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.
Research-intensive university with approximately
300 early career researchers.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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