For many early-stage researchers, looking outside academia for a new job is not just a matter of choice, but rather a necessity. Researchers are often left alone wondering how all the accumulated experience can be beneficial in other contexts, as neither those in the public nor private sectors can really give an answer. The very nature of doctoral training can be underappreciated or even misunderstood by many employers, possibly due to an understandable lack of familiarity with academia and researchers. “What can you do?”, or even “What can I do?”, feels like an easy question to answer, but it is not. To make things even more complicated, academia is known to be quite a world in itself, that possesses an internal language and operates by internal practises. The lack of a common ground for communication and understanding with those outside contributes to creating the barrier that hinders passage of people between academia and the world beyond. An obstacle that slows down a great deal of potential development and is carried as a weight on researchers’ shoulders.
After 20 years, the European Commission is reshaping and improving the European Research Area (ERA) to face new major challenges, ranging from the pandemic to the green transition. The stalemate on researcher careers and the untapped potential became one of the European Commission’s four great objectives for the new ERA: Strengthen mobility of researchers and free flow of knowledge and technology. The plan is to expand and improve researcher careers using a collection of initiatives as a toolbox by 2024. Unsurprisingly, the first tool is exactly dedicated to answering the question “What can a researcher do?”: the Researchers Competence Framework.
Eurodoc swung the spotlight on researchers’ skillset with a report on transferable skills and competences of early-career researchers. The aim was to create an organised collection of skills for the day-to-day work of a researcher. The testimony passed to the European Commission and to IDEA Consult, which is now developing the Researchers Competence Framework. This Framework is meant to be used both inside and outside academia, therefore avoiding self-reference or academic jargon is a priority. For this reason, much emphasis was put onto the cooperation with the European Skills, Competences, Qualifications and Occupations classification (ESCO), which is a monumental endeavour of listing and classifying skills, competences, qualifications, and occupations across the EU.
The interaction between the developers of the Framework and ESCO culminated in the 2022 update: ESCO v1.1. This new version includes a Research Skills package and adds more emphasis on the role of transferable skills. These are now elevated to a special and more accessible position in the ESCO database thanks to a new skills hierarchy system. Other updates were also included to make ESCO better suited for the upcoming challenges, like skills collections for green and digital transitions, and machine learning-based technical enhancements of the platform.
As research skills are formally recognized within the cross-sectoral ESCO platform, the Researchers Competence Framework is becoming the first practical tool to reshape the work marketplace for researchers. A formal recognition of researchers’ capabilities can be cross-referenced in a wide variety of other working areas. Will this initiative be effective? Will the Researchers Competence Framework effectively improve researchers’ careers? Will universities and research institutions use the Framework as an inspiration for reshaping and improving doctoral training? A lot remains to be seen about this initiative and its implementation, but, hopefully, an important step forward is being made.