How to ECR

Short contracts. Big moves. Low pay. High stress. At times being an early career researcher (ECR) in academia can feel like a living in a pressure cooker.

After 8 to 10 years of long hard undergraduate study and PhD-ing, a young researcher is handsomely rewarded with slightly better pay, long hours and tenuous employment. As an ECR, you can sit in an office 12 hours a day, watching the day wax and wane on your lonesome as you painstakingly fix last week’s mistakes. You can be sent every few months from Australia across the Pacific for a day or two of meetings, just to jump back on the plane with a high dose of horrendous jet lag and possibly a nasty head cold.

Somehow, despite the downs, there’s a bunch of likeminded ECRs out there who are hooked. There’s something about starting out a career in academia that is alluring. Somehow, when we weigh up the pros and cons, the rewards of being a young academic often dwarf the challenges.

Mostly, ECRs fly blind. We tend to think about next week, or the next paper, or the looming end of yet another short contract. I’m a post-postdoc. I bumbled my way through a science degree, stumbled through Honours, somehow ended up in a PhD program, fumbled my way through a post-doc and then woke up one morning to find myself nearly a year into a second postdoc.

My research has taken a circuitous route, my life more so. My career in science has been long dreamed of, but none of it has been planned. I’ve turned down prestigious postdocs overseas because of a drunken tarot reading with my PhD friends. I packed up and moved interstate for a PhD with no project or supervisor or living arrangements in mind. A few years later, I packed up again and moved my life at the start of a new relationship.

I’ve made some mistakes and I’ve had an unusual splash of serendipity. I’m still an ECR and a couple of years away from hitting that vast and terrifying chasm between early and mid-career status. I certainly haven’t locked in a career or set myself up for academic greatness.  In the past, I acted impulsively, lacking all strategy or ambition, but now I have the benefit of hindsight, though few regrets.

In this next series of posts I’m going to explore the idea of how to be an early career researcher. I can’t offer guidance on how to be a successful ECR, but I can offer my experiences of how I tipped my own career balances in favour of the reward, rather than challenge.

I will be looking at various aspects of ECR-ing, including how to stay sane, how to be a supervisor when you are barely a grown up, how to claim a mentor,  how to make friends and influence your happiness, how to make yourself think strategically, how to enjoy publishing, and most importantly for me, how to be yourself.

First post up tomorrow!

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