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How to support junior staff in a time of turmoil for universities

An estimated 17,500 casual and fixed-term academic staff at Australian universities are projected to lose their jobs over the next six months. Most of them will be early career researchers (ECRs). ECRs are junior academics who face increasing workloads and expectations, and insecure employment.

This combination of factors makes them susceptible to termination, exploitation and burnout as they pursue a permanent position in academia. During the pandemic, these vulnerabilities have been amplified.

Read more: As universities face losing 1 in 10 staff, COVID-driven cuts create 4 key risks

Most universities have programs to assist the career development of ECRs. However, exceptional times required a more proactive and holistic response to meet the urgent needs of vulnerable staff.

A program guided by participants

As Swinburne University’s ECR Program co-ordinator in 2020, here’s what I did. My team and I carefully designed a program of hands-on mentoring, skill-building and social connection for ECRs working remotely. The aim was to keep ECRs engaged and to help them professionally and emotionally navigate the most difficult phase of their careers.

How did we decide what activities to offer our ECRs? We asked them. My first undertaking as program co-ordinator was to survey all ECRs to identify areas of need at the beginning of Victoria’s first lockdown.

The responses directly informed the program. I also formed a committee comprising ECRs from across the university to help oversee and take ownership of their program. The 2020 program, somewhat unexpectedly, provided us with a model of early career professional engagement for post-pandemic life.

Read more: Job-ready graduates changes loom as last straw for emerging researchers

What did the program offer?

This is what we delivered.

First, we substantially increased the number of ECR events in 2020. Seminars were held two to three times a month so ECRs working from home would have more opportunities to connect.

As it turns out, online events are more accessible. Eliminating travel and scheduling barriers allows those with competing life commitments to log on at their convenience.

Second, we matched the content of the seminars to the immediate concerns of our cohort. Historically, ECR professional development seminars provide generic information on applying for funding and writing academic papers. Instead, our seminars canvassed a wide-range of relevant and urgent issues facing ECRs. These included a focus on:

  • work-life balance while working remotely
  • career strategy in uncertain times
  • being professionally flexible
  • marketing one’s skills externally
  • opportunities arising from the pandemic
  • developing and nurturing industry collaborations.

Third, we introduced small group sessions in addition to the larger seminars. These sessions allow for ten ECRs and two to three guest senior mentors to have private, informal discussions where targeted advice and guidance are provided. This format created an intimate and reflective environment conducive to open dialogue and hands-on personalised mentoring.

Group of people on a computer screen taking part in an online chat session
Small group sessions of a dozen or so people create a more intimate and reflective environment that makes it easier to talk freely. fizkes/Shutterstock

These sessions enabled ECRs to navigate immediate professional challenges and proved to be very popular. Specific small group sessions were arranged for sub-groups such as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander ECRs.

Read more: PhD students need support at the best of the times. How can you help in a pandemic?

Fourth, we conducted several sessions with senior university administrators. The 2020 ECR program featured events with Swinburne’s new and outgoing vice-chancellors. In these sessions, they shared personal insights into their lives and candidly described the challenges and obstacles they faced in their early careers. This gave ECRs a rare opportunity to meaningfully access and interact with both leaders at a difficult time.

Last, we created an online virtual spreadsheet for ECRs to network with each other and seek collaborative opportunities. Building a broad professional network is critical early in researchers’ careers.

What were the results?

The outcomes of our program were encouraging. We tripled the number of attendees from the previous year and more than doubled the average number attending per session. A core group of 50 attendees attended every session.

Feedback noted that the sessions were not only practically useful, but provided a regular source of social connection to the university.

2020 has been an emotionally demanding year for junior academic staff. With campuses unlikely to re-open for some time, many face uncertain futures while disconnected socially and physically from the institution.

Read more: Budget's $1bn research boost is a welcome first step. Billions more, plus policy reforms, will be needed

Yet we discovered that a simple suite of online activities, led and designed by early career professionals, can provide meaning, connection and guidance in challenging times.

The program’s success shows such schemes can and should be employed across sectors for early career professionals during the pandemic and beyond.

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