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Lonely early-career researchers seek kindred spirits on Twitter

An increasing number of early-career researchers are joining a popular Twitter chat to connect with their peers around the world—often because they feel isolated in their institutions.

So says the co-funder of #ECRchat, which focuses on issues of particular interest to early-career researchers. By using the hashtag, anyone can observe or participate in the chat on Twitter.

Katie Wheat, a postdoctoral researcher in psychology at Maastricht University, founded #ECRchat in July 2012 with Hazel Ferguson, a postdoc based at Southern Cross University in Australia. She says the challenges of moving to a different environment, taking on new research responsibilities and possibly leaving family or a partner behind are among the issues raised most often by participants.

“There’s often solid support for PhDs within a department or institution, but by the time you get to be a postdoc, sometimes this support falls away,” Wheat says. “People find it reassuring, when they join the chat, to see that others are struggling with similar issues.”

The chat is run live for an hour every second Thursday and has, in its first year and two months, involved 400 active participants. Researchers host discussions on topics that range from taking parental leave to negotiating intellectual-property issues in research teams. The host usually then sums up discussions in a post on the #ECRchat blog, which Wheat says averages about 1,000 hits each month.

The chat that attracted the highest number of participants, Wheat says, was about careers outside academia. The second-most-popular chat was about perfectionism and the imposter syndrome, a phenomenon causing people to think that they are frauds and undeserving of the recognition they receive.

Anne Osterrieder, a researcher in plant cell biology and science communication fellow at Oxford Brookes University, as well as an active user of social media, says the discussions and blog help her to cope with responsibilities such as writing grant proposals and teaching.

“#ECRchat is a place where I can find information and advice relevant to my career stage and connect with people who are at a similar stage,” she says. “And because of its public nature, others can join in the conversation at any time and might offer novel perspectives. It is interesting to hear how researchers from other disciplines face similar challenges or approach things in a different way.”