NERDs are Cool: Support Networks for Early Career Researchers

Published on: Author: the CVR science blog editors

This is a cross-over blog post from the ‘Research Development’ blog by the University of Glasgow.

This is a guest blog written by Maddy Cunningham. Maddy is a post-doctoral researcher in the institute of Infection, Immunity and Inflammation, a job that she loves (though she knows it didn’t sound like it). Her work focuses on the autoimmune neuropathy Guillain-Barré syndrome. She also dabbles in teaching undergraduate laboratories, science communication and public engagement.

When you start your PhD you see your career through a pair of rose-tinted glasses. You’ll submit your thesis in the September of your third (or fourth) year. A post-doctoral position will already be lined up. Your work-life balance will finally be… well, balanced. And somehow, just by being a post-doc, you will generate amazing data and publications and job offers will keep coming.

Inevitably, almost NONE of this will happen and when you finally realise that this job you love doing is one of the more unpredictable and unstable ones, you start to worry about the future. Inconveniently, this is also when imposter syndrome really kicks in: you’re not getting data because you’re a bad researcher; your paper was rejected because you don’t know how to write; you didn’t get that grant because your proposal didn’t make any sense. It’s only when you begin talking to other people at the same career stage as you that you realise you’re not alone in these thoughts.

“Survival” ©The Upturned Microscope – Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

Approximately a year ago, an email arrived in my inbox inviting all early career researchers (ECRs) in the institute of Infection, Immunity and Inflammation (IIIs) to an event where our thoughts and concerns could be raised with the institute management. This was something that we never quite had the opportunity to do before. It would also include a presentation on grant writing, something of particular use to those of us starting to consider such ventures. Importantly, there would also be pizza and beer. All of these things appealed to me, and I wasn’t the only one. As familiar faces from around the institute began voicing their concerns, I realised that they were the same concerns I had. It wasn’t just me! And apparently it wasn’t just our institute either. Soon, the early career research meetings merged with the Institute of Cardiovascular and Medical Science (ICAMS). Thus was born NERD: the Network for Early career Research Development.


Network for early career researcher development logo.

As its clever (and probably appropriate) name suggests, NERD is a support network for early career researchers (post-docs, fellows and lecturers alike!). In its own words, NERD aims to “Provide career support, information and advice for ECRs in IIIs and ICAMS, Foster collegiality, collaboration and sharing of resources within and between IIIs and ICAMS and better understand the challenges facing ECRs in IIIs/ICAMS, advocating for their needs to senior management.”

The importance of a support network like this as an early career researcher is vital. Numerous studies have shown the value of peer support networks and peer learning, not to mention the importance of networking. For me, I often feel that I am stumbling my way through academic research, not sure how to get from one point to another but feeling too embarrassed to ask. NERD is a fantastic way talk to my peers and find out how they are tackling these issues, or to those slightly further along the career path to see how they got to where they are.

Vitally, NERD also aims to put on workshops, which deal with some of the things you need to know that academic training doesn’t necessarily teach you. There have already been some great workshops on writing journal articles, grants, and fellowship applications as well as pursuing non-academic careers. As many of us wrestle with the question of whether to stick with academia or make the switch to industry, teaching or other fields, this last workshop was particularly useful! Although I haven’t quite gotten back to the days of rose-tinted spectacles, being a part of NERD makes the prospect of a career in research seem far more obtainable and realistic.

If you are lucky enough to be part of the institutes of Infection, Immunity and Inflammation or Cardiovascular and Medical Sciences then why not check out the NERD website  and come along to the next meeting? If you are from a different school or institute, why not find out if a similar network in place to support people like you? If not, start one!