Examining the Psychological Contract of Early Career Researchers in UK Higher Education Institutions

  • David Baiyeshea

Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis


Over the last 30 years, the higher education system in the UK has been guided by an ideology known as ‘New Managerialism’ (Deem, 2004). Constant research and teaching quality assessments, academic audits, and increased ‘student experience’ demands have rendered the higher education industry in the United Kingdom unpredictable. It is important to acknowledge that these contextual factors influence the implicit and unvoiced expectations about the nature of work in the UK academic domain. Moreover, early career researchers (ECRs) are particularly vulnerable to the adverse effects some of these unpredictable changes can have on their perceived potential for career development and wellbeing. It is worthy of note to mention that only a limited number of studies have been undertaken on the experiences of ECRs at these universities. Specifically, how they balance administrative, teaching duties, research obligations, and limited resources with their personal ambitions. Even less research has been undertaken on the implicit expectations or psychological contract that ECRs bring to their employment relationship. The psychological contract is an employment relationship that embodies the employer's promises, expectations, and duties (not so much what has been agreed upon, but how that agreement is perceived). Precisely, it goes beyond the limitations of the legal employment contract – which focuses exclusively upon the formalized aspects of work – by instead emphasising the informal and perceptual elements that constitutes employment relationships especially with the changing patterns and pressures emanating from global economies and institutionalising of market principles in the governance of public sector bodies and non-government institutions as seen in the UK higher education system.Consequently, to help understand the nature of work in the UK academic context and to contribute to the limited research in the field of the psychological contract of ECRs in UK higher education institutions (HEIs), this study adopted a qualitative approach. Twenty-one interviews were conducted across ten institutions. The research questions required experiential data and centred on how ECRS perceived, personalised, interpreted, unpacked, and defined their employment relationship within UK HEIs from a psychological contract perspective, to be able to determine the implications of this on their performance and wellbeing. The thematic approach was used for the analysis of data in which key themes were identified and explored. Particularly, the research findings indicated that informal or implicit ‘entitlement perceptions’ existed across ECRs where they had a preconceived idea of what they believed they will be entitled to receive or should receive from the university in exchange for what they would offer, and this contributed to the development of predetermined expectations to their job. Further analysis suggests that there was a disparity between what was presumed pre-entry based on information gathered from intra and extra institutional sources and what they experienced in reality upon institutional entry. Findings also revealed that the economic and formal aspects of their employment were inevitably influenced by informal social interactions. The research concludes with a discussion of key contributions to theory and practise, as well as a set of recommendations based on the key findings that are aimed at institutions and ECRs to ensure that the psychological contract is better understood and that each party has a clearer understanding of their expectations and obligations within the employment relationship.
Date of Award27 Jun 2023
Original languageEnglish
SupervisorFrances McGregor (Main Supervisor) & Simon Kelly (Co-Supervisor)

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