Researcher-led networks provide crucial support for early career researchers

by Peris Thuo

1 Oct 2022

Young person speaking to a seated group in an informal setting.

As the new academic year gets into full swing, a long-standing challenge looms perhaps larger than ever for the sector – that is, how to improve the outlook for early career researchers facing increasing demands, from heavy workloads and precarious contracts to the difficulties in finding time to conduct research. For those working in the Social Sciences and Humanities (SHAPE), all of this takes place against a soundtrack which increasingly overlooks or downplays the value of these disciplines which is unmotivating at best and at worst, could have consequences for future student numbers and research funding.

The British Academy, as the UK’s national academy for the humanities and social sciences, is committed to playing its part in supporting Early Career Researchers facing these myriad challenges. Almost exactly a year ago, in collaboration with the Wolfson Foundation – we launched a UK-wide network for ECRs.

Our Early Career Researcher Network (ECRN) is an inclusive, researcher-led humanities and social sciences forum, accessible to all researchers regardless of their funding source or background. The Network’s principal aim to is to be a network by ECRs for ECRs, a space where they can develop - professionally and personally – together. It provides space for collaboration and belonging amid the current political, sectoral and economic backdrop.

The purpose of the ECRN is to provide researchers with resources for networking and skills development and to provide guidance for an increasingly competitive job market. The programme complements a range of funding opportunities available to ECRs provided by the Academy including postdoctoral fellowships and mid-career fellowships.

The Network’s success in its first year shows just how much demand there is for this type of programme. So far 42 institutions have signed up across three hubs: in Scotland, the Midlands and the Southwest. The network currently extends from the University of the Highlands and Islands to the University of Plymouth.

Sign-ups have exceeded the initial membership target of 500 in the first year more than three times over. Of 1,870 members, over 58% come from outside of the Russell Group while 87% receive non-British Academy-affiliated funding. The breadth of SHAPE disciplines is also represented by researchers from law and medieval history to economics and social policy. This diversity is central to the ECRN’s success as a facilitator of knowledge exchange and academic innovation. Dr Yasser Eliwa, Senior Lecturer in Accounting at Loughborough University and a member of the network, notes that a ‘major benefit of the ECRN has been the opportunity to connect with a diverse range of researchers’.

In the past year, the Network has held events including network launches, media training sessions, interdisciplinary meet-ups, thematic workshops, writing retreats and monthly coffee hours. This has included a workshop on engaging with policymakers as well as those covering mental health, diversity and intersectionality in academia.

Following this success, we are extending the pilot programme until 2024. There is much more to come, as we look ahead to the launch of the Scotland hub at the University of Stirling, an online event looking at racial disparities in academia, a writing workshop, a narrative CV workshop, a ‘speed dating’ style session to find and match potential co-authors, and much more.

The Academy’s work in this area lays bare the desire to build alternative structures within the ECR community from the ground up. A well-organised and active ECRN provides peer support, skills development and academic innovation. As Saneeya Qureshi has pointed out in a previous WonkHE piece, ‘strong communities of practice’ enable early career researchers to thrive. This was echoed by Dr Francesca Peruzzo, a member based at the University of Birmingham, who feels that she is ‘part of a bigger community that, in precarious conditions, is defining its place and future in the academic context.’

While more work is needed to address the structural and systemic flaws that make ECRs’ working lives difficult, our experience with the network over the last year has shown that building alternative structures from the ground up can make a positive difference. We encourage the ECR community to get involved and help shape its future. Find out about the Academy’s ECRN.

Peris Thuo is Deputy Head of the Early Career Researcher Network at the British Academy.

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