Balancing Independence with Support

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One of the issues that I highlighted in my last post was how I felt more independent now I was outside of academia. I was able to make my own decisions, take responsibility for my own staff and use my ‘expertise’. This was brilliant, until I had a problem and then I felt a complete lack of support. I was expected to handle the issue all by myself. It was hard, in fact it was impossible and I left soon after. Now while this was more the organisation I was working for rather than anything else it did make me think: As Early Career Researchers how much autonomy do we really want or need?

Having been outside of academia more or less since gaining my PhD, even when I was in academia I worked in professional services rather than in an academic department so it did, at times, feel that business came before professional development. From participating in and hosting #ecrchat and #ecrchat (west) I’ve noticed people repeatedly talking about the support they have or haven’t received and where they should go to get it. I have been lucky in that my PhD supervisor has remained my first port of call when I have needed advice. She is always there for me and I value that relationship and the way it has changed over the years. However, at the same time I wanted to be independent. From #ecrchat I have also seen the difficulties faced by colleagues who are either part-time or who have moved locations, even entire countries to start their post PhD lives.

In the UK there is the Concordat …

The Concordat is an agreement between the funders and employers of researchers in the UK, setting out the expectations and responsibilities of each stakeholder in researcher careers – researchers themselves, their managers, employers and funders. It aims to increase the attractiveness and sustainability of research careers in the UK and to improve the quantity, quality and impact of research for the benefit of UK society and the economy (Vitae, 2012).

You can find more out about the Concordat on the Vitae web site[1]. It appears to be an important step in enabling researchers to develop their independence and autonomy whilst ensuring they have the correct support. Interestingly it is not something I have heard people talk much about much. Either that is because researchers do not know about it or are not interested or that institutions are not promoting it beyond the stamp of approval on their web sites?

So how do we manage to be independent as well as get the guidance we need? I think the most important thing for any ECR is a mentor, whether that is your PhD supervisor, one of your examiners, a colleague you work well with etc. you will know the right person when you find them. Use this person as a sounding board for ideas and talk through any issues you have. For me I have my supervisor but also two other senior colleagues who have shown interest in my work and have encouraged me to carry on when I have felt down.

Remember you are not alone: this was what I wish I could have told myself in the middle of last year. I didn’t start telling people I was unhappy with what was going on around me until it was too late. Had I talked about it earlier a tactical withdrawal could have been made that was less painful for me. There is #ecrchat and we are all here for each other. These communities make a great deal of difference in my opinion and that level of peer support is important.

You will make mistakes: again acknowledge that and learn from them. While you may have got to the top of the student tree you are now at the bottom of the staff tree and its time to work your way to the top again. This felt exhausting to me at first but then I realised I didn’t need to be perfect, in fact the only one who expected me to be was me! I’ve learnt a lot from the past year and I am now a far better judge of character and I know what I want from my career and how to work to get it.

Be clear about what you want from your new position: It’s not just about what they want from you – any job is also about your own professional and personal development. Talk with your boss / PI about what your goals are, where you see your career going. 12 months ago I thought PDP was a pointless faff however, through my MA course in online and distance education I can see the importance of both reflective practice and PDP. To be able to be independent you need to continue to develop your skills.

Everyone has a responsibility for you and your career development: The Concordat sets out different responsibilities for those involved with a researchers career. Even if you work outside of academia your success is as much a reflection of the way you are managed, as it is about the way you apply yourself to your work. It may be more difficult to discuss these issues outside of academia but it is necessary. I have heard horror stories from people saying that they have been told that work is different to being a student and they just had to do as they were told or that they took up too much management time. Don’t let people fob you off it is a collective responsibility and for you to succeed you need a good team around you. This is something I have now and I truly value.

I don’t know whether the feelings of autonomy or independence are different depending on discipline but I do feel from the social scientists I know both inside and outside of academia that there are people debating the need to establish themselves but also the need for support. What I have learnt in the last 12 months is that you can not be independent without support.


[1] http://www.vitae.ac.uk/policy-practice/505181/Concordat-to-Support-the-Career-Development-of-Researchers.html

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Sarah-Louise Quinnell

Dr. Sarah-Louise Quinnell is the E-Learning Lead Technologist for Floream Partnerships she works on a portfolio of e-learning projects in partnership with Google, International Olympic Committee and the Institute of Digital Marketing.

She is also a researcher affiliated to the UCL Centre for Digital Humanities.

All views are her own and do not necessarily represent her employer's views or policies.

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