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The Skills Agenda

Supporting the professional development of early career researchers

As supervisors, PIs and department chairs, individual faculty members can help early career researchers identify and develop their skills.


A few years ago, I led numerous graduate student professional development workshops at universities and conferences across Canada. While the workshops were tied to a book directed at social science and humanities PhD students, the participants were from all disciplines and included researchers from a number of career stages, ranging from master’s students to postdoctoral fellows. The audiences were better described as early career researchers (ECRs), many of them with doctorates already in hand. At these workshops, the ECRs had a lot to say. I heard regularly from ECRs that they felt a strong need for additional professional development and skills training, and that this need was under-supported by the faculty members (supervisors or principal investigators) with whom they were working with. Even ECRs with tenure-track faculty positions often felt insufficiently supported by their department chairs or others with supervisory oversight.

Fortunately, the available academic literature suggests positive ways for faculty members to support ECR professional development and skills training. In this Skills Agenda column, I am delighted to co-author with two early career researchers, Mariia Iakovleva and Tanvir Ahmed. I had the pleasure of working with Mariia and Tanvir over the past year on a research project that involved a number of ECRs and graduate students. In this column, Mariia, Tanvir and I examine the literature on ECRs to identify how individual faculty members, as supervisors and principal investigators, can support ECRs – and why this matters.

What are the key challenges in ECR professional development?

According to Poppelaars et al. (2022), three common challenges ECRs face are a lack of mentorship, unsupportive working conditions and an imbalance between their career interests and prospects.

  • Mentorship: ECR success is strongly correlated with effective mentorship, and ECRs themselves see career guidance as the most important support element provided by mentors. While some ECRs are fortunate to find supportive mentors, not all of them do.
  • Working conditions: ECRs often experience demanding workloads to advance their research and this can leave little extra time for skills training and career development activities. While some ECRs are encouraged by their department chair, supervisor, or PI to pursue career development, others may be actively discouraged from doing so. Indeed, in the workshops noted above, numerous ECRs in non-tenure-track positions reported that their supervisor or PI would be unsupportive of ECRs taking time to pursue professional development.
  • Career prospects. In many disciplines, there is a misalignment between the number of PhD graduates and the number of available non-contingent academic positions. The Council of the Canadian Academies estimates that only about 19 per cent of PhD holders working in Canada hold tenured or tenure-track faculty jobs. For many ECRs, then, there is a need to identify and develop skills transferable to sectors outside academia – but not always a clear path to do so.

How can department chairs, supervisors and PIs support ECR career development?

If you are working with early career researchers, there are a number of steps you can take to support their career development:

  • Initiate conversations about career planning and skill development. Ask the ECR to identify what skills they would like to develop. (A useful tool for this conversation is the European Council of Doctoral Candidates and Junior Researchers (Eurodoc) report on the skills and competencies of ECRs, which identifies nine broad skills categories and 66 specific transferable skills.) Use this conversation to develop an action plan to assist them in achieving these skill development goals. Build periodic reflection activities and discussions into the plan.
  • Ensure mentorship structures are in place. If the ECR is interested in receiving mentorship support, work with them to identify how this can be best provided. One option is to establish a mentorship team that brings together a number of individuals to help the ECR set professional development strategies and goals.
  • Explicitly encourage ECRs to pursue professional development opportunities and provide time to do so. Bring professional development opportunities to the attention of ECRs working with you and let them know you feel this is a good investment of their time. If possible, provide funding support to cover registration fees and paid time off to engage in the activities. If you are working on a project together, consider opportunities to include a professional development component in the project at the design phase.

Why does supporting ECRs matter?

Many early career researchers are at a career crossroads, preparing for possible career futures across multiple sectors. Their professional development can help  position them to take their hard-earned advanced research skills and disciplinary knowledge into industry, government, nonprofit, academic, or other careers. For ECRs in tenure-track positions, there can be considerable stress over the untenured years. As the Government of Canada writes, “By supporting early career researchers, Canada unlocks new discoveries and strengthens its position as a world leader in research talent development.” As department chairs, supervisors and PIs, faculty members can play a critical role in supporting ECRs to prepare for bright career futures.

Continuing the Skills Agenda conversation

If you are a supervisor or PI working with ECRs, how do you support their career development, and what are your challenges and experiences in so doing? If you are an ECR, what support would you find helpful? Please let me know in the comments below. I also welcome the opportunity to speak with your university about skills training. Please contact me at [email protected], subject line “The Skills Agenda”. And for additional teaching, writing, and time management discussion, please check out my Substack blog, Academia Made Easier.

I look forward to hearing from you. Until next time, stay well, my colleagues.

Loleen Berdahl is an award-winning university instructor, the executive director of the Johnson Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy (Universities of Saskatchewan and Regina), and professor and former head of political studies at the University of Saskatchewan. Mariia Iakovleva recently completed her PhD in public policy at the U of S. Tanvir Ahmed recently completed a contract position as a research associate at the U of S.
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  1. Reinhart Reithmeier / October 26, 2023 at 05:36

    The Banting Research Foundation has provided start-up grants to over 1000 early career researchers since its creation in 1924. The Foundation recently launched a mentorship program linking recent Discovery Award Winners with previous awardees, realizing that providing professional development support was equally important to success as providing financial support.

    • Loleen Berdahl / October 26, 2023 at 18:16

      That is very interesting – thanks for sharing that!