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Define early...

Since starting out with the ICECReam, we’ve often been asked how we define ‘Early Career Researcher’. This reached a kind of peak for me personally when I was informed (with that uniquely Dutch form of ‘directness’) that I am surely too old to be involved in something for junior researchers. My wounded feelings aside, the answer has always been that we don’t (define it). If you consider yourself an early career researcher (ECR) and/or you think you can get something worthwhile from the ICECReam then you’re more than welcome to read, write, post, ask or be involved.

Which is not to say, however, that others haven’t tried to define what it means to be an ECR. Indeed this was the very topic of an article I found just recently while busy avoiding whatever it was I was really supposed to be doing. I don’t think the paper provides much in the way advice for early career researchers but it does illustrate that we are not alone in this world and makes a few interesting points.

The study1 was apparently commissioned by the Australian Research Council, so some of it is a bit specific to the Australian system, but other countries encounter similar issues and I would think most of it generalises pretty well. The paper outlines ‘the problem of early career researchers’, particularly with respect to securing the funding necessary to advance a research career. This is nicely illustrated by the list of factors that predict grant success, i.e. publication output, academic status, age, previous grants, sponsoring institution. The upshot is that the money is much more likely to go to an old man with a long title whose 400 publications and $25,000,000 in funding has baked his arse onto a comfy chair at the University than it is to you or me.

The paper goes on to describe milestones in a research career right up to the level of established researcher. I won’t go through them all but just pick out a couple of points. The first stage is completion of the initial training period, involving attainment of PhD +/- a postdoctoral period. Importantly the author emphasises two critical features here; 1) mastery of fundamental research skills, and 2) substantive content knowledge. Both are indispensable and require specific focus in order to progress in research. This training period is also important in the initial development of networks and establishment of good scholarly habits.

Following research training, the paper describes some of the hurdles in the way of attaining a suitable research position in an environment of widespread academic budget cuts. These include overcoming problems with short-term contracts, managing teaching and administration load, jobs not directly related to your particular research interest and general lack of job security. It all sounds pretty gloomy but we should note the relatively optimistic outlook in the health care and social science fields – apparently the situation is worse if you’re a physicist or an historian.

The author contends that establishment of a track record sufficient to be competitive in a national granting scheme typically takes at least 5 years – that’s after PhD completion. The difficulty obviously being finding a job that allows you to concentrate on research (that you’re interested in) without other significant responsibilities. If/when such a position is secured important factors are establishment of a track record (research output) and grantmanship (knowledge about what is available and how to write a compelling application). Both these factors rely heavily on surrounding yourself with experienced, knowledgeable and generous mentors. Also of importance is personal motivation. Sometimes you might be lucky enough to be included on a grant with a senior colleague or be asked to work with them on a project, more likely though you need to be the one doing the asking. Others might help at times but ultimately your career matters much less to anyone else than it does to you yourself.

Finally there is a quote used to describe those who’ve ‘made it’ in research; “the research career requires perseverance and resilience in the face of failure” and it seems to me that this might be a good thing to get used to early on. Grant and fellowship success rates (in Australia anyway) seem to hover somewhere near the 20% mark; add that to rejections from journal editors, rejections from reviewers, rejections from study subjects and probably rejection from cute girls/guys in bars and getting by is going to require a thick skin. No better time than now to practice shrugging off the setbacks and getting on with whatever’s next on the agenda.

1 Bazeley P. Defining ‘early career’ in research. Higher Education 45: 257–279, 2003.