Foundations for the Future: Supporting the early careers of African researchers

One of the most critical periods for a researcher are the years immediately following their PhD. These are the years in which they will achieve their first publications, identify new research questions, embark on new projects, and seek their first research grants. For universities to strengthen their research base, it is vital they invest in, and support, early career researchers, ensuring that all the skills and knowledge developed through their PhDs can be put to good use.

Unfortunately, it is precisely at this post-PhD phase that many African researchers feel they have least support. In February, the ACU and the British Academy launched a new report entitled Foundations for the Future: Supporting the early careers of African researchers. This set out to explore the difficulties junior researchers face in more depth, identify what kind of support they needed and how the UK research community can most effectively target its support.

The Foundations report emerged from an earlier consultation conducted by the Academy and the ACU, captured in The Nairobi Report (2009). The latest report addresses a key theme that emerged from this – that we needed to think urgently and intelligently about where the next generation of African scholarship would come from. Given the huge need for more PhD scholars, much of the recent debate has focused on this, but a question we were particularly concerned with was the fate of newly minted PhDs when they returned from overseas scholarships or moved up to new staff positions.

Anecdotal evidence suggested that for many junior academics their research careers didn’t proceed much further than their PhD. Many of the brightest African scholars were lost beneath waves of administration and teaching. Several junior academics who studied abroad reported feeling

‘intellectually lost’ or facing intellectual meltdown’ upon returning home. The mentorship of senior, experienced colleagues who could advise and direct them when they encountered difficulties and help them to navigate the new worlds of publication and research funding was often sorely lacking.

A number of suggestions emerged for ways in which further support might be offered including: PhD extensions; short postdoctoral fellowships; regional summer schools; collaborative research projects, distance support capitalising on the potential of online communications and platforms; and reintegration grants or seed funding for returning scholars.

The aim of this study wasn’t to create a series of recommendations. We came to a clutch of conclusions, however, about how to move forward. The report discusses a number of mechanisms ranging from residential schools to online mentoring. One successful, albeit small scale initiative,
has been a series of writing workshops organised by African Studies Association UK and sponsored by the British Academy.

Despite the emphasis on the early career throughout, we can’t escape and shouldn’t forget the intergenerational aspects. Senior academics must be involved if this is to help to strengthen the research activities of departments more broadly.

Download the full report.

Foundations for the Future forms part of the Nairobi Process.

About Jonathan Harle

Programmes Manager (Research Capacity) at the Association of Commonwealth Universities. All views and comments are my own and don't reflect ACU policy.
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