Lawrence McKay 28 May 2021

 

We talk with the current Treasurer, Dr Lawrence McKay, 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, and represent our members to the wider PSA. This work is undertaken by a team of 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. This summer, each of the six roles on the committee will become vacant meaning that there is an exciting opportunity for 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 Treasurer, Dr Lawrence McKay, about what it is like to be a member of the committee.

 

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

Number one, I thought the ECN had already done a lot for me as a PhD student. Their small conferences and workshops – often local to me and at no cost other than the train fare – were a great environment for learning about what it takes to be a successful ECR. The committee members created a supportive environment at events – nothing was a silly question – and seemed like they really cared. As brilliant scholars in their own right, they showed there was no trade-off between this kind of academic service and conventional success – publications, grants and so on – and convinced me that this position in a renowned organisation like the PSA would count for something on the job market. There was some cajoling involved but in many ways it was an easy sell!

 

Can you give a profile of the work requirements?

The Treasurer role does have some specific responsibilities attached. The ECN gets an annual budget from the PSA for each calendar year. Your task is 1) to ensure that your budget measures up to your needs and 2) to make sure that the budget is spent responsibly throughout the year. So, around October each year, you have to draw up a budget request to be reviewed at the PSA Executive Committee. This isn’t a long document but it requires some preparatory work and careful judgment. What events do we intend to put on over that period, how will their costs shake out and how can we show that concisely? Managing the budget is little day-to-day work but around events you will need to ensure we are getting the best value for money in terms of venues, catering, and so on.

 

So this isn’t a role with constant demands on your time, but you will be expected to participate in other ways. Around events – such as last year’s #BecauseTheInternet conference – you might be tasked with reviewing paper submissions, while someone else handles inviting panel chairs. Between events, you might want to maintain the sense of an ECN presence by publishing blogs – such as my own series on the state of the academic job market during Covid-19. Really, this role is what you make of it – the low baseline means you have a lot of scope to be proactive and improve what the ECN offers.

 

What are you most proud of in your role?

I feel something I have personally brought to the ECN is making it almost more of a research institution in itself. Number one, I always thought we could only represent our members if we understood them better. For example, I designed a member survey which showed a number of fascinating things – for example, the ECN has a 50:50 split between British and foreign nationals – which has guided our work ever since. Furthermore, I thought we also needed to equip members to better understand the reality of things in academia today and highlight the severe problems for the people that could make a difference. We have shown the severe disruptions caused by Covid-19 to the academic job market and used this to build a credible case for how ECRs can be better supported. While this took some effort, it also allowed me to indulge my tendencies as an unapologetic data bro!

 

There's more to being treasurer than just protecting the Network's bank!

 

Is there anything you would have done differently?

I wish I had joined earlier!

 

What skills do you think the next Treasurer should have?

You definitely don’t need to be a numbers brain for this job, but you do need to be someone who is good at weighing up cost and benefits and perhaps more broadly practical. That doesn’t just go for the budget, but for everything else you do on committee. As one of the few groups working specifically for ECRs, there are a lot of needs that the ECN can potentially fill, but it can’t do everything and if you are willing to be realistic with your team members and more importantly to yourself, you will maximise the impact of the things you can do. 

 

What benefits are there to being a committee member?

 Number one: on a PhD, or in a full-time research job, it can be great to have some diversion. The intense focus on one thing over a very long period – with no guaranteed payoff – can be highly stressful. For me the ECN helped fill that space, especially as it created a more manageable set of tasks, resulting in more regular moments of fulfilment in a job well done.

 

Number two: when I only had one publication to my name it was certainly handy to have ECN experience to sprinkle through my cover letter, for a couple of reasons. First, it is more and more important to show you can create impact, and if you can deliver events and work with a stakeholder like the PSA that counts for something. Second, in reading applications some people are looking for intangible virtues such as collegiality and a public-service spirit. I’d guess that if you are interested in non-academic jobs – such as uni admin jobs or third sector work – something like the ECN, which is obviously a team endeavour and which teaches useful organisational skills – is even more valuable and gives you something a PhD normally doesn’t.

 

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

Definitely! If you want to make a difference for other ECRs, this is a great way to do it.

 

Interested in a role on the ECN? Make sure you check out our call for nominations and, if you want to know more, feel free to approach Lawrence at l.a.mckay@soton.ac.uk.