Dr Liam McLoughlin 26 May 2021

 

We talk with the current Communications Officer, Dr Liam McLoughlin, on what it means to be part of the Early Career Network Committee, and if you (yes you, the reader) should consider being on our new committee this year!

Since its foundation, the Early Career Network has been a vital institution of support for early career researchers (ECRs). We host events, we provide a space for networking and promotion of our members, we represent our members to the wider PSA, and more recently, we have been undertaking important work in measuring the impact of Covid-19 on ECRs. This work is undertaken by a team of five ECRs, just like you. The ECN’s committee members are those that run the whole show, with support of, but not controlled by, the wider PSA. It is a unique institution in the normally overly hierarchical world of academia. This summer all current committee members are finishing their two-year terms. This means, very shortly, there is an exciting opportunity for six (we're adding a new role) new ECRs to take up the mantle and shape the direction of one of the PSA’s shining jewels. In this interview, we hear from current Communication’s Officer, Dr Liam McLoughlin, about what it is like to be a member of the committee.

 

What made you want to become part of the ECN committee?

I had always been really impressed with the work of the ECN after joining the PSA as a fresh-faced first-year PhD student. I remember the first ECN event I went to was at the University of Manchester, on publishing I think, and it was extremely helpful in providing the types of information that don’t really pop up on doctoral schemes. Over the next year or so, I really came to appreciate the different types of training, often informal, that you get with a learned society focused towards ECRs. Most importantly, the ECN’s content was always relevant. It was not made and produced by some established academic 30 years into their career, but instead for and by people like me – and that provided some very appropriate and poignant tips to navigating the world of early career academia. So really, I wanted in my own way to give back and help develop that.

Obviously, I also had a bit of an agenda. One of my main complaints is that prominent research-intensive universities are well-represented in learned societies, while institutions like where I did my PhD at were not. So, I felt I could shift that around a little. As it turns out, the PSA was actually very receptive to that!

 

Can you give a profile of the work requirements?

As Communications Officer, you are the one that presents the ECN to the wider world. Which, when you think about it like that, can seem quite daunting. On the day-to-day basis I promote events, create e-newsletters, draw up communication schedules, engage with members on social media, promote bits of information that is useful to ECRs, and work with the PSA to get our blogs promoted on the main PSA channels.

But there is more to it than promoting just the work of the ECN. As someone with a sizable audience, you also have to think about how best you can use this to help your fellow ECRs. For example, how can you promote new academics and their research in a world that is already crowded with established high-profile researchers? At least once a day I’ll scan Twitter for members who’ve posted exciting news. I get really excited when I see others passing their viva or have gotten themselves their first publication, so I’ll use the ECN’s channels to share the joy. I’ll also work to encourage people to provide us with news that they want to promote, such as PGR events. After all, the ECN is here for our members.

On the more strategic level, you have to set the tone for all the above. Do you want to create a sense of authority by being stern and objective, or do you want to present the ECN in a more friendly and characterful way? A quick peak at the engagement statistics for what works and what does not also helps in shaping the tone of voice.

That being said, the role isn’t exactly rigid – and everyone in the committee gets their hands dirty when it comes to large ECN projects such as conferences, writing up the PhD guide, and so on. But in reality, the role is really what you make of it. Sure, you have a few objectives, but committees work best when they play on their member’s strengths, and I think that is something important to keep in mind.

In terms of time, we work quite flexibly with once-a-month meetings, with a set tasks for each committee member in-between. Obviously, there is a time commitment there (anywhere from 1-4 hours a week on average), but you will be working with people who are also ECRs, and thus understand how much time you will have to put into it. So, do not be worried about being forced to prioritise the ECN over your PhD.

 

What are you most proud of in your role?

I think there are three key achievements I am proud of that I’ve managed to do as the Communications Officer. The first is a bit of a culture shift. The I wanted the ECN to be a bit more fun, a little playful, and most importantly approachable. Academic societies portray a quite a serious and very authoritative tone, which can be unnerving to many PhD students, especially new ones. The ECN already had a softer approach, but I wanted to expand on it. So, especially on Twitter, I started playing around with memes, gifs, a bit more casual conversation, and providing supportive messages with members from the @PSA_ECN account and Facebook Group. The result was positive, and we have had a few messages about how people really came to appreciate the tone, so I’m happy about that.

The second has to be the #BecauseTheInternet Conference we hosted last year – without a doubt. During the pandemic, ECRs really struggled to access those all-important events that provided the space to get early feedback, networking, and presentation experience. So, we did what ECRs do best – we thought outside the box. We created our own conference platform on a shoestring budget that allowed us to provide a new and exciting way of conducing a digital conference – and because we kept it cheap, we were able to offer it for free to all participants across the globe. I had some prior experience in web marketing and was able to utilise them skills here to build the conference format and website. It really does show that within the PSA there is a space for those practical skillsets, and with a little creativity you can add something new! In the end, we had around 250 ECRs participate (we initially thought we would get something like 50), including some from as far as New Zealand, a significant number of experienced discussants, and we even managed to snag Pippa Norris for our keynote lecture! Again, the comments and feedback we got back from participants were overwhelmingly positive, and it was exciting to be part of that.

 

Having the oppertunity to build and organise an online events such as #BecauseTheInternet and #RAM21 has given me a bunch of skills I can take forward into my academic career!

The third is starting the process for the ECN to become a bit more audio-visually focused. This is something I wish I really had more time to change, and I hope it’ something the new Communications Officer can work on (see the below question on doing things differently). But I really do think that as we do more events online, social media profiles become forever more important for impact, and so on, that organisations such as the ECN should start to consider themselves part media organisations too. Thus, becoming a platform that we could use to promote our members and their research to a wider audience.  In that goal we have started to publish our members work and presentations on our YouTube channel, and we are slowly working on building up the profile of the ECN’s podcast, The Backbenchers.

But in sum, it is nice to say that in three years’ time, you will be able to still see some of the impacts you have made to an organisation. I’m sure it’s a feeling many other former committee members have when they look back at the ECN today, and It’s one I hope I can have in the future too.

 

Is there anything you would have done differently?

For sure, I doubt anyone can spend two-years in a role and not think of a few things they would do differently. First and foremost, would be putting more time into producing more ECN related media - from videos to podcasts. Sadly, I have been a bit time-poor in that regard, so something I have not had the opportunity to do.

The second regret is going to make the others laugh at me for being a bit soppy here, but I really wish I could have spent a bit more with the current committee. Lockdown made that more difficult – there is little opportunities for post-event drinks during a pandemic, and our plans to go on a tour of Westminster are also sadly postponed. But I genuinely have really enjoyed working with the rest of the ECN committee. From the former Events Officer, Nick D, to Heather, Nick T, Lawrence, Lyndsay, and our main liaison to the wider PSA, Jamie. Each of them has taught me something in their own way. I think the opportunity to give back to an organisation like the ECN really attracts a certain type of awesome person, so obviously it is a blessing to be in such company and I’d happily work with any one of them again in the future.

 

What skills do you think the next Communications Officer should have?

As an organisation ran for, and by, early career researchers, it is important to note that we do not expect committee members to have a pre-developed set of skills. But instead, rather the willingness to develop them. Thus, provided you are willing to learn, you can do the role.

So what are the skills I think someone should be prepared to learn to be the next ECN Communications Officer? Well, the ability to use social media is necessary, and the ability to start creating content in a way which is native to these platforms – So audio-visual: images, memes, videos and so on. These are skills that are becoming ever more important in the world of research impact, so I argue you should be considering these already. Another advantage would be some understanding of content management systems and webhosting. Our current conference platform was created with WordPress, so if you wanted to undertake another virtual conference learning that would be useful! But that isn’t to say having pre-existing skills isn’t a benefit already! Provided you can utilise them creatively, you most likely be given the space to add something new and unique to the ECN!

That being said, the Communications Officer role is ultimately a communications role. So, there will be the expectation that you will be comfortable speaking to a crowd (for post-lockdown events), speaking on camera or a microphone for multi-media, writing for large audiences, and posting on social media – all in a voice which isn’t necessarily your own

 

Being communications officer is primaraly a role where you can connect with people. Everything else you can learn, including some tricks and tips with social media platforms.

What benefits are there to being committee member?

I’ve already been a bit soppy and talked about how great it is to work in a team, so I’ll jump straight to brass-tax: there are clear objective benefits to your future career by being a committee member.

To start, there is the opportunity to learn some real skills. Not only those related to the communications role, but also what it’s like to be a committee member: navigating the structure of a learned society; organisational skills; and working within a committee. Most people will tell you these are all important proficiencies. Even what could be considered mundane, such as how to host and undertake a productive meeting by thinking in terms of objective goals, is a skill. These are certainly “soft” skills, but ones future employers will look for. It takes a lot to work as a team (specially in academia when we are trained as independent researchers), so being a committee member will certainly help you work better going on into the future, and make you a more attractive candidate.

The second is related to jobs again: profile. Within any sector, people will look towards those that act. In academia, they look to who is publishing, who is being noisy on social media, and who is seeking to actively promote the discipline through organisations such as the PSA. As such, being a committee member is a powerful statement about who you are; that you are active; and you are the type of person who has a bright future ahead of them! You just have to look at some of the successful career paths of some of our former PSA committee members!

Finally, not all benefits have been so inward facing. As Communications Officer, I really have felt that I have helped other ECRs, especially new PhD students, much in the same way I was helped. Therefore, there are certainly altruistic reasons to join the ECN committee, and in my tenure if I have helped just a few people navigate the dark and dangerous path of early career academia, then it has all been well worth it.

 

So you’d recommend others to apply to be the next Communications Officer of the ECN?

If I could go back in time and do it all again, I’d apply in an instant.

 

 

 

So hopefully you’re interested! What’s next?

If this post has worked as intended and inspired you to make a difference to other early career researchers in our subject area, then you need to apply!

If you are interested, you can see this page for further information on the nomination process.

Nominations are now open and will close on Friday 25th June, with elections held as necessary after that.

To nominate yourself or someone else (with their permission) please send an email to ecn@psa.ac.uk indicating the position that you or the nominee wish to stand for along with a short (200 words maximum) statement on why you or the nominee are suitable for the post and wish to stand for it.

I’m also available for a quick chat on a one-to-one basis if you have any further questions on the role. I’m available over at @leelum on Twitter, or you can email questions over to l.mcloughlin@bbk.ac.uk