…If we go back in time, and I try to pinpoint when this topic was conceived it was probably a few years ago when I had some pretty profound experiences about my true calling and making that decision that yes I wanted to pursue an academic career and yes I really was going to tackle that great big monster mountain they call the PhD. I mean I can talk about it now in a calm and collected way, but at the time I felt as though I was about to join a convent never to be seen again sort of thing. But then I wondered why I was feeling that way. And after some time I realised that it was because I had managed to isolate myself and there was no need to disconnect, when others wanted to help me. So one of the things I had to learn was how to allow others to help me and how to ask for help when I needed it, and also how to give support in return.
There’s been a lot of talk recently about the future of universities and mentoring new academics to replenish the academic workforce. I have been very fortunate having three really great research mentors. But from the perspectives of some of my early career academic colleagues it has just been just a lot of talk and not enough action in this area of supporting new academics.
This topic has grown from my own learning experiences in counselling sessions, what I learned about myself, developing the confidence to make important decisions in my life, and talking to other early career academics and research students about their learning experiences. Sharing our stories and normalising these feelings of anxiety or about our failures and mistakes, talking about our issues and being more open about discussing them with everyone, especially those who take an interest in our development both as new and potential academics and as human beings with lives that go beyond academia, this is really what I hope to advance. Embarking on this study has definitely helped me grow more confident in all aspects of my life and to learn that work life balance is really important in being successful. I think the more we discuss the experiences of early career academics, the more we can help each other learn and grow. It’s about being open enough to share our knowledge and our experiences, and I hope this study encourages having that ongoing conversation and a shared understanding between early career academics and all of those people in their networks who support them.
The thing I’ve noticed about early career academics (or anyone entering a new profession for that matter) is that if the right support mechanisms aren’t in place or the new person doesn’t have the right skills to use those support mechanisms, then the whole system just collapses. And perhaps more importantly, if the academic doesn’t feel personally supported initially, then all the right information and knowledge needed for them to perform effectively doesn’t flow on from that, and again the system collapses.
So I ask how can we avoid that? How can we build the support networks that we need?
The metaphor of the spider web was often used by the participants in my study. Universities are complex, ever changing ecosystems, to use that metaphor. There are a multitude of skills and attributes required to perform all facets of the role, and all rely on information and knowing how and when to use that information or knowledge. Perhaps in times of rapid change the skill of learning becomes ever more important and in order to learn these new skills and attributes required to progress as early career academics, the ability to use information underpins all of these necessary skills. Information is the molecule or the building block and how information shapes or influences our learning experiences is a kind of mysterious process. But if we look at the issue of encouraging open communication for early career academics and their support networks, it is obvious that we must work towards a better understanding of what informs learning and how information is experienced for developmental purposes, particularly in a complex learning environment that blends new and traditional ways of communicating and interacting with information and knowledge sources.