On Starting a Career in Research

Author: Rohit Agarwal

DLN recently released an article highlighting the hurdles that early career researchers (ECRs) — PhDs, Postdocs, and Researchers — encounter. The article can be found here. It explores issues such as competence building, the transition from research to industry, insufficient networking opportunities, mental health concerns, supervision quality, and the need for thinking beyond the confines of research. These topics have sparked my curiosity about the origins of these challenges, the parties involved, and potential solutions. Drawing from my own journey, I will address these three critical questions in this article.

  1. Why do these challenges exist? – Unlike undergraduate and master’s programs, ECRs programs are unstructured with a high degree of freedom in conducting research. However, this has the downside of feeling lost and contributing to the aforementioned challenges. Researchers often prioritize their research above all else, becoming so immersed in their work that they neglect other facets of a professional career.
  2. Who are the stakeholders in these challenges? – Numerous stakeholders are involved in these challenges. ECRs and their supervisors stand as the direct stakeholders. Meanwhile, the indirect stakeholders are institutions, policymakers, affiliated groups, and additional mentors. Supervisors hold a direct stake due to their significant impact on an ECR’s career trajectory.
  3. How can these challenges be resolved? – Fortunately, these challenges are solvable through active engagement from all stakeholders. In this article, I concentrate on the direct stakeholders. ECRs themselves bear the primary responsibility for addressing these challenges. They must proactively connect with all stakeholders to seek assistance and pinpoint their needs and available resources. Additionally, ECRs often remain within their comfort zone — The LAB. Yet, overcoming these challenges requires stepping out of The LAB and forging new lines of communication. Most importantly, an ECR should have an open conversation with their supervisor because the supervisor plays an important role in helping ECRs navigate these challenges.  A supervisor’s often unspoken duty is to elevate researchers beyond the lab and expose them to the various aspects of a career. A motivated supervisor can transform their mentees into well-rounded individuals with a diverse skill set, while a competent supervisor might only enhance their research capabilities. The need for supervisors who are both competent and motivated is clear.

I believe we can collectively mitigate these challenges through a structured outlook towards them by all the stakeholders. Institutions, in particular, should educate both ECRs and supervisors about potential challenges and foster an environment conducive to resolving them.