Building community for ECRs


This is one of those blogposts that started life as an email. I was asked for suggestions by a colleague who wanted to support their academic staff by creating friendly spaces in which they could share their concerns, build camaraderie, and not feel alone. This colleague could see that their Early Career Researchers (ECRs) were dispirited and anxious about living that COVID-life, concerned about their jobs and careers, feeling unproductive, and feeling bad about being unproductive. I think most of us have been there sometime these past few years, and many of us will keep feeling these things for a while.

I thought sharing my response might be helpful to others, particularly if they have a hankering to create their own researcher communities or to make existing ones stronger.

First up, however, I’d like to say how much I appreciate people like this colleague who reached out. They see the challenges Early Career Researchers around them are facing and they want to do something to help. They were willing to take on more work and try out new things with the aim of bettering the experiences of others. So much love for that.

This post addresses Early Career Researchers but what’s discussed is applicable to most researcher cohorts (e.g. higher degree by research students, mid-career researchers) and, hopefully, provides insight for senior research leaders who want to encourage research culture-building and develop environments that are supportive of these kinds of initiatives.

Below is more or less what I wrote to my colleague, tidied up and with a bit more detail added in.

Getting Early Career Researchers at your university together on a regular basis is always a good idea. Being able to do it in a cross-disciplinary, inter-School or Department way would be a bonus. It’s easy to silo yourself in universities, especially if you’re feeling like you aren’t doing so well or under stress. I’m speaking here of how the community within an institution can be supported and strengthened but all of these possibilities are there for inter-institutional, national, or international connections, too. The often hyper-competitive atmosphere means that researchers may feel that they can’t share vulnerabilities and anxieties. Katherine Christian and team argue that fostering an environment for this kind of sharing can improve institutions’ research integrity, specifically this kind of culture “counters questionable research practices by encouraging all academics to ask questions, challenge hype and report honestly” (Christian et al). You can imagine how daunting it might be for someone who is experiencing challenges to front up at a thing that calls out their insecurities (e.g. ‘Come along to the “I’m underperforming” help group!’ >> being tongue-in-cheek here but I’ve seen efforts at support that aren’t far off this kind of framing).

There’s a level of understanding that doctoral students are finding their way through academia and establishing their identities as researchers and scholars, and I’ve observed that there’s less understanding around this when it comes to Early Career Researchers. After you’ve graduated with the PhD, there’s an assumption that you’re meant to know how to do this researcher thing and it feels not-quite-right to admit that you’re having challenges or not sure if you’re doing what you’re meant to do in the right way.

Folks build trust and connection as they interact with each other more regularly – and I deliberately use ‘interact’ because I don’t just mean having face-to-face gigs or synchronous events. Having an active online researcher community can be very effective in building the essential sinew of these networks.

With this in mind, those who want to help their research colleagues (and themselves?) find a sense of community can work on creating a regular variety of opportunities to do things together, directly and indirectly. You don’t have to do all the things, but this kind of scoping and planning will help:

  • Look around to see what’s already in place and amplify the good stuff. Are there units or staff who are already doing these things and collaborating is the way to go rather than trying to establish something again?
  • Reflect realistically on what you have the capacity to initiate and sustain. Starting things is easy, keeping them going can be tricky. Share the load if you can to enable a  feasible load for you and a more sustainable future for the initiative.
  • Find out what Early Career Researchers around you may be hungry for. You may have some fab ideas, probably too many of them, but you only have so much time. Try to focus on what may be most helpful for most folks at the time. This may change. Keep listening and sharing these concerns with those higher up the chain (they need to know and take responsibility, too).

These key considerations can help filter things to a workable number of options for the community you’re trying to build.

Whatever you end up doing, embedding consistent space for sharing and reflection about how people are doing can help normalise discussing the ups and downs of researcher life. For example, each time you start a gathering, have a few minutes where the focus is on checking in on how everyone’s going, what’s challenging right now, how folks have found ways through, etc. This gives space to acknowledge that things can be hard and fluctuating productivity is totally normal, then the event can move onto activities that can be nourishing for researchers, especially when done as a group.

Here are some suggestions for creating or further developing Early Career Researchers communities at your institution with no funding required: 

  • Have community-building and productivity-oriented opportunities that are low threshold to attend e.g. Shut Up And Write sessions; reading, writing, or practice-sharing circles (like this kind of model, tweaked to your needs – I find the this model a little over-egged but it depends on how much structure you want around activities. I like things a bit looser.).
  • Encourage and empower ECRs to run their own own versions of these things so you’re role-modelling how it can be done but they are supported to form their own, tailored to what would be most useful for them – e.g. using the Shut Up And Write format to do curriculum planning or lecture notes, or write funding applications, or whatever is the pressure point at the moment.
  • For some, maybe a mastermind group might be helpful – small clusters of peers supporting and being accountable to each other, being realistic about expectations during restricted times. You could have a session to give info about what it is and how it works, then people can sign up to be part of a group (you can allocate members or they can sign up to particular clusters as they like).

My general take is that if I set up a thing called ‘peer support group’ and invite people to come and share their challenges/ fears/ anxieties, very few would turn up and it would be dominated by negativity (and possibly one or two folks who have a lot to say all the time). Having a session that invites reflection and honest sharing about how folks are going THEN moves into ‘let’s do this thing together’ works to change the tone, acknowledge the difficulties and not-normalness of the times, and hopefully have people feel like there are ways through (even though they are not ideal or usual ways) and that they’re not alone with all these feelings and challenges.

As I was finalising this post, I saw that the Hidden Curriculum blog published this post about PhD student peer support groups and it resonates with the issues I discuss here.

Here’s a couple of other resources that may be helpful if you’re thinking of starting something in your local researcher neighbourhood:

Short note for senior university research leaders and managers (aka people who have the power to make a call on structural support and tangible recognition of people’s work):

This post is written for ECRs and colleagues who want to actively support them by creating stronger intra-institutional networks and a healthier, nurturing research culture. Do everything you can to reward and recognise those who take on this kind of work, fund initiatives medium and longer term where you can, and make sure that you are one of the execs at your university that ECRs talk about as accessible, a good listener (AND doer), and someone worth bringing issues to.