The Universities’ ‘Third Mission’ and the Experiences and Perceptions of Early Career Researchers in the Arts and Humanities

Gemma Kearney, Deborah Maxwell

Research output: Contribution to conferencePaperpeer-review


Increasingly the role of the university is shifting and its remit broadening. The two traditional missions of the university, teaching and research, have been joined by a ‘third mission’. Whilst the third mission has been defined in a number of different ways, Sam and van der Sijde (2014) argue that either broadly or narrowly defined, it relates to the contribution of the university to socio-economic development. This widening of scope is reflected in the concept of the ‘entrepreneurial university’ wherein the university is transformed into a more entrepreneurial actor engaging in innovation, technology transfer and working with external organizations (Clark, 1998). Thus the role of the university has changed significantly (Audretsch, 2014) and these changes have impacted upon academics themselves (Rinne and Koivula, 2009). Consequently, the environments in which researchers begin their careers have also changed and this, we argue, will impact their expectations and perceptions of their academic career. This paper considers the experiences of Early Career Researchers (ECRs) with respect to the third mission and the broader concept of Knowledge Exchange (KE) focusing on the less discussed Arts and Humanities (A&H) disciplines. Research into ECRs is hindered by the difficulty in defining the population. For instance, Akerlind (2005) emphasises the difficulties in defining postdoctoral researchers with no clear consensus on the role and substantial variations across universities. Moreover employment in academia is often provisional and insecure (McAlpine and Emmioglu, 2014), leading to a shifting population of study. These difficulties are further compounded in the Arts and Humanities where there is a smaller population of ECRs. Laudel and Glaser (2008) note that employment opportunities differ by academic subject, with postdoctoral research positions more common in science disciplines than in the humanities and social sciences. The qualitative data for the research presented in this paper was collected as part of an ECR training programme, Skills in Action, which built a network of A&H ECRs through a series of ‘Digital Salons’ (physical and digital discussions with provocateurs) and a two­day ‘Festival of Skills’ (consisting of interactive workshops and talks from established and peer speakers). Skills in Action participants were largely A&H ECRs but also included doctoral students and a minority of established researchers. Analysing the data gathered across the programme demonstrates that A&H ECRs are critically aware of the challenges they face in the evolving academic landscape, namely undertaking research and developing independent research profiles whilst negotiating fixed term contracts and collaborating with external actors across the private and third sectors. A questionnaire conducted at the festival supported discussions throughout the event, and indicated that A&H ECRs are already actively engaging in external engagement and collaborative practice, viewing it as a vital part of their work. Benefits from taking part in such activities include personal growth and career development, yet recognition of the value of such work is situated within an awareness of the current UK research context. This awareness can influence the extent and type of external engagement conducted by ECRs. The study was exploratory in nature and focused on understanding the UK A&H ECR community through developing and building connections. The sample was relatively small in size ( estimated at 50 ECRs across the digital and physical programme of events ), and self‐selecting, i.e. participants were those that were interested in the skills an d challenges associated with their role. However, the findings indicate that this is an area worthy of further study. The paper sheds light on the experiences of A&H ECRs adding to the body of knowledge about this under‐researched group. Understanding these experiences and perceptions may have practical implications for the University and its approach to ECRs and their academic careers. This paper considers the context of the Arts and Humanities researcher, in particular their attitudes and approach to external engagement, particularly pertinent when considering the third mission and the changing academic culture. Reflection on these practices should therefore be of interest not only to the Arts and Humanities but to all disciplines, as a means of identifying alternative, non‐science based pathways towards achieving the third mission.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - 2015
EventConsortium of Higher Education Research (CHER) - Portugal, Lisbon, United Kingdom
Duration: 7 Sept 20159 Sept 2015


ConferenceConsortium of Higher Education Research (CHER)
Country/TerritoryUnited Kingdom


  • Early Career Researchers
  • ECRs
  • Arts and Humanities
  • Third Mission
  • Knowledge Exchange
  • Collaboration

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