Early career research conference in the School of Psychology and Clinical Language Sciences

We wanted to reinvigorate our early career research (ECR) community after the detrimental impact of lockdown. We hosted a whole school conference for ECRs which included short ‘blitz’ and longer research talks, giving ECRs valuable experience and CV material. It also included a ‘Dragons Den’ style grant application process, where pre-written grant applications were critiqued by senior leadership (‘Dragons’) and then defended by the applicants in a panel interview. The event was an enormous success and reached capacity for attendance. Four novel projects were created and sustained to this day.

What kind of an organisation are you in the context of the Concordat?

Research-intensive university with approximately 300 early career researchers.

What challenge were you trying to address with this initiative?

Since lockdown, the early career researcher (ECR) community has been fragmented, with many new members of staff isolated and unable to meet colleagues. There has also been a high turnover of ECRs which meant the research landscape of the ECR community was unclear. Additionally, as a community we wanted to offer some financial support to offer up some small grants, wherein an ECR can be a named principal investigator, to facilitate small projects.

What did you do and how does this align with the Principles and keywords you have selected below?

We sought funding from our research committee and neuroscience research group to host a conference and provide a small amount of money (~£5k), which would be offered via a 'Dragons Den' style grant application/panel interview process. We invited all members of the department, to a physical (non-hybrid) conference, to facilitate networking and introductions. We provided additional time for a long lunch break support new staff networking. A series of 'blitz' (5min) and longer research talks (20min) were given by ECRs to a mixed audience. This was accomplished via an abstract application portal, where the talks were shortlisted and the committee decided who to offer which type of talk to depending of depth of content. This event directly improved the environment and culture across our school and ECR community, but also gave an opportunity for career and personal development, via the engagement with research talks, grant applications and panel interviews. As successful applicants will also be named PIs on projects and successful grant applications, this will also bolster their CVs.

What were the challenges in implementation and how did you resolve them?

As the community was fragmented and had 'gone quiet', attracting attention was a significant hurdle. We emphasised the importance of active advertising, so rather than putting up posters and sending emails, we approached PIs and ECRs directly, to maximise engagement. The administrative burden of organising a conference is considerable so to counter this, a four person organising committee was elected, to spread the workload across multiple people. A funding source is not available for this type of initiative, so we wrote separate grant applications to our research committee and Centre for Integrative Neuroscience & Neurodynamics (CINN) to cover our financial costs. Attendances in previous years have been good but these are likely to be artificially inflated by online ‘attendance’ via hybrid meetings, where the online community is often a silent participant. As such, no integration or networking is gained. We therefore elected for a solely in-person event, to convince people back to campus and to meet their colleagues.

How did you evaluate the impact of your initiative?

The evaluation was made using verbal feedback from attendees, written feedback from senior leadership, but most importantly, the very high attendance on the day was the most important indicator of success. Our conference was at full capacity, with many ECRs, faculty and senior leadership in attendance. Excitingly, novel collaborations were created based on the 'Dragons Den' style pitches, which are now developed and productive relationships. Many junior ECRs gave their first research talks. All were of an excellent quality, and were well received. The event facilitated introductions and the creation of new working relationships.

Were there any surprising or unexpected consequences?

The only surprise was just how well attended the conference was. We had been worried about lots of people registering but failing to attend on the day. This was an unnecessary concern. The energy, excitement and enthusiasm built around the event, with support from managers, ensured that it was an extremely engaging and successful conference.

What advice would you give others wanting to do this?

Meet with your ECR community to gauge whether this is something that is valued or desired first. Ensure that you have senior manager support of such an event. Share the administrative load of organising a conference among a group of more established ECRs to make the additional commitment, on top of the day job, sustainable. Actively advertise and personally seek out attendees, don’t passively put up posters and send emails and expect good results. If the primary goal is networking and improving the ECR environment, consider abandoning hybrid or online formats, and meet in person only. Offer a social gathering space after the event, so that staff can take advantage of such a large collection of ECRs to continue discussions and advertise this in advance so that people can attend. Find small sources of funding to offer as grant money. This has proven to be very popular and can lead to interesting novel collaborations which provide an opportunity for ECRs to become named PIs and gain professional development experience.

Beneficiaries: Research staff Postgraduate researchers Research and teaching staff Teaching-only staff

Stakeholders: Researchers Managers of researchers

Concordat principles: Environment and culture Professional and career development

Keywords: ECR Career development Professional development Research identity Research culture Career progression Equality, diversity and inclusion Wellbeing Researcher voice Working conditions Leadership development Research assessment Recognition Community building Multidisciplinary Grants Conference Dragon's Den