Championing our older ‘early career researchers’: an emerging network for peer support

By Dr Sam Oakley, Research Governance and Integrity Manager

An older woman standing by a flipchart with colourful pens foreground

Our older PGRs and postdocs told us that sometimes communications and development opportunities did not land well with them, particularly those aimed at ‘early career researchers’ when some of them felt at a later stage in their personal career journey. We decided to explore these issues in more depth to find out if we were doing all we could to support this cohort of researchers and – more importantly – to create opportunities for them to come together for networking and (possibly most valuable of all) to provide peer support.

This exploratory work aligned with our Research Culture priorities which seek to recognise varied contributions, and promote collegiality (supporting each other to succeed) It also maps to our Research Strategy which speaks of “the need to recruit and support students and staff, at any stage, to develop skills and fulfil their career ambitions”. It also aligned with work ongoing for the Concordat to Support the Career Development of Researchers and followed on from the excellent ‘Wellbeing of Older Workers’ project recently concluded in our School of Health and Wellbeing. Furthermore, in the middle of 2020, when we began this work, this enabled us to reach out to researchers who were maybe feeling more isolated than expected due to the pandemic.

We decided this potential network should be open to postgraduate researchers (PGRs) and Research Staff: both are prone to the label ’early career researchers’ and face potentially similar issues. We did a literature search, discovering there was little written on this group but we were able to lift a rather clunky working name from a useful paper: ’late-career early-career researchers’.

We also did some initial work on demographics. Unable to extract the relevant information for Research Staff, we made better progress on our PGR population. In 2021-2022 we had just over 3000 PGRs. Of these around 2000 were in their twenties, nearly 700 were in their thirties and just 231 (7.5%) were over 40. This over-40 cohort was not spread evenly across disciplines: just over 70% of that age group were in SHAPE (Social Sciences, Humanities and the Arts for People and the Economy/Environment) subject areas. We made the decision not to define what we meant by ‘older’ but to allow researchers to self-identify with the group. The invitation to join the new network therefore went out to all our PGRs and Research Staff.

Our first online gathering was experimental: we scheduled a talk by Dr Robin Ireland, a recent doctoral graduate, and we sent out this message: 

We have people moving into research with a huge variety of interesting career and life experiences, including many ‘early career researchers’ who are nearing or even post retirement. We’d like this event to open up discussion of what ‘career development’ means for researchers who are coming into research later in life, and how the university can better support you and provide access to peer networks.” 

We offered the option to express interest from those who could not make the date and set up a Padlet board, inviting everyone to contribute their views beforehand.  That first event was a significant success: we had over 100 register and 59 turn up on the day . It was an excellent talk: Robin’s warmth, good humour and personal reflections set the tone for both that event and the ones that followed. The Zoom Chat was busy and much discussion followed, all of it lively and supportive. The relief to have a space to come together and share issues was palpable.  

Significantly, the Padlet board was fabulous: it captured diverse viewpoints and issues, with many comments endorsing and extending those of others. It revealed a cohort who felt that the extensive skills, networks and experience that they bring are often not valued by the institution or their supervisors. This group wanted more focus on non-academic careers (to which they may return post-doctorate and to which they bring wide networks and experience). They reported that age discrimination persisted in funding opportunities, despite it being a protected characteristic. They also spoke about the significant financial issues they faced (which must surely have worsened in 2022), about the caring responsibilities they shouldered and the challenge of fitting in study around work. Many expressed feelings of isolation and self-doubt.  

“I don’t think unis always appreciate just how much mature students have on their plates. These stresses and responsibilities are in addition to the multitude of academic, life and health based stresses faced by all students”

At the very least, it seemed that an ongoing network could make small steps to addressing this and we continued with three more events over 2020-2022. A dedicated MS-Teams area was created to promote community discussion and to share recordings from the sessions. Some researchers were keen to meet in person but timings for events remains challenging: our cohort is geographically dispersed, some have caring responsibilities, some work and study part-time. And we all agreed that the name ‘late-career early-career researcher network’ definitely needs improving!

At the time of writing we are awaiting recruitment of a new Research Culture Specialist (Communities & Collegiality) to take forward this work and re-launch the network for our new academic year. We have wondered too if we could expand this network to other institutions – are any of our readers here interested in this? Defining terms of reference, a clear purpose and a focus for activities will be next steps, as well as ensuring this group can continue to come together to support each other and create better visibility of the unique skills and experience that they bring. 

Two older women collaborating in an office setting

Images reused with thanks from https://ageing-better.org.uk/news/image-library-contributions-invisible-older-women-work

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