Age discrimination in funding bodies

Andy Humphrey (15 August 2010)

What’s the most depressing thing about applying for grant funding?

I learnt the answer to that one last year, in the hours I spent trawling funding bodies’ websites for details of fellowships. The research grant that was employing me was coming to an end, I had ideas that I wanted to carry on investigating, and it seemed logical to me that a research fellowship was the way to go.

Well, it would have been, if 9 out of 10 of those fellowships hadn’t contained a clause buried in the small print to say that “applicants must be within x years of submitting their Ph.D. thesis” – where x was a small integer. Small enough to exclude me from applying.


public bodies do not have the same positive duty to fight age discrimination as they have with respect to sex, race or disability discrimination

There were get-out clauses for the benefit of women who had taken career breaks to have children. Quite rightly too; anything less would have immediately made the funding bodies fall foul of sex discrimination laws. There is legislation about age discrimination as well, but it’s less clear-cut, and public bodies do not have the same positive duty to fight age discrimination as they have with respect to sex, race or disability discrimination.

In an effort to see if things have changed in the last year (and perhaps in vain hope that I might find something I’m still eligible to apply for) I’ve done a brief survey of some of the key funding bodies’ eligibility requirements for research fellowships. The results are, to put it mildly, a cause of concern.

EPSRC Postdoctoral Fellowships: “There are no nationality or age restrictions on who may apply for a Fellowship. Potential candidates should have up to but no more than three years postdoctoral research experience by the start date of the fellowship.” No age restriction? Really?!...

EPSRC Career Acceleration Fellowships: “Candidates should be within ten years of completing their PhD with a minimum of three years post-doctoral/industrial research experience.”

BBSRC David Phillips Fellowships: “Applicants should not exceed 10 years in active postgraduate research studies and postdoctoral research employment.” That’s the total of postdoctoral experience plus the time taken to do the Ph.D. So not as generous as it looks...

BBSRC Institute Career Path Fellowships: “Applicants should not exceed 10 years in active postgraduate research studies and postdoctoral research employment”

NERC seem to have the most reasonable attitude towards applicants with long research careers: “Applications are especially welcome from candidates who are not yet established within the higher education system or who are intending to use the Fellowship as a means of re-establishing themselves in the United Kingdom following a period overseas.” The funding handbook, section 40, states “Some post-Ph.D. experience is an advantage when seeking a Postdoctoral Research Fellowship, and typically candidates will have one to five years of postdoctoral experience”. That “typically” is an important qualifier; nowhere does it state that this is either a condition of eligibility, or a particular expectation.

AHRC Fellowships scheme (early career route): “In order to apply through the Fellowships scheme early career route, you must at the point of application be either: within eight years of the award of your PhD or equivalent professional training; or within six years of your first academic appointment.” There appears to be no restriction on the wider Fellowships Scheme but this is also open to established academics with permanent contracts so one can expect the competition to be fierce. In an environment where funding decisions are often based on previous track record, one assumes that the established permanent academics are more likely to be successful.

Royal Society University Research Fellowships: “Applicants are expected to be at an early to mid-stage of their career. As an example, you could have had between one and three post doc positions.” Doesn’t sound too strict. But then we read: “Before completing the application form all applicants should check that they comply with the eligibility requirements outlined above. These requirements are strictly adhered to and any applicant who does not meet them will be excluded from the competition.” So are those with more than 3 postdoctoral contracts automatically excluded? Who knows?

Royal Society Dorothy Hodgkin fellowships (specifically for candidates with a need for flexible support due to parental or other caring responsibilities): “Applicants are expected to be at an early stage of their career. As an example, applicants could have had one or two post doc positions.”

Cancer Research UK Career Development Fellowships: “Applicants will have at least three and no more than six years of postdoctoral research experience at the time of submitting the preliminary application.” Other CRUK Research Fellowships are only available to staff with a permanent academic post.

Leverhulme Trust Early Career Fellowships: “Applicants... should normally be under age 35 and hold an awarded doctorate or have equivalent research experience at the time of taking up the award. Applications from those aged 35 and over will be considered if they began their academic studies at a later age than is usual or if they have had a career change or break.” Other Research Fellowships are only available to staff with a permanent academic post.

For researchers who are stuck in the fixed-term contract trap, research fellowships are usually cited as the best way to bridge that near-impossible divide between postdoctoral research and a career as a permanent research-active academic. But it seems clear from this data that for those of us who have been contract researchers for any length of time, the prospects are pretty bleak. We may no longer be “early career” in the strict definition of the phrase, but we’ve had no possibilities for career advancement. Our careers are effectively stuck in “early career” even though funding bodies won’t recognise this.

One wonders what their motivation is, in denying us access to the opportunities that they so proudly make available to recently qualified individuals. If it’s not age discrimination by the strict letter of the law, it’s surely age discrimination in practice.



Hannah Dee
Hi Andy - a very well researched post here. It's true that many of these are aimed at early career researchers, and it is clear that the definition of "early career" is fairly vague. As you point out, some define it by age (with exceptions for people who've taken "worthy" breaks), some by number of years post-doctorate, some by number of years research, some by number of post-doctoral contracts. Whilst I can see the advantage of providing early-career fellowships as a leg-up for people just starting out, I find the complete absence of support for those who have research experience but who aren't still classified early-career bizarre. It seems in my field as if you have to reach escape velocity within your first or second post-doc, and if you don't, then it's the fixed-term treadmill or a leap out of academia. Given the large role that external forces play in the success or otherwise of a research project, this does seem harsh. Or maybe it's a deliberate attempt to select for "luck"?


I just wish there was an alternative route of funding...  a recognition of research-on-its-own as a valid career

Tennie Videler
Hi Andy, you've hit on a huge, PERSONAL, bugbear of mine. I too found it impossible to find fellowships I was allowed to apply for after a certain amount of time post doctorate. I always found it quite discriminating against the situation I was in: I'd carried on working while my children were young, but part-time and felt very penalised for that. Funding wise I'd have been better off taking a real career break. But this is not an option financially to everyone (it certainly wasn't to me) and I loved my research. It meant, however, that I wasn't working at a pace where I could reach escape velocity (love the phrase Hannah, I'm going to be using this one!!! ) I understand the funders' motivation is to keep opportunities open for people just starting out without them being outcompeted by us oldies with track records. But I just wish there was an alternative route of funding for those who want to pursue research for longer than whatever definition of early career that is used. So really, a recognition of research-on-its-own as a valid career.

Simon Smith

Makes depressing reading for me, too, Andy;-) Have you considered the European Commission's Marie Curie fellowships? They are explicitly targeted at experienced researchers (although their definition of experienced is pretty lenient at the lower end of the scale too). The catch is you have to be prepared to move to another country... I've just applied for one (more about this later), but I mention it here simply because it was refreshing to find a scheme that seemed made to measure for researchers of our 'maturity'.

Sarah Davies
Is this in part a factor of the way that the academy has changed? My sense is that until fairly recently the 5-6 year cut-off points made more sense as by this stage most post-PhD scholars would have gone into lectureships, left academia, or decided to focus on a research-only career (hence the fellowship). Now, however, the PhD-one postdoc-lectureship pattern is the exception rather than the rule, with most having to - and often wanting to - take multiple research posts before a permanent position emerges. Like the very idea that a lectureship is the norm, I think this whole system is outdated and needs rethinking to fit it better to long-term researchers...

Andy Humphrey
I wonder if anyone from funding bodies ever reads this blog? It would be interesting to know if the regular contributors' opinions (and we all seem to have strong feelings about this) actually have any impact with the people who have the power to decide future policy in this area...

Dave Evans
excellent, if depressing as hell for a 48 year old who is 5 years post-award....
While i still have a job (till May 2011) I i'm on my Uni's Researcher Development committee, and they are so going to be given this article to read....

Mashhuda Glencross
Hi Andy, thanks for writing a well researched account of the eligibility restrictions for fellowships that exclude many of us from applying for our own funding. Like you, I was very frustrated by these restrictions after getting through to the final panel of an EPSRC Career Acceleration Fellowship, not getting funded and having nowhere else to turn to as I'd fallen out of range for anything else. I wrote to complain to the EPSRC about there being no fellowship schemes available to older and more experienced research staff without academic posts and had no response from them.

Elizabeth Dodson
I've been looking into fellowships during my maternity leave and I too was surprised by how many I am no longer eligible for due to time lapsed since my PhD.  Although I have managed research projects, I've never had the opportunity to be an official PI and yet I am now ineligible for many of the early career development fellowships designed to support researchers to get PI experience.  It is very frustrating!

Tennie Videler
If you hadn't realised Liz, what hope was there ever for the rest of us? How do we find out these things BEFORE it's too late? More importantly, how can we change the situation? Challenge on age discrimination laws? Make an economic case for retaining the experience and talents of longer-in-the-tooth research staff? Any ideas?


I could blame the fact that no-one has been pushing me to apply for fellowships...but at the end of the day, my career is my responsibility

Elizabeth Dodson
I knew that some fellowships had strict cut offs - but not how many.  I've had 6 years of continuous and relatively secure employment, working on projects that I loved - so fellowships, while at the back of my mind, were not a priority. I was committed to an overload of work and certainly not looking to take on more.  It is only now that I have room to breathe that fellowships have come back into focus.  I could blame the fact that no-one has been pushing me to apply for fellowships and giving me dedicated time to do so but at the end of the day, my career is my responsibility.
I would however like to see the research councils and charities who provide funding to reconsider their cutoffs.  I can see the reasoning - that they want to give opportunities to inexperienced researchers, without making them compete against those who are far more experienced.   However this can leave some people in a limbo.  Too many years post-PhD or having held too many postdoc posts to be eligible, but struggling for opportunities to be a Principle Investigator - and therefore lacking the experience for other mid-career fellowships...

Andy Humphrey
Tennie: unfortunately legislation on age discrimination, unlike sex or race or disability, is pretty toothless. It's only since the 2010 Equality Act was brought into force that age discrimination, of itself, has been actionable in court. We'll have to see how the case law in this area develops before we see any change in the practice of funding bodies, and that will take time.
(I'm very willing to put myself forward as a test case if anyone wants to pay my legal fees! :) ).
What is really needed is change at policy level, and soon. I don't see the funding bodies lining up to tell us that they're planning to make changes. Perhaps Vitae should be addressing them directly and asking them for an official statement of intent?

Sandrine Berges

Well, it's pretty much the same in philosophy: the last ad for a postdoc I saw stated that you had to have finished your phd no earlier than 2006. And I've never seen a clause in philosophy post-doc or research fellowships ads that makes exceptions for women (or men) who've taken time off to have children. Basically if you don't apply for a research only post as soon as you finished you phd, you're never going to get one...