Postdoc parley

Twitter channel for postdocs aims to break into North America. Elizabeth Gibney reports

August 8, 2013

An online community for early career researchers is expanding in an attempt to connect with more academics across the globe.

#ECRchat, a global fortnightly discussion through Twitter aimed mainly at European and Australian academics, celebrated its first birthday last month and is now seeking North American contributors.

Researchers fresh from their PhDs face similar issues wherever they are based, said #ECRchat co-founder Katie Wheat, a postdoctoral researcher in the department of cognitive neuroscience at Maastricht University.

“Going from the strong PhD community to the early career researcher stage can give you a feeling of isolation, uncertainty and a lack of security, especially when you are moving around on short-term contracts,” she said.

Mirroring the popular #PhDchat Twitter channel, #ECRchat allows researchers to discuss issues such as the best time to start a family or how to change tack on research (see box below). Archives of chats and additional advice are collated on a website dedicated to the community, with topics for future chats voted on by users.

Dr Wheat founded #ECRchat last year with Hazel Ferguson, a postdoctoral food researcher based in the School of Arts and Social Sciences at Southern Cross University in Australia. The two, who have never met, run the group as volunteers.

“We coincidentally both started searching around for something for people who’ve moved on from the doctorate stage. We didn’t find anything, but found each other,” Dr Wheat said.

Having started with just 10 users, the group now has 1,630 Twitter followers and has engaged about 400 participants in live chats, racking up about 250 tweets each time, with many more taking part in-between.

Although many sources of support are available for early career researchers, constraints on time and location mean online discussions are often more accessible than local or national networks, said Dr Wheat.

From September, the project is changing to attract more US and Canadian academics, with chats shifted to once a month to allow North American-based researchers to take part.

The founders are looking for volunteers to help run the chats and maintain the blog, not only to cater for a bigger audience but also to give them more time to formally explore the policy issues unearthed by the discussions.

“We get to hear about the areas where people are unhappy, suggestions they have of how things could be done better…and we want to take these from Twitter to those who have the power to do something about them,” said Dr Wheat.

Hot-button topics: What exercises young researchers?

The top issues for #ECRchat by number of participants and tweets per hour are as follows:

Careers outside academia: By far the most popular topic, this includes positive experiences of leaving academia as well as the stigma attached. It highlights “the insecurity people feel about job prospects, knowing so few of us will make it into a permanent academic career”, said #ECRchat co-founder Katie Wheat.

Perfectionism and impostor syndrome: Researchers discuss their striving for perfection and worries that they are not up to scratch, but also how both phenomena fade with experience.

Social media: #ECRchat participants say they increasingly use sites such as Twitter and LinkedIn, but have concerns about sharing too much and saying the wrong thing, as well as whether social media will help or hinder their employment prospects.

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