MSCA conference and flexible researchers' careers


What did the Marie Skłodowska-Curie Action Conference organised under the Belgian Presidency of the Council of the EU bring?

The MSCA 2024 conference "Researchers' Careers: Multiple Pathways" took place in Mons, Belgium, on 18 and 19 April. CZELO participated at the conference and in this article we present a summary of the most important topics and areas discussed. The conference was organized under the Belgian Presidency of the Council of the EU in cooperation with the European Commission and it focused on the flexible careers for researchers in the context of the Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions (MSCA) funded by Horizon Europe. In their opening remarks, representatives of the Walloon Government and the European Commission highlighted the benefits of MSCA actions for the development of researchers' competencies and their mobility, for the promotion of research excellence, knowledge transfer and the development of collaborations between researchers and research organizations. The need to link academia with business, industry and the private sector in general was also emphasised.

Are career options for researchers flexible enough?   

Sarah-Maria Fendt (VIB-KU Leuven Center for Cancer Biology) presented her international "journey", which involved several European programmes (e.g. MSCA or ERC grants), including key recommendations for other researchers such as the importance of collaboration and openness to new stimuli, personal commitment to the chosen research area, and the need to share data to maximize the impact of any research. EuroDoc President Sebastian Dahle followed up with a presentation focusing on career paths for researchers and highlighting the current societal changes that need to be addressed to offer researchers more flexibility. He also stressed the need to equip researchers not only with technical skills but also with horizontal (soft) competences such as the ability to adapt, critical thinking, teamwork and others.  

As one of the themes of the conference was the collaboration between the academic and private sectors, Claire Morel, Deputy DG EAC (MSCA Unit) presented the involvement of the non-academic sector in MSCA, the statistics, benefits and the support measures offered to these organizations. She also mentioned, for example, a new scheme within the European Innovation Council aimed at promoting synergies with MSCA (EIC Next Generation Innovation Talents) and the currently ongoing reflections and discussions on the possibility of creation of the "MSCA Proof of concept" grants on a similar basis as the ERC Proof of concept.  

The first panel discussion of the conference brought together experts who presented practical examples on the employability of recent PhD graduates, including current statistics, studies, initiatives to support early career researchers, challenges in the transition from the academic to the private sector (and possibly back again) and in the collaboration between academic and non-academic actors. Eva Hnátková from the National Technical Library in Prague (NTK) participated in the debate and, among other things, informed about relevant NTK activities, the Open Science handbook and factors influencing researchers' career choices.  

Gender issues, non-linear careers, the value of PhDs for business sector and other topics

During 4 parallel workshops, the conference participants had the opportunity to discuss with experts various topics, including the evaluation of non-linear careers, the importance of horizontal skills for the non-academic sector, the impact of gender inequalities in research and the added value of PhD for entrepreneurs.  

Participants in each workshop agreed on the importance of promoting horizontal skills, which should be more strongly encouraged in PhD programs, and that researchers should be open to change and take advantage of all opportunities for their professional and personal development. Collaboration between the academic and non-academic sectors can significantly help to support current and future PhD students in their journey and can help them achieve even greater societal impact.  

In the workshop focused on gender issues and intersectionality, Marcela Linková from the Institute of Sociology of the Academy of Sciences of the Czech Republic also presented activities, studies and projects that are being implemented on this topic in the Czech Republic, such as the GenderAction+, UniSafe and GenderSafe projects.   

What do the studies show?  

Several recent studies have also addressed the topic of flexible and diverse research careers. Carthage Smith (OECD) presented the results of a series of studies focusing on researchers as a workforce. These studies were initiated by OECD countries where policymakers have started to look at ways to encourage more diverse research careers. This led to a comparison of existing statistical data on (post)doctoral careers, which revealed the main obstacles that recent PhD graduates face in their career choices, both in academia and in the private sector, and to 9 main recommendations and areas for improvement. Based on their study, representatives of the MSC Alumni Association formulated 5 main recommendations that would further enhance the quality of MSCA and the careers of researchers in general. These include, for example, the promotion of mentoring programs and more specific guidance for the creation of career development plans (CDPs). 

The second day of the conference started with presentations on supporting Ukrainian refugees through MSCA. The representative of the National Research Foundation of Ukraine emphasized the need for continued cooperation to develop the European Research Area and Ukrainian interest in participating in MSCA and other programmes. Representatives from Ghent University and KU Leuven presented two projects that focus both on the topic of sexual violence in the context of the ongoing conflict and sustainability in the context of Ukraine's reconstruction. Other initiatives that help refugee researchers and sustainable reconstruction were also mentioned.

The New European charter for researchers and the future of MSCA 

The second day of the conference also focused on the new European Charter for Researchers, which was approved in December 2023 as part of the Council Recommendation on a European framework to attract and retain research, innovation and entrepreneurial talents in Europe. The Charter replaces and modernises the original 2005 document and aims to place the topic in a broader framework. Céline Peroni from DG EAC (MSCA Unit) stressed that the Charter should help Member States to attract talented researchers to Europe and also to retain European researchers. Implementation of the Charter in individual Member States is recommended but not mandatory and therefore varies across the EU. The Czech Republic is one of the countries where the Charter has been incorporated into the legislative system and is binding for research organisations and public authorities. A representative of the university association The Guild confirmed that the charter is a positive step and opens up important topics that were missing in the original document, such as researchers' careers and open science, among others. An important issue now will be the implementation of the Charter by individual higher education and research institutions in their daily practice, as well as a consensus on how PhD students are perceived (as students or as workers). At the end of the debate, it was stressed that, in addition to the implementation of the Charter, there is also a need to focus on the promotion of research careers as such, to rethink how they are evaluated and to ensure sufficient funding.    

The last topic of the conference was the future of MSCA in the next programming period. In addition to the overall continued support for MSCA as one of the flagships of Horizon Europe, other topics were also raised. These included, for example, support for young and early-stage researchers, a focus on current societal challenges such as climate change or aid to conflict-affected countries, the value and importance of fundamental research, and continued support for widening countries.  

Interspersed throughout the conference were the MSCA Awards. First, 15 MSCA fellows and alumni presented their projects in short "pitch sessions", and the jury then selected winners in several categories. One of them was also the audience award.  More information, including recordings of all plenary sessions, can be found on the event website.