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What's in a name?

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What's in a name?

EMCR. It stands for early- and mid-career researcher, and it’s an acronym we often see floating around in academia. It’s something we use to label ourselves, and something that I think helps to shape and define our identity as researchers. Over the past few years I have often found myself identifying as an early career researcher. But recently it’s been suggested to me that I’m not – that instead I should be talking about myself as a mid-career researcher.

Which left me wondering: where do I fit on the EMCR spectrum – and who gets to decide?

I often see early-career researcher defined in grant and award guidelines as someone up to 5 years post-PhD. A common mid-career definition is somewhere between 5 and 15 years post-PhD. Sounds pretty clear cut.

The thing is, rarely are any of our career paths so straightforward that we move straight from PhD into full time employment and follow this neat road from PhD to researcher. For example, I received my PhD six and a half years ago. So by common definition that would put me into the mid-career stage. However, for the first two years following that I focussed first on raising a baby, and then moved into part-time casual work. Now, for the last four and a half years, I have been a full time academic. Which would still slot me into being an early career academic if you just consider the time spent working.

See, it’s confusing!

So am I an early-career researcher, or a mid-career researcher? Right now, I’m not sure that I’m either. I think I’m in a weird transition space between the two. Growing out of the early years, but not yet quite accepting of the mid-career label.

I think, in some ways, I want to hold on to the title of early-career researcher for the sense of security. If I’m early in my career, no one can expect too much of me, right? I’m still finding my way, experimenting. I’m not expected to have all the answers. But mid-career researcher – that sounds a little more scary! That sounds like I should really have it all together. That I should really know what I’m doing, and where I’m going. That I should have reached a certain level of maturity. Honestly, it makes me feel like I should have achieved a lot more than I have. And, quite frankly, the mid-career researcher title also makes me feel old – something my inner child is rebelling against!

On the other hand, maybe it’s time for me to accept that I’ve moved into the mid-career stage. After all, I have achieved many of the things I consider to be hallmarks of that career stage in my colleagues. I have a stable academic job, with an established research program. I supervise post-graduate students. I’ve published a substantial number of papers. I mentor newer academic members of staff (the real ECRs?). Maybe I need to own my achievements more and embrace that label of mid-career researcher.

At the end of the day, I think how we define ourselves comes down more to our own state of mind than to numbers. Some days I really do feel like I’m still so new to this game. Other days I feel like an old hand. Maybe one day I’ll be able to define myself for confidently. But in the meantime, I might just take a leaf out of Facebook's book, and say “it’s complicated.”

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Published on: Nov 19, 2019

Lecturer in Biomedical Science, University of New England, Armidale - BSc (Hons), PhD, Grad Cert Tertiary Education
See more from Mary McMillan


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