EI, Sonja Bolenius, from the TUAC Education Working Group, who is the head of the unit for University and Science Policy for the German national centre, the DGB, serves on the expert group.

Precarious work in higher education has been a major issue in Germany. One of EIs German member organisations, the GEW, campaigned against poor treatment for researchers with its Templin Manifesto. It raised public awareness of the problem and generated some government action.

Reacting to the publication by the OECD of the report on precarious work for researchers, EI General Secretary David Edwards said:

“This has been a recurring theme of growing importance at our higher education meetings. It is disgraceful that researchers at universities may live in sub-standard conditions and under constant stress. It is an issue of rights and working conditions, but also of academic freedom. The OECD report shows that most research at universities is being done by researchers with no voice. It has been silenced by the competitive survival struggle for the next contract. It is a climate where independent research, so badly needed for public policy and for the functioning of democracy, is in danger. As the report reminds us, in the United States, the original rationale for systems of tenure was academic freedom.”