From Lone Wolf to Pack Power: Empowering Early-Career Researchers through Scientific Communities

Life as a scientist comes with many personal and professional challenges. Thankfully, we do not need to face them alone, as there are many others like us out there. In this post, Yu-Fang Yang shares how she found the best communities for her and how being together lifts everyone up.

6 min read
From Lone Wolf to Pack Power: Empowering Early-Career Researchers through Scientific Communities

The academic journey of early career researchers (ECRs) can feel like diving into an unknown deep ocean. Yet, supportive scientific communities and peer networks can provide invaluable guidance, professional development opportunities, and a sense of belonging.  These communities have become incredibly valuable to me, offering countless opportunities for professional development, visibility and credibility. Hence, I'll share some insider tips from my experience with open science communities and big team science projects in psychophysiology and social neuroscience, with the aim to encourage fellow ECRs to engage with scientific communities.

#1 No one is an island. Don’t try to be alone.

The saying “no one is an island” reflects the importance of interdependence in overcoming research challenges. As ECRs, our work tends to become more niche as we become more specialized, which can create a sense of isolation as we struggle to find peers or mentors who share similar experiences.  Personally, during the early years of my PhD, I encountered this when exploring the specialized pipelines for analyzing EEG (brain wave) data, especially since analytical pipelines often lacked transparency. I believe that there is no single "right" or "wrong" pipeline, as it depends on the research questions and experimental design and so on. However, my perspective shifted when I became involved in the "EEGManyPipeline" project - a collaborative endeavour that aims at addressing the complexities and flexibilities of these analytical pipelines. Through my engagement in this project, I embarked on a journey of discovery and exploration alongside like-minded researchers,  continuously seeking answers to these research-related questions. This experience not only helped me get closer to answers but also highlighted the true value of networking and idea exchange, fostering a sense of belonging in my academic journey. Oh, it's worth noting that this project started as a grassroots online community during the challenging times of the COVID-19 pandemic. Little did we know then the incredible journey that awaited us. We have since shared projects at numerous conferences, connecting with fellow researchers and experts in our field. Additionally, we have had the privilege of gathering annually for in-person steering-committees meetings, fostering deeper collaboration and strengthening the effectiveness and impact of our collective work. The future holds endless possibilities as we grow and create meaningful impacts together.

#2 Be selective in joining communities

Choose communities that align with your interests and goals to establish valuable connections and opportunities. The rise of virtual communities during COVID-19 has exponentially expanded such opportunities. In navigating this landscape, be selective but stay curious. For instance, I discovered scientific collaboration and open science communities like OHBM, Brainhack, or SIPS through social media channels like Twitter, or via recommendations from colleagues. Joining these communities not only sharpened my research skills but also deepened my relationships with like-minded researchers. Remember, your academic journey is like an interconnected web - each opportunity can lead to another, enriching your experience. Use all resources at your disposal, be it social media or word-of-mouth, and don't be afraid to explore new territories.

#3 Leveraging Collaboration and Engagement for Research Success

Leading my first collaborative project was a whirlwind of Zoom meetings and shared files, tinged with a blend of excitement and anxiety. Yet, as the project unfolded into a co-authored article and a conference presentation, the true value of initiative, collaboration, and engagement became evident. To manage collaborations effectively, I strongly recommend setting clear expectations, communicating openly and ensuring fair resource distribution through tools like CRediT. Through my personal academic journey, I've experienced how transparency and accountability cultivate respect and recognition. This ethos is indispensable for ECRs to flourish in their respective fields.

#4 Be visible

Visibility fosters networking, career advancement, and knowledge exchange. Consider creating an online space to present your research interests, such as a personal website or blog, social media presence, etc. Having a centralised online profile can be helpful in streamlining your online presence, and it's important to keep track of your accomplishments and add them to your CV for use in job applications and tenure packages. Websites like Linktree allow you to bring together your written work (from Google Scholar), thoughts and opinions (from Twitter and Mastodon), code (from Github), and more in one place. Don't limit yourself to the most recent popular preprint or search engines when promoting your work!

#5 Develop your leadership and mentorship skills

Being part of a community can provide leadership and mentorship opportunities that will help develop these skills while allowing us to learn from experienced professionals. For example, during my time in collaborative big team science projects and community services, I encountered numerous challenges, such as conflicting opinions and tight deadlines. Over time, I learned the importance of open communication, compromise, effective time management and coordination, setting clear expectations, and strategy adaptation. Engaging with others in communities provided room for growth, trials and errors, and interaction with diverse experiences in both lab practice and broader networks. As a result, when supervising students or leading your own research projects, you will feel more resourceful and confident in your abilities. This shows the values of the community in developing leadership and mentorship skills for ECRs.

#6 Lift each other up

One memorable experience that resonates with many of us is when we, as a group of ECRs, came together to support each other in writing grant proposals,  for example - Marie Skłodowska-Curie Action and the Einstein Foundation Award. We recognised the value of sharing our proposals and gaining feedback from one another. Additionally, previous grant winners generously offered their own successful proposals as references, providing invaluable support.  It was at that moment that I truly understood the profound impact of supporting and uplifting others within our scientific community. Giving back can be just as rewarding as advancing our own careers, a testament to the age-old wisdom that "it's more blessed to give than to receive". In the scientific community, you will find peers who share similar interests, face similar career challenges, write similar grants, or even apply for the same positions. By offering support to each other in various ways, such as grant reviewing, mock interviewing, or simply chatting over virtual coffee hours, you can establish valuable relationships that will benefit both of you.

One can also check out the “Buddy system” when attending conferences. In 2022 Brainhack, we (as one of the co-organisers) provided this “Buddy system” to connect newcomers (mentees) with experienced Brainhack attendees (mentors) either in-person or virtually, helping mentees orient themselves at the Brainhack, meet people and expand their network. Nowadays, more conferences are implementing such programs, so make sure to check them out.

# 7 Failure (doesn’t matter)

Have you ever experienced feelings of failure, self-doubt, or setbacks in your career? Does it seem others do too, but no one talks about it? We often focus on sharing our successes and rarely discuss our failures. This mindset can perpetuate impostor syndrome, where one feels inadequate. It’s important to understand what we can learn from failure and what we can do next for ourselves and others. It's important to distinguish between objective failures, such as a job or grant rejections, and subjective feelings of inadequacy. When dealing with subjective feelings, make use of your networks within the community. Reach out to your collaborators and ask for honest feedback when you encounter challenges. You might be surprised at how their insights can help you deal with feelings of inadequacy. They may also remind you about all the things you do well! In addition, the community can provide support when facing objective failures. By connecting with others, you may discover second chances or alternative options that are a better fit for your career goals (such as different grant schemes or job positions). The collective knowledge and experience within the community can reveal ideas or suggestions you might not have considered on your own. This collaborative approach can help you navigate and learn from both types of setbacks, fostering personal and professional growth.

I believe it is necessary to have open discussions about failure. Such conversations allow us to receive encouragement and advice from other ECRs and understand that failure is a normal part of the scientific process. Additionally, by doing so, we are fostering a healthy scientific culture of openness and transparency in science, which can reduce the stigma associated with failure and encourage learning and growth. The academic path can be challenging, but early failures can actually lead to long-term success.

As an ECR, it is essential to be part of a supportive and inclusive scientific community. Joining relevant scientific communities and organizations, collaborating with peers, seeking mentorship and leadership opportunities, and lifting each other up can all contribute to professional development and success in the field. Additionally, acknowledging and openly discussing failures can foster a culture of openness and transparency in science, leading to reduced stigma and improved learning and growth. I am grateful to many people who have encouraged and supported me, including the Brainhack community, Chinese Open Science Network, EEGManyPipelines, FORRT, IGOR, INCF working group on ARTEM-IS, CuttingEEG methods for MEEG research, The Society for the Improvement of Psychological Science (SIPS), and ReproducibiliTea Berlin. Special thanks to my friend and collaborator Valentina Borghesani, who convinced me to share my experiences with the broader ECR community. I encourage all ECRs to become communities so that they can experience this kind of support when pursuing their careers.

Cover photo: Image by Gordon Johnson from Pixabay

About the author:

Yu-Fang Yang is a postdoc neuroscientist decoding electroencephalograms (EEG), facial expressions, and eye movements, while infusing fun into Open Science advocacy within the neuroscience community. Connect with Yu-Fang through her personal website or on Twitter.

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