Supporting flexible research careers - Next steps for EPSRC

Posted by Dr Laura Watkin on 24 October 2019
Abstract image of green circles

We offer lots of opportunities for the doctoral students and researchers we support to work flexibly and in a way that meets their personal circumstances. But, is this widely known and is the flexibility we offer enough - ultimately, is it working?

This is what I set out to discover with our first ‘Have Your Say’ campaign, using surveys promoted through our social media, to gather your views. This blog outlines the key findings from the campaign and our proposed next steps. In total, 125 people took part in our campaign (one survey for doctoral students and one for researchers) and I’d like to thank everyone who took time to help us.

Awareness of the support that EPSRC offers is low

EPSRC offers a range of flexible funding opportunities which allow researchers to design a grant package that fits their research goals, career and personal circumstances. However, the survey revealed that 65% of researcher respondents and 76% in the student survey did not know that EPSRC provides support for flexible careers as part of our research grants and doctoral studentships. Of those that did know, maternity, paternity, adoption or parental leave was the most recognised feature (89% of researchers and 80% of students) followed by part-time working. Despite EPSRC having a formal policy on caring responsibility, just 44% of researcher respondents and 20% of students were aware of it. Across the survey, the majority of respondents indicated that they did not clearly understand what support was available to them.

Few people ask EPSRC directly for flexible working advice when forming their proposal

A majority of survey respondents said that flexible working was not required (53%), however there were some (18%) that indicated that they were not able to design a package or access the support that they needed. Of those, all discussed their needs with fellow academics but very few with EPSRC and respondents suggested that there needs to be clearer points of contact for these discussions.

There is a lack of clarity about how to include these features into a proposal

Many respondents did not agree that it was clear how to incorporate flexible working requests into an application and what level of information was required. Most of the suggestions that we received around enhancing our flexible working provision were related to peer review, suggesting that we should provide more practical information about how and where to include information.

Uncertainty about how flexible working is peer reviewed is a barrier to its use

Uncertainty about how flexible working requests are peer reviewed emerged as a barrier to the use of EPSRCs flexible working options and is an area that needs to be addressed. Respondents gave examples where they hadn’t asked for support they needed because they were advised locally that requests would be perceived negatively by reviewers and panel members, and raised that to justify flexible working costs they would need to disclose personal circumstances. Respondents felt that this exposed their application to biases they experience in their daily lives.

Next steps for EPSRC

We wish to thank everyone who took part in the survey as your inputs have resulted in us changing our planned activities. We will:

  • Work with our research organisation partners to raise awareness of the support that we provide to ensure all members of our community have a clear understanding of what is available.
  • Review how flexible working circumstances are incorporated into our grant proposals and providing guidance on how these aspects are assessed.
  • Create new guidance documents which clarify how to include flexible working components in a proposal, including examples.

This work builds on UKRI’s commitments as a signatory of the refreshed Researcher Development Concordat to consider how funding opportunities and policies can facilitate different ways and patterns of working and contributes to a broader program of Equality Diversity and Inclusion work across UKRI.


In the following table, contact information relevant to the page. The first column is for visual reference only. Data is in the right column.

Photo of Laura Watkin
Name: Dr Laura Watkin
Job title: Head of Equality, Diversity and Inclusion
Organisation: EPSRC