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Vera Maren Strasburger and Klara Jurstakova
Leadership and teamwork, Trainees and training, Work and occupational

Building empowering research communities

ECRs as leaders can create the academia we want to work in, argue Vera Maren Straßburger and Klara Jurstakova.

03 January 2023

Being an ECR can be difficult at times and there are many challenges to overcome in the early stages of an academic career. These include limited scholarships, brief fixed-term contracts, uncertainties about future academic careers, increasing workloads, poor work-life balance, and the exclusion of marginalised groups, e.g. women and ethnic minorities (e.g. Bothwell, 2018; Kent et al., 2022). This is by no means an exhaustive list. Thus, academia is experienced by many ECRs as a stressful and highly competitive environment with a "publish or perish" culture and few role models belonging to marginalised groups in leadership positions. Many of these are structural issues, yet they are usually not openly spoken about in the academic environment. We believe that this general silence intensifies the feelings of loneliness that ECRs face when dealing with these issues. This can leave ECRs questioning whether they belong in academia.

Besides feeling isolated, feelings of being a "fraud" are common for ECRs. This is referred to as impostor syndrome, which is particularly experienced by underrepresented groups, such as women and ethnic minorities (Feenstra et al., 2020) and is known to negatively impact well-being (Sverdlik et al., 2020). Feenstra and colleagues argue that imposter syndrome is not an individual-level phenomenon, but is linked to structural problems in the academic environment, for instance a lack of role models and unequal treatment of marginalised groups. Recent cross-sectional and longitudinal research suggests that perceived belongingness is negatively associated with impostor syndrome (Sverdlik et al., 2020). A survey investigating reasons why PhD students want to quit their training in Belgium identified two main reasons: lack of support from the supervisor and not feeling competent enough (Van de Velde et al., 2019).

Building communities to foster belonging

Here, we argue that we can reduce or prevent imposter syndrome among ECRs by creating norms of inclusiveness and belonging within our communities. Our main aim is to highlight some solutions by drawing on our experiences as well as on social psychological research (Haslam et al., 2009). We propose to build communities where ECRs can create a professional identity that improves their feelings of belonging in the workplace and academia (Jensen & Jetten, 2015). We also propose that ECRs should engage in "bottom-up" leadership (i.e. becoming leaders of smaller communities), rather than relying on senior academics of the university system to build these communities for them. We believe that this can help ECRs to tackle loneliness, strengthen their sense of belonging, and eventually create the academia that we would want to work in.         

We believe that ECRs can create communities, build enriching relationships, and get inspiration beyond the PhD by leading the change that one wants to see in often rigid academic workplaces.

We believe that ECRs can create communities, build enriching relationships, and get inspiration beyond the PhD by leading the change that one wants to see in often rigid academic workplaces. To illustrate this, we present four personal examples of successful initiatives to build supportive communities and networks and tackle ECR isolation and imposter syndrome.

Solution 1: Forming support networks with regular check-ins 

To overcome isolation, we [Vera’s group] have started twice weekly virtual check-ins of a maximum of 30 minutes to check in on how people are feeling, any challenges they are facing, and what their goals are for the week and weekend. We meet Monday and Friday and have created fixed regular meetings which, once established, work well even across different time zones. Talking about challenges in a safe space creates a sense of belonging in one's community while also opening the door to support, as other ECRs may have faced similar challenges and can offer helpful solutions. For instance, we actively discuss taking evenings and weekends off in order to establish healthy norms for work-life balance.

Solution 2: Setting up a discussion group 

Research is about drawing inspiration from the literature and expanding one's knowledge and thinking. Discussion groups are essential for developing the necessary ECR skills as well as forming a community. If there is no established discussion group in your institution, we suggest you set up one yourself. For instance, I (Vera) am organising a group on Critical Psychology and its application in research and practice. Initiating the group has required a bit of organisation, obtaining permission from the university, and creating reading lists and materials. This process has been inspiring and it has made me very happy to shape a community of students and fellow ECRs to think and discuss the relevant topic. It is also rewarding to get feedback of appreciation for the initiative from fellow ECRs and students within the institution. Creating a community for topics that you are interested in within your institution can foster a sense of belonging and create interdisciplinary exchange.

Solution 3: Reaching out to connected labs and joining lab meetings virtually 

There might not be any established lab meetings or research communities that you can attend at your institution, or your institution might only have very generalised meetings for all PhD students, which can feel alienating and not relevant to your research field. This can be challenging, as it is important to feel included by getting to know colleagues who are working on similar research topics. Your supervisor’s collaborators might be happy to include you in lab meetings and support you in attending them so that you can experience a vibrant lab culture virtually, even if not physically at your institution. We both experience the positives of being included in lab meetings of collaborative research groups and highly encourage you to reach out for this opportunity.

During the Covid-19 pandemic, I (Klara) was able to join a research group where I met many researchers and other PhD students who have become collaborators and friends. At the beginning of the pandemic, we had weekly meetings that switched between a research presentation and a professional development topic on a bi-weekly basis. The advantage of these meetings is that they brought together ECRs and senior academics from different universities, connected via a research topic, to share their experiences. We made the meetings accessible to all stages of the PhD, so even students early in their PhD could present work in progress and get feedback.

This role of leadership extends to every single ECR, and this knowledge should empower us all to build communities rather than limit us to our own, often very junior positions within academia.

Now we meet every month and the group has expanded since April 2020, despite the fact that many of us switched job locations or returned to working from the offices rather than working from home. Organically, the PhD students from the group also started to organise a more informal group meeting for PhD students only, where everyone is welcome to share their concerns, ideas, and challenges they face in a safe environment. This helps us form new relationships and collaborations, and allows us to discuss the challenges we face as ECRs, what we want to change in academia, and how we can support one another in doing so.

Leadership and its impact on shaping norms  

Finally, we want to encourage fellow PhD students to actively enact leadership in these groups and set the norms they want to see in academia by creating supportive and collaborative communities. Research shows that leadership is not a rigid, one-sided process where a dominant group member sets the norms and goals for a group (Haslam et al., 2020) but rather a process of mutual collaboration between leaders and their followers. Based on this, we believe that ECRs can take up the roles of prototypical group members and shape their communities by maintaining a mutual relationship with each other. At the same time, they can set the norms they want to see for themselves rather than waiting for a change from institutions and senior academics.

Thus, this role of leadership extends to every single ECR, and this knowledge should empower us all to build communities rather than limit us to our own, often very junior positions within academia, which might make us feel powerless. By setting examples of mutual support, fair collaboration, inclusive environments, and healthy work-life balance, we believe that academia can become the place where we want to work if we all take part in the process of change.

About the authors

Vera Maren Straßburger, PhD student at Medical School Hamburg and associated with Gender in Medicine Institute at Charité Berlin, Germany. Researching social norms, intergroup relations, belonging, discrimination, and well-being.

Klara Jurstakova, PhD student at Canterbury Christ Church University in the UK. Researching identity leadership, mobilization processes, and collective action in repressive contexts. 

Key sources

Bothwell, E. (2018, February 8). Work-life balance survey: long hours take their toll on academics. Times Higher Education.            

Feenstra, S., Begeny, C.T., Ryan, M. K., Rink, F. A., Stoker, J. I., & Jordan, J. (2020). Contextualizing the impostor ‘syndrome’. Frontiers in Psychology, 3206.       

Haslam, S.A., Jetten, J., Postmes, T. & Haslam, C. (2009). Social identity, health and well‐being: An emerging agenda for applied psychology. Applied Psychology, 58(1), 1-23.

Haslam, S.A., Reicher, S.D. & Platow, M.J. (2020). The new psychology of leadership: Identity, influence and power. Routledge.

Jensen, D.H. & Jetten, J. (2015). Bridging and bonding interactions in higher education: social capital and students’ academic and professional identity formation. Frontiers in Psychology, 6, 126.        

Kent, B. A., Holman, C., Amoako, E., Antonietti, A., Azam, J. M., Ballhausen, H., ... & Weissgerber, T. L. (2022). Recommendations for empowering early career researchers to improve research culture and practice. PLoS Biology, 20(7), e3001680.                                                           

Sverdlik, A., Hall, N.C. & McAlpine, L. (2020). PhD imposter syndrome: Exploring antecedents, consequences, and implications for doctoral well-being. International Journal of Doctoral Studies, 15, 737-758.

Van de Velde, J., Levecque, K., Mortier, A. & De Beuckelaer, A. (2019). Why PhD students in Flanders consider quitting their PhD. ECOOM BRIEFS, (20), 1-5.