Supporting Early Career Researchers

Presentation in the EFMD course for Faculty Deans on "Rethinking faculty models for impactful schools and resilient careers"

Early 2022 I gave a presentation for the European Foundation for Management Development. I had done this before in a course for Research Directors, presenting on Benchmarking Research Performance. This time I shared my experience in supporting ECRs at a course for Faculty Deans. As I only had 20 minutes for my presentation, I stuck to a very structured storyline as reflected in the slide above.

The core? People, communities, ECAs & MCAs

In this part of the presentation I explained my fundamental assumptions. First, even more so than in other organizations, it is people - and especially academic staff - who make or break universities. I see university leadership as creating the right climate to allow others to excel. This isn’t just a simple humane argument; it is also a business argument. Nothing destroys value as quickly as a disgruntled employee, departure of a few role models might lead to a vicious cycle of turnover. But on the positive side, nothing can re-invigorate an organization like a few intrinsically motivated enthusiastic individuals.

Second, we need to build collaborative and inclusive academic cultures. Traditionally, academia has focused on competition, celebrating the individual hero genius scientist. But as one of the recent Nobel prize winners emphasized, it may be better to invest in team builders than in solo star scientists. Working collaboratively is crucial within universities. This is true for research as most important research problems these days require an interdisciplinary approach. But it is also important in teaching, not just through team teaching, but also by involving students in pedagogical innovations. Finally, it is essential in engagement with industry and society too. The key here is to move away from academia’s earlier focus on knowledge transfer, which presumes a unidirectional movement of knowledge from academics to the outside world, to engagement which involves external stakeholders from the start of the research process.

Cultures need to be collaborative, but they also need to be inclusive. When I started in academia 30 years ago, academia was very homogenous demographically. Most senior academics were male. In the Netherlands, I could almost count the number of female professors in my field on one hand. Although in most countries the proportion of female professors is still far too low, gender parity has been achieved at junior levels in most countries. In terms of national background, 30 years ago most academics had been born in the country they work in. This is no longer the case, least of all in Business Schools. At Middlesex University for instance less than 20% of our academic staff are from a white Anglo background, and three quarters of these are over 60 years old. However, female and international academics are still facing key barriers in their career progression.

Third, our leadership really needs to focus on early and mid career academics. It may sound trite, but they really are the future. They have more of a stake in the future and their attitudes fit today’s world. Most young academics I meet are incredibly passionate about doing research with real societal significance. Not having experienced as many setbacks and rejections, they also still have their youthful enthusiasm. On average junior scholars are also more likely to have the skill-set that suits today’s academic world. They are more likely to be eager to engage with social media and Open Science and are less fixated on standard career paths. So, what is the role of senior scholars in all of this? Generally, I believe that senior scholars should focus on giving back. Some are naturally suited to be public intellectuals or get heavily involved in policy-making or academic service activities. But we need many to take on the role of supporting junior academics, especially as their employment conditions are often so much more precarious than ours were.

The challenges? Distinctiveness, granularity, sustainability

The first challenge for universities is whether to go for mimicry, imitation of top universities, or distinctiveness. The former is generally a route to failure as most simply do not have the resources to do so. A large part of why elite institutions are elite is their reputation built up over centuries. I won’t deny that doing well on publications and citations will help you to get noticed by building some league table reputation. But generally, distinctiveness is a much better route.

Middlesex University is not a traditional research-intensive university; we aim to be triple-intensive: passionate about applied research, but also about educating our students to make a real-world difference, and about external engagement with stakeholders. Our non-elite status isn’t without challenges. We do sometimes lose ECAs after they have built up a strong academic record. Our staff composition is also different than research-intensive institutions, with fewer professors. However, we have addressed this by given junior academics more freedom to shape their own careers. We have had several academics creating their own roles by demonstrating they excel in a particular area.

The second challenge is the tension between designing a grand strategy vs the need for granularity. I have been in university management long enough to know that the devil is in the detail and that realising a strategy comes down to consistent and tireless day-to-day activities. Strategies and action plans are often mere statements of intent, created to satisfy external demands.

That’s why I am so happy with our new MDX strategy whose tagline is “Knowledge into Action”. My own work at MDX to support ECRs was very much guided by an emergent, incremental, and iterative type of strategy with practical, day-to-day, on-the-ground support. I spent a lot of time experimenting with a variety of activities. Only then was I able to put this together in a coherent programme and start “filling the gaps”. In this presentation I took participants through this programme in a whirlwind, but if you’d like to know more about this, have a look at this presentation for Research Deans.

Once you have set up a support structure, the next challenge is sustainability. Unless you ensure sustainability, any structure runs the risk of crumbling when key individuals leave. Many of my current initiatives are explicitly directed at ensuring sustainability. First, we need to create institutional memory. I do this through circulating monthly research bulletins, creating an online portal, recording videos for one the key activities I am running - a writing bootcamp. I have also been running a blog since 2016 with weekly posts on all things academia and have started a YouTube channel - Harzing Academic Resources - in 2020.

After creating an institutional memory, the second element of sustainability is to inspire others to take up leadership positions. This also means being willing to show your own vulnerability. If you seem infallible as a leader, it may be hard to get others to give it a go. Our new Vice-Chancellor Nic Beech - who joined us just before the pandemic struck - is not only researching this, but also practicing this in his leadership. I have never pretended to be a super-woman either. In October 2021, I participated in the “Inspiring Girls International” initiative by sharing my childhood ambitions and experiences. I wanted to communicate six key things:

  • That many academics are introverted and shy and didn’t feel they belonged when they were younger.
  • That not everyone comes from a privileged family who have academic backgrounds.
  • That the support – or lack thereof – that we have in our personal lives impacts on our professional lives.
  • That it is ok not to know what you want to do when you are younger.
  • That not every PhD path is smooth, mine certainly wasn’t and I almost didn’t get one.
  • Last and most of all, that being different is good, not bad, that you don’t have to change to conform to what other people think you should be.

The future? Leadership for collaborative & inclusive cultures

In the last part of the presentation I briefly outlined three leadership options for building collaborative and inclusives research cultures. The first option would be to simply include responsibility for this in the Research Director role. This might work well in smaller institutions and in the early phases, but this is very hard to scale up. The second option could be to work with distributed professorial leadership. This might work well in some institutions, but you do need to have professors who are intrinsically motivated to do this, and who are not too focused on their own career. The third option would be to have a dedicated role as in my own role at Middlesex. I also speculated about some criteria that might make for a good candidate.

  • Experience with Research Director role or similar for context
  • Well-connected to allow linking ECR/MCR colleagues to external networks and opportunities
  • Very established in career, so willing to serve others, and less focused on own career

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