Education Project Update

Helping Early-Career Researchers Succeed

Early-career scientists face many hurdles. Targeted programs can help them build skills, ease workloads, and form the collaborations they need to advance their careers.

By , Derek L. Schutt, Danielle F. Sumy, and Andrew M. Frassetto

The early years of a scientist’s career are no doubt some of the most demanding. As scientists transition from senior graduate students through postdoctoral fellowships and into pretenure faculty positions or to employment opportunities outside of academia, they are faced with a multitude of challenges.

These junior scientists must develop as independent researchers while also establishing new collaborations. Many must also adapt to the classroom, despite the limited teacher training available in graduate school. However, many receive little mentoring and guidance during this difficult transition period.

In an effort to help newly minted scientists, researchers, and educators succeed, the Incorporated Research Institutions for Seismology (IRIS) Consortium created an early-career investigator (ECI) working group in late 2011. Its mission is to organize practical resources and professional development opportunities for ECIs.

Over the past 4 years, the working group has strived to build a network among ECIs to generate new collaborations, bring awareness of nonacademic career paths, and create a centralized set of research and educational resources that ECIs can share. Through a series of lectureships and joint partnerships, the working group has also sought to increase the visibility of ECIs and their research and has promoted mentorship and collaboration between junior and senior scientists.

Charting a Career Path

To grow the ECI community, provide a forum for in-depth discussion, and disseminate information to a broader audience, the working group organized mini-workshops and discussions at several national meetings, including those hosted by the American Geophysical Union (AGU), IRIS, and the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) EarthScope program. Up to 70 ECIs attended each event, which exposed participants to the working group’s initiatives and resources, provided insight into various career paths, and better informed working group organizers about the needs of the community.

Career-oriented fora have included discussions with more senior researchers in diverse academic and government careers, such as those at research universities, undergraduate institutions, and the U.S. Geological Survey. The panelists discussed the expectations at their type of institution and shared their personal obstacles to achieve tenure.

Events also focused on nonacademic career paths. About 45 ECIs attended a workshop held before the 2013 EarthScope National Meeting in Raleigh, N.C., where a geophysicist from British Petroleum provided an insider’s view of the challenges and rewards of a career at a major oil company. Roughly 30 ECIs attended a workshop before the 2014 IRIS meeting, where representatives from the American Geosciences Institute and Department of Energy highlighted the plethora of job opportunities available outside of academia, including in science writing, public policy, and consulting. Throughout each event, speakers fielded candid questions about the challenges and successes one might experience in such careers.

The career-focused workshops have been very popular. Notably, ECIs have repeatedly expressed their appreciation to workshop conveners for the exposure to a variety of workforce options, as discussions at their home institutions tend to focus primarily on academic careers.

Tackling Career Obstacles

The working group also organized fora that tackled other issues of importance, such as funding opportunities, featuring presentations from a NSF program officer, as well as the ever-present concern of “work-life balance,” featuring panelists spanning different stages in an academic career (postdoctoral researchers to full professors).

Early career investigators (ECIs) and a senior scientist chat at a luncheon held at the 2012 AGU Fall Meeting in San Francisco, Calif. The luncheon gave ECIs the opportunity to discuss research ideas and potential collaborations at the Alaska-Aleutian subduction zone through the Geodynamic Processes at Rifting and Subducting Margins (GeoPRISMS) initiative. Credit: Anaïs Férot (GeoPRISMS).
Early-career investigators (ECIs) and a senior scientist chat at a luncheon held at the 2012 AGU Fall Meeting in San Francisco, Calif. The luncheon gave ECIs the opportunity to discuss research ideas and potential collaborations at the Alaska-Aleutian subduction zone through the Geodynamic Processes at Rifting and Subducting Margins (GeoPRISMS) initiative. Credit: Anaïs Férot (GeoPRISMS)

In 2014, IRIS co-organized a webinar and a luncheon with the geodesy consortium UNAVCO. The webinar, which aired 2 weeks before AGU’s Fall Meeting, focused on best practices in scientific communications to prepare ECIs for the luncheon. During the luncheon at AGU’s Fall Meeting, roughly 30 ECIs presented 2-minute “elevator talks” on their research, which were immediately followed by discussion among the attendees about research challenges and potential collaborations.

AGU meetings have also provided a great opportunity for the working group to reach across the geophysics and geology subfields to showcase its work and initiatives. At AGU’s 2012 Fall Meeting, we held an ECI luncheon cosponsored by the national offices of EarthScope and the NSF-supported Geodynamic Processes at Rifting and Subducting Margins (GeoPRISMS) initiative.

Graduate students and faculty participate in a field trip to the Newark rift basin, held the day before the GeoPRISMS Planning Workshop for the East African Rift System in Morristown, N. J., in October 2012. Here participants examine a normal fault developed in Late Triassic mudstone in Kintnersville, Pa. Credit: Anaïs Férot (GeoPRISMS).
Graduate students and faculty participate in a field trip to the Newark rift basin, held the day before the GeoPRISMS Planning Workshop for the East African Rift System in Morristown, N.J., in October 2012. Here participants examine a normal fault developed in Late Triassic mudstone in Kintnersville, Pa. Credit: Anaïs Férot (GeoPRISMS)

The luncheon was advertised via a variety of listservs, Facebook, Eos, and word of mouth. The primary purpose involved encouraging interdisciplinary networking among the roughly 60 attendees, whose fields spanned a broad range of geoscience disciplines. This enabled ocean- and land-based geologists and geophysicists, from geochemists to geophysicists, to explore collaborative amphibious projects based on field location or research site.

A Portal to Resources

The ECI working group also strives to share its online resources. It created a website and mailing list and established a social media presence via Facebook and Twitter to collect and distribute various ECI-related resources.

The website collects and organizes relevant community resources. These include profiles of posttenure seismologists and geodesists who volunteered to serve as mentors, abstracts from ECIs who are available to present departmental colloquia, a list of notable funding opportunities, and links to other resources such as the seismology code repository developed by IRIS Data Services.

As a result of popular demand from the community, we continue to offer regular ECI-centric webinars, which focus on topics that span technical software tutorials, proper presentation of scientific lectures, how to navigate federal funding agencies, and best research-based teaching practices. The webinars are streamed live with interactive question-and-answer sessions and can be viewed on the IRIS Education and Public Outreach YouTube channel, where they are permanently archived. ECI-centric webinars have quickly become the most popular of all IRIS webinars.

A Course Repository for ECIs

Instructors invest a significant amount of time in proper course and curriculum preparation. This process is especially burdensome for ECIs who must develop courses for the first time. To ease the workload, the working group is building a curated community course repository with materials that will range from complete courses to individual exercises.

Through this repository, ECIs will be able to download a whole course on seismology, for instance, which would include lecture notes, homework, and test keys. Alternatively, they could augment an existing course by downloading an independent laboratory exercise about focal mechanisms or moment tensors, for instance. The repository, which will be housed on the IRIS website, will start with the course “Introduction to Seismology.” More advanced course materials will be added gradually once this example course is complete.

We plan to solicit course materials for other common classes that tenure-track ECIs teach during their first year, such as geodynamics or geophysics. An important component of this effort is that the repository database will initially be password protected, with the hope that full courses will be submitted for curation. As courses are improved by users and modifications are uploaded, we plan to turn highly downloaded courses into community-based courses that will be publicly available (minus any homework or test keys).

To our knowledge, such a teaching resource is unprecedented in academia, and its implementation will be closely monitored by IRIS and the ECI working group to evaluate its success.

Helping ECIs Form Collaborations

One of the most important tasks for ECIs’ career advancement involves reaching out to the greater geoscience community by dissemination of their research results and establishing collaborations at other institutions. Some of the best opportunities to do both arise from invitations from other departments to give colloquia talks, which allow researchers to present their work and have face-to-face time with potential collaborators.

However, ECIs are being shut out from these opportunities under the current economic climate, in which many universities are under strict budget constraints that rarely cover the travel costs of distant colloquium speakers. Furthermore, those who typically organize a department’s colloquia often fail to recognize ECIs as potential speakers because they lack name recognition. The lack of speaking opportunities not only hurts ECIs but also deprives departments of exposure to new blood and fresh ideas.

To address this challenge, the working group piloted two programs in 2014 to help ECIs develop new collaborations across the member institutions of the IRIS Consortium. In the inaugural year, five ECIs were awarded fund-matching lectureships to travel to another institution as a colloquium speaker, with extra time allotted (up to 1 week) to develop new collaborations. Under the second program, two ECIs were awarded extended stays of up to a month to collaborate with and learn from a senior scientist with complementary skills and give a colloquium talk.

The ECIs funded by the program reported that new collaborations were indeed established, which resulted in meaningful science and proposal opportunities. Of the five ECI colloquium speakers, three submitted proposals to the NSF, and one presented preliminary results at the 2014 Seismological Society of America meeting in Anchorage, Alaska. Two additional proposals were submitted to NSF by ECIs who had extended junior-senior scientist visits.

Moving Forward

Today’s ECI must understand the challenges that lie ahead, particularly given the weak domestic economic, government funding, and employment climate. Feedback from ECIs to working group organizers indicates that ECIs know too little about employment opportunities outside of academia and the energy industry. Additionally, ECIs request guidance and resources on how the skills and expertise acquired in graduate school are applicable to the widest range of careers. The IRIS ECI working group continues to address these topics through workshops at annual meetings and webinars.

ECIs have requested that IRIS develop a formal mentoring program that pairs young geoscientists with mentors within their discipline. Ideally, the program would be a tiered-mentor network that consists of an undergraduate student, graduate student, postdoctoral researcher, pretenure faculty, and senior scientist. Such a program is also ideal for a mentor-training program, which could be done within, or across, several NSF-funded programs (e.g., EarthScope, GeoPRISMS, or IRIS).

Expanding to Other Geoscience Disciplines

Many of the concerns and potential resources described here are not specific to the solid Earth sciences, and the activities we have described are transferable to other disciplines. Other geoscience organizations and consortiums should consider a focused effort to develop resources for ECIs.

Furthermore, it would be beneficial to develop interdisciplinary resources that many different scientific communities and networks can share. This “across the aisle” collaboration is particularly important in today’s increasingly limited funding environment, where collaborative research proposals that focus on interdisciplinary research are often more competitive.

The ECI working group is open to collaborations and partnerships with other consortiums, organizations, or groups to expand the reach of and increase the resources available to ECIs. We hope to work together to build a large-scale, geoscience-centric ECI organization to aid the success of ECIs, no matter what path they pursue.

Author Information

Harmony V. Colella, School of Earth and Space Exploration, Arizona State University, Tempe; previously at Department of Geological Sciences, Miami University of Ohio, Oxford; email: [email protected]; Derek L. Schutt, Department of Geosciences, Colorado State University, Fort Collins; and Danielle F. Sumy and Andrew M. Frassetto, Incorporated Research Institutions for Seismology (IRIS), Washington, D. C.

Citation: Colella, H. V., D. L. Schutt, D. F. Sumy, and A. M. Frassetto (2015), Helping early-career researchers succeed, Eos, 96, doi:10.1029/2015EO034965. Published on 8 September 2015.

© 2015. The authors. CC BY-NC 3.0
  • Deepak Dhingra

    Great article and resource. Thanks Harmony et al.

    I would also echo Anne’s thoughts and others who have similar experience. As another ‘gray haired’ postdoc with a child and wife who is a graduate student, I have been sifting thru material on the web and talking to people but apart from expressing concerns, I do not see a lot on the ground. As a ready example, in order for both me and my wife to be able to attend an international conference, we have been looking around for financial support to cover child care. Although there is a clear directive that child care expenses can be billed to federal grants as travel expenses, we are struggling to find adequate support. And this is just one of those hurdles in the career development for older ECIs.

  • Derek Schutt

    That’s great, thanks for sharing Mike. I’d love to see an AGU-wide ECI initiative one day. Do you know if UNOLS does any activities regarding career advice or teaching resources? I didn’t see any on the page.

    • Mike Prince

      It is probably inherent in some of the programs. I would suggest contacting the UNOLS Office directly for more on specific programs. [email protected]

  • Anne Nolin

    I would love to see the ECI group address issues of older, yet early career scientists. This is a growing area and one with different concerns than young EC scientists (families, ageist discrimination, lack of recognition). At the same time these older EC scientists bring great experience and diverse skills to the workplace.

    • OFBG

      Right with you, Anne. I can only add that I would have loved to see this sort of assistance when I was a younger ECI. At that time and even now, AGU’s emphasis has been on gender/ethnicity/racial “parity” rather than on assisting anyone and everyone at the start of their career. Indeed, “older” should have been part of the Union’s emphasis as well.

    • Derek Schutt

      Hi Anne, as one of several of the ECI group members with grey hair (and kids), I share your concerns. One thing I’m also concerned about is that older ECIs often have financial concerns and stresses different from younger ones. Feel free to email us with thoughts or comments, or even join us–we’re always looking for new members.

    • Harmony Colella

      Hi Anne,

      It is also worth mentioning that we don’t have an age-limit on our ECIs, they are simply defined by the point at which they are in their career. Derek and I are both “non-traditional” academics, albeit with different home lives. Additionally, I echo Derek’s statement to feel free to email us with your thoughts and comments. We are always looking for new/different ways to reach ECIs.