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Five Ways Academic Societies Alienate Early Career Researcher Members

Early career researchers (ECRs) are a large and critical component of the research workforce, and consequently, an important segment for academic societies. However, ECRs face a number of challenges, including limited funding, lack of mentorship support, networking difficulties, and pressure to publish. Many of these have been exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic and lockdowns in various parts of the world. Societies aiming to retain and engage their ECR members in 2022 and beyond need to take a deep look whether their policies and practices adequately serve the needs of these researchers. Societies may be unwittingly alienating ECRs by some of these practices:

Inflexible Membership Fees

Budget cuts and limited funding opportunities hit ECRs particularly hard, as they have had less time to build a solid track record than their senior colleagues. Consequently, they prioritize immediate and necessary research-related expenses over society memberships. Societies now need to offer creative and flexible payment solutions for membership fees. For instance, the Society for Social Medicine & Popular Health waives membership fees for the 2nd year for ECR members. The British Neuroscience Association allows full members (usually tenured researchers) to give membership for free to up to nine members of their research teams.

Ignoring Childcare Needs

ECRs, the majority of whom are millennials and Generation Z, are more likely to be parents or caregivers of young children than mid-career or senior researchers are. Hence, in 2020 and 2021, ECRs were likely to have been severely impacted by the closures of schools, daycares, etc. Societies need to realize that childcare is a key concern for ECRs who are parents, and support them accordingly. For example, the Materials Research Society offers childcare grants to help attendees of their Fall 2021 meeting cover daycare or babysitting costs. The American Society for Cell Biology goes one step further and allows their childcare grants to be used to cover the costs of a carer for the member’s child at home during their 2021 online conference, giving priority to ECRs.

Communicating Ineffectively

While email remains an important communication channel, Baby Boomers value it more highly than millennials and Generation Z do. ECRs find social media a powerful tool for sharing their research, finding collaborators, keeping abreast of research developments, and even raising funding. When developing a social media strategy, societies need to think beyond Facebook and Twitter, and look at platforms with high appeal for millennials and Gen Z, such as Instagram, Snapchat, and even TikTok. One example is the American Association for Cancer Research, which uses Snapchat particularly to target younger researchers.

Making Networking Difficult

ECRs are under pressure to network, but networking opportunities tend to be more accessible to senior researchers. The biggest networking opportunities for academics are conventional in-person academic conferences, which heavily favor the old boys club (older white males). ECRs are looking for relatively low-cost, inclusive opportunities for networking. Therefore, societies should explore solutions like virtual conferences, online networking events, and mentorship programs that facilitate networking. For instance, The Physiological Society hosted a virtual networking hour dedicated to ECRs.

Limiting Leadership Opportunities

Most leadership positions in societies are held by senior researchers, leaving ECRs limited opportunities to contribute to key society policies or decisions. This leaves ECRs feeling frustrated and unheard. To resolve this issue, societies can formulate policies to include judicious mix of senior and younger researchers on various boards and committees. For example, the American Association for Anatomy includes two ECRs in its Board of Directors (both of which are currently women!). The American Society for Plant Biology includes ECRs in several major committees (membership, publications, science policy, etc.) as well as its Council.

Conclusion

The Covid-19 pandemic has not just disrupted the lives of ECRs but also the way academic societies fundamentally function. Societies should seize this opportunity to become more ECR-friendly. Ultimately, ECR-friendly policies and practices will benefit societies themselves, as they effectively engage with new talent and the lead scientists of the future.

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Marisha Rodrigues

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