It’s time for ECP development programmes to think outside the box

Exceptional times require a more proactive and holistic approach to designing programmes for early career professionals, says Stephane Shepherd

January 22, 2021
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It is no exaggeration to say that the quest for academic career advancement − which can sometimes manifest in the soulless pursuit of metrics − is a perpetual source of stress. And, in particular, being an early career professional (ECP) is often an unsettling transitional period characterised by increasing workloads, high expectations and job uncertainty.

This combination of factors renders ECPs especially susceptible to exploitation, stress, alienation and disempowerment as they pursue a more permanent academic appointment. During the pandemic, these vulnerabilities have been amplified. Tens of thousands of academic staff at Australian universities are projected to lose their jobs over the next six months. Many of these job losses will hit ECPs.

I was appointed by my university to oversee the ECP training/development programme in March 2020. Most universities have ECP programmes to assist the career development of early career researchers (ECRs) and, traditionally, their content tends to be tailored to specific metrics: building publication records and obtaining competitive funding. However, exceptional times have required a more proactive and holistic response to meet the urgent needs of vulnerable junior staff, many of whom were enduring sustained periods of lockdown.

With redundancies looming, urging staff to immediately boost their CVs seemed unrealistic and disingenuous. Instead, my team decided to re-orient the aims of the programme: to better assist ECPs in professionally and emotionally navigating the most difficult phase of their careers.

We carefully designed a programme that provided a combination of skill-building, social connection and career support for ECPs working remotely. How did we decide what activities to offer our ECPs? We asked them. My first undertaking as coordinator was to survey all ECPs to identify areas of need at the beginning of the first lockdown. The responses directly informed the programme, and we also formed a committee comprising ECPs from across the university to help oversee and to take ownership of their programme.

In terms of what we delivered, first we compiled a much more expansive ECP list. Rather than focus solely on post-docs, ECPs on longer contracts and those on the tenure track, we decided to include junior academics on short-term contracts and adjunct positions. We also invited all PhD students in the final six months of their candidature to attend our sessions, as some would soon be transitioning into the ECP phase of their careers.

Second, we substantially increased the number of ECP events in 2020. Seminars were held two to three times per month so that ECPs working from home would have more opportunities to connect. As it turned out, online events were more accessible, eliminating travel and scheduling barriers and allowing those with competing life commitments to log on at their convenience.

We also matched the content of the seminars to the immediate concerns of our cohort. Our seminars canvassed a range of relevant and urgent issues facing ECPs with a focus on work/life balance and well-being while working remotely, career strategy in uncertain times, being professionally flexible, marketing one’s skills to non-academic vocations, research opportunities prompted by Covid, and developing and nurturing industry collaborations.

Furthermore, we introduced the “small-group session” in addition to the larger seminars. Small-group sessions allow for 10 ECRs and two to three guest senior mentors to engage in private, informal discussions where targeted advice and guidance are provided. This format created an intimate and reflective environment conducive to open dialogue and hands-on personalised mentoring. These sessions enabled ECPs to navigate immediate professional challenges and proved to be very popular. Specific small-group sessions were also arranged for minoritised subgroups.

Several sessions were also held with senior university administrators. The 2020 ECP programme featured events with Swinburne’s new and outgoing vice-chancellors and several deans of faculty. In these sessions, leaders shared personal insights into their lives and candidly described the challenges and obstacles they had faced in their early careers.

Finally, we created an online virtual spreadsheet for ECPs to network with one another and seek collaborative opportunities, because building a broad professional network is critical.

The outcomes in terms of attendance and feedback were encouraging, and while not necessarily a panacea for the innumerable challenges early academia poses, the programme inadvertently provided us with a model of ECP engagement for post-pandemic life. With campuses unlikely to reopen for some time, many ECPs face uncertain futures while remaining disconnected socially and physically from the institution.

Not every ECP will forge an impactful academic career; many will cultivate meaningful career pathways elsewhere. Those who persevere understand the terrain and have accepted (or come to terms with) the labours and personal costs. Nevertheless, ECP development programmes need not focus on a narrow suite of objectives such as funding attainment and research outputs. Fetishising these indicators delimits the ways one can contribute to academia. They also blind ECPs to pathways outside of academia, where many will eventually wind up.

Our programme’s success demonstrates that such schemes can and perhaps should be employed for ECPs during the pandemic and beyond, while their capacity to foster social connection, collegiality and personal well-being should not be underestimated.

Stephane Shepherd is an associate professor and early career researcher programme coordinator at Swinburne University of Technology in Australia.

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