The number of researchers moving from PhDs into a career in academia is shrinking, while the challenges to pursuing a career in research appear to be rising. So how can early career researchers best develop a body of published research, and what can the scholarly community do to better support people as they move into becoming published authors? This was the theme of the latest ‘Conversazione’ – an evening of discussion between early career researchers from the humanities, social sciences, sciences, and medicine and leading figures from learned societies, South African universities, research development agencies, publishing, and related industries. Read six reflections from the event to get a flavour of the ideas, themes and issues that arose.
Taylor & Francis Africa’s first early career researcher (ECR) Conversazione took place in Johannesburg at a poignant time in South African higher education at the height of the #FeesMustFall movement. It is no surprise – and indeed it was fitting – that this heightened backdrop of activism around free, quality, ‘decolonialised’ university education was articulated and debated in our explorations around ECR issues.
A general reflection was that the South African academy is characterized by an aging cohort of academics, and attempts to integrate ECRs face a variety of issues.
As one participant pointed out, South Africa as a developmental state means that its academics, especially ECRs, are always working with competing imperatives: torn between being developmental workers with a mandate to keep track of and change conditions on the “streets” of greater society, while simultaneously needing to be up-to-date with international publishing trends and establish themselves as globally reputable academics.
The evening’s discussions centred on how to provide support to ECRs in multiple ways that count within a complicated socio-political space like South Africa:
1. Mentorship needs
ECRs seek and value mentoring in more than just practical skills such as researching, writing and teaching techniques. Softer ‘survival’ skills such as negotiating and time management were identified as key areas. Coaching ECRs on how to measure and assess what constitutes a fair workload would be highly valued: “mentors who have a sense of what to do – what to say yes to, what to say no to”. Similarly, there is a need for mentorship by senior scholars on how to best apply for and manage research grants to sustain projects for as long as possible.
Another point of agreement was around the sometimes more intangible, but no less challenging, institutional ideologies and cultures that can have a direct impact on the development of ECRs. “If you have gone through the door, leave it open for others to come in,” was one participant’s request.
2. ECR writing circles
Writing circles were identified as a valuable route for ECRs in building a network of peers and seniors to provide moral and practical writing support. Although it was acknowledged that journal editors have a role to play in mentoring ECRs (e.g. helping to develop a paper that demonstrates potential rather than rejecting it outright or sending it to a reviewer who will reject it outright), it was agreed that they alone do not have the capacity. These circles could also ensure that ECRs maintain a steady publication output, while developing their skills as peer reviewers.
3. A need for situated understanding
South Africa’s legacy of socio-economic inequality has complicated the routes for aspirant academics. Most ECRs are expected to complete their PhDs or attain lectureships before they reach a certain age, to be full time academics with teaching responsibilities, and to travel widely for scholarly collaboration and conferences. Yet many ECRs do not fit the profile where this linear, accelerated trajectory is easily manageable. Many ECRs have families, work obligations and other conflicting demands and cannot easily fulfil the expectations placed upon them. There is a need for a situated understanding and appropriate support structures for ECRs in pursuit of the highest quality work and publication output.
4. A higher degree of collaboration and cross-fertilization
The potential for more interaction across academic disciplines, the academic–practitioner divide, scholarly–lay publication outputs, and research–industry applications was highlighted. ECRs need more awareness of cross-fertilization opportunities in their research and how to go about optimizing collaborative networks to pursue their own careers and the greater good.
5. Keeping abreast of digital trends
Expanded knowledge networks, facilitated by the increasing digitisation and innovation in the publishing sector (i.e. Altmetrics, Figshare and ORCID), are there to be tapped. Twitter and other forms of social media are becoming increasingly important channels for raising awareness of one’s own research output. Tied to this is the need to make research findings accessible to the broader public, policy makers, and influencers. Working with a partner such as The Conversation to translate academic jargon into a human interest piece is a great way for ECRs to get their work noticed. Also touched upon was that ECRs need to familiarise themselves with understanding Open Access publishing internationally and in Africa.
6. Strengthening relationships
Research management offices have grown in importance as enablers of research output within universities. There is more to be gained from bolstering interactions between research management and ECRs in providing information, skills training, support and networking.
Other themes that emerged included the potential for African creative and knowledge systems to inform theory and to find a place in the academy and the proactive role research and peer-review networks have to break down barriers between the global north and south.
There was huge enthusiasm for further Conversazione on other relevant topics. Bringing together representatives from government, industry, and institutions made for very enlightening interaction. Most importantly, however, the voices of the ECRs were at the forefront and urgent issues emerging from “the street” resounded. The impassioned discussions lasted long after the programme had officially ended and the plates had been cleared away.