My ECR Story
I’m just starting life as an early career researcher (ECR), having finished my PhD in 2019. As a clinician researcher, I combine medical training towards becoming a consultant in my chosen speciality (Neurology) with research.
I’ve discovered that this means that you share many of the challenges faced by other ECRs - those relating to becoming independent, maintaining research productivity, securing funding, and occasionally trying to spend time on non-work-related activities - but as a clinician you have to balance all this with your clinical training.
This often involves work-place based assessments, professional courses and passing exams, as well as the time and administrative commitments that come with working on the wards or in outpatient clinics every day. I also have a young family, which brings with it a lot of fun and a lot of chaos - it can sometimes feel as though I am trying to do three full-time jobs at once…
The ECR period is often described as a bottle-neck - it can feel “make-or-break” at a time when many people have an increasing amount of non-research commitments and pressures.
“Sometimes the number of spinning plates – those relating to clinical training, research deadlines, childcare, ill health, to name a few – can feel impossible. When this happens, knowing that other people have been through what you are experiencing (and have made it to the other side!) can make all the difference.”
I think this is one reason why having a range of role models with a diverse range of personal experiences is so critical. I have learnt that mentorship can mean many things, and that having different mentors to help you with different challenges of the ECR period - including personal ones - can be incredibly important.
Alzheimer’s Research UK has a comprehensive and inclusive Research Network, which makes finding role models and mentors relevant to your own personal experience much easier.
Funding is important for all researchers, but I think particularly for ECRs, who are often submitting independent applications (or applications as the lead investigator) for the first time.
There are times where you can anticipate potential funding shortfalls - for example, towards the end of an award or funded position - but there are also occasions that can’t be anticipated. Some grants are limited in their provisions for periods of parental leave, ill health, or other unexpected life events, and this lack of flexibility can be a real worry when there are bills to pay and mouths to feed.
This financial insecurity is one of the major downsides to a career in research, especially when you are trying to establish yourself and are not fully protected by an institution or department; this almost certainly contributes to attrition during the ECR period.
Given the funding challenges faced by ECRs, it has been great to be part of the Alzheimer’s Research UK ECR Working Group, which is proactively looking at ways to support ECRs, including schemes for flexible funding. Such schemes will be invaluable in retaining ECRs and allowing them to do what they do best - engage in innovative, high-quality research, in order to become the leading scientists of tomorrow.