Supporting early career researchers

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Over the past twelve months a colleague and I have embarked on a challenge together, that is to co edit a book that provides a voice for early career women in higher education. We had been on a journey ourselves and found reflective practice and seeking social support rewarding as we decoded expectations and ways of working and wanted to share a version of this through the book. For me, I also wanted to give back to the academia and those embarking on a career in it. Through giving opportunities to colleagues to publish and share their lived experiences was a key driver for the creation of the book.

This week the book was published through Sense Publishers. Here is a quick little snap shot of the opening….

When you start teaching at a university, there is no handbook on what to do. (Mueller, 2003)


Beginning the conversation

We first met as researchers at a conference. Over a coffee break we shared experiences of being younger female academics. Our stories were similar. We soon realised that our discomforts amongst the discourse of academia were shared.

In our own personal observations we had noticed a shift from the rawness of our own experiences and moving towards noticing practices of women’s participation in universities. There is a need to understand the practices and heightened awareness of the need to decipher, decode and begin to understand further the rhetoric that is academia.

Although we were both aware of reports that highlighted that more women than men were enrolling in universities in Australia and New Zealand, and particularly in professional schools such as law, medicine, education, and business management, we were mildly discomforted because we recognised that numbers of women as deans, professors, senior administrators, heads of school and (fulltime and permanent) lecturers wee not subject to the same statistical shifts. (Fitzgerald & Wilkinson, 2010, p.7)

As Fitzgerald & Wilkinson (2010) reflect in their considered work on gender, leadership and higher education, there is some resonance with the complicated intertwining of academia and the complexities that is required when one is an academic. The challenges and complexities are not just situated within the higher education structures and policy practices and implementations; there is indeed a layering of what women do to women in this environment.

This reflection is not about, nor has it ever been about, exclusivity, gender bias or rights. It is about moving forward, is supporting one another to be the best we can be in an environment that is at the best of times turbulent to maneuver. This book is about a network of women who as a collective and individuals can share their stories to indeed help themselves as well as others. Our stories assist in the telling and retelling of important events. Reflecting on these events allow the ‘processing’, ‘figuring out’ and ‘inquiring’, leading to behavioural actions to change situations.

Our reflections offer embodied ways of looking at our work as academics and how we undertake our multiple roles within this context. The fact that we are women unites us as we have common elements with our roles both within academia, in our families, and in society. All of us are juggling multiple identities and roles within our personal and professional worlds. All of us value sharing. Our connecting “with self and the identities that we carry merges past, present and future, histories and memories. It is not about self-importance, self-reference or perfecting self” (Fitzgerald, 2014, p.107), rather it is about ongoing self-awareness, monitoring, and evaluation.

All of the authors of this book are familiar with academia. All ‘are’ or ‘have’ gone through the process of undertaking doctoral research. Some authors are working within the academy in different roles – part time, full time, causally, researching, teaching, administering, leading, or supporting. All authors feel aspects of being “in” and “out”. The feeling of being “in” and “out” comes from “newcomers who join an established and homogeneous group” (Fitzgerald, 2014, p. 85) and in some ways the tension of being new is not visible due to the camouflage of having been in academia previously and being able to act the part. It is the quiet spaces between the pressures and familiarity of academia and that allows a community of women to form.

The authors in the chapter all desire a sense of belonging. All authors describe experiences of entering the higher education environment and trying to actively search for information, relationships and advice to support their belonging. While search, the authors also describe navigating institutional politics and group dynamics.

The authors also share multiple identities. There are layers of PhD student, active researcher, teacher, leader, academic or professional staff. As Fitzgerald (2014) and Kaner (1993) reiterate, academics constantly scrutinize to see if they fit within a group and organisation. There is a “risk of being isolated”(Fitzgerald, 2014, p. 85) if you are not acting how others expect you to act.

“Establishing or belonging to a supportive and trustworthy network of women leaders can lesson feelings of loneliness and isolation” (Fitzgerald, 2014, p.106). These networks offer an opportunity for social exchange where “reciprocal and trust can be built around informal relationships and professional obligations” (p.106). There is a safe place and a space created and grown that allows for the sharing of experiences, creating ideas, and reflecting about actions. In the creation of this book, a community formed through these practices. As Fitzgerald reinforces, women “participate in ongoing informal networks that [rely] on a range of self-directed and self-selected activities such as meeting colleagues for a coffee, seeking out colleagues in similar roles” (p.106).

All the authors come from different positions with academia – they are in, out, moving in, moving out or a combination of being in and out. Some of the authors share insights where they are positioned within the ‘third space’ of academia (Whitchurch, 2008); that is employed in academic development roles in central teaching and learning units in universities. The conceptualising of this space offers a blurring of perceptions and identities as academics and professional staff and thus this continually contested and problematic space (Land, 2008; Handal, 2008) forces those who work in this space to continually reflect upon identity. These lived experiences provided different lived experiences for us to consider when paralleled to most of the authors who are teacher educators or work in the field of education within industry. Becoming a teacher educator is often filled with tension. As teachers enter graduate school, they often make the transition to the role of teacher educator with little formal support from the university institution for continuing development (Cochran-Smith, 2003; Korthagen, Loughran, & Lunenberg, 2005). Thus, the socialization from a school teacher to teacher educator is filled with tension, as teachers attempt to re-establish their identity within their new roles with new expectations. In this book, many are dealing with the change in identity. Dall’Alba (2009, p. 34) believed that, “the transformation of the self is integral to achieving such practice”. The transformation requires more than just simple programming to teach particular things in particular ways. Rather, there must be a sense of openness that ‘being’ is not predetermined by a tertiary institution or government and that the purpose of education is necessarily one of forming an identity (Novinger & O’Brien, 2003).

The women in this study share their narratives in an open dialogue. Their journey into and out of academia is constructed from “a metaphorical three-dimensional inquiry space” (Clandinin & Connelly, 2000, p. 50). The space enables the authors to capture and communicate the emotional nature of lived experiences (Clandinin & Connelly, 2000). The self-studies explore the changes in social and contextual approaches that are attached to working and studying in higher education.. The book provides a narrative of the “ups” and “downs” that female academics have individually and collectively encountered.

Researching one’s practice provides opportunities to uncover understanding about the complex relations between learning and teaching, and how such knowledge can be enacted (Loughran, 2007). It also allows the exploration of leadership. This narrating and engagement in the practice of story telling offers “social interaction that other modes of communication do not” (Riessman, 2008, p.8). . Individuals are able to construct their identities through storytelling and thus “encourage others to act” (Riessman, 2008, p.8). Through self-study researchers recognize that, “there is an important relationship between personal growth and understanding and public discourse about that understanding” (Bullough & Pinnegar, 2001, p. 15). This is how the authors of this book have approached sharing their stories.

In our role as academics we see ourselves as ongoing learners. We learn, teach and use reflective and metacognitive processes (Wilson & Clarke, 2004). This space is where we as authors position the importance of self-study. Self-study through reflective practice is the thoughtful, systematic, critical, exploration of the complexity of one’s own learning and teaching practice (Samaras & Freese, 2006). We live, tell, retell, and relive our life stories (Clandinin & Connelly, 2000) as we negotiate our selves within and across various contexts. This book reports on the reflective self-study of thirteen early career researchers who engage in reflection on their career trajectory ‘in’ and ‘out’ of the academic profession. Authors include:

  • Individuals wanting to enter into academia after completion of doctoral studies.
  • Individuals already working in academia and undertaking their doctoral work.
  • Individuals seeking balance within the early stages of being in the academy.
  • Individuals who have chosen to change institutions and locations (national and international)
  • Individuals who have chosen to leave altogether.

All use Schwab’s flights from the field. The flights from the field act as an interpretive tool revealing similarities, differences and tensions through the perceived experience of academic life in Australia.

Schwab, through, his deep commitment to his personal pedagogy and his unwavering support of ‘‘teachers…looking at their own practices and the consequences of them’’ (Schwab, 1959/1978, p.168) resonates with the authors of this book. The thirteen early career researchers align themselves to this way of thinking as both come from teaching fields within education and are now working as academics in teacher education in universities located in Australia. As a self-study Schwab (1969) informs the method used in this inquiry with a focus on understanding all educational situations in terms of four interacting commonplaces; subject matter, learner, milieu and teacher (Schwab, 1970).

In this self-study, the experience of being early career researchers unites the authors. All have been individually reflective on their roles and experiences and have engaged in conversations with and in some cases between each other and as a collective about what they have learnt. Connecting the authors is also a key goal of becoming well-rounded academics, learning from others and focusing on building research profiles within the higher education context. All are focused on being well-rounded individuals that is explicitly looking at how we take care of ourselves personally and professionally while we maneuver being early career researchers.

This shift prompted the authors to ponder the practical and to connect with our feelings of excitement and trepidation in this climate where much is invested in the success of being an active researcher. The authors were interested to explore their career trajectory so far as a female within the academy that was confronted with many problems. Schwab believed that such problems were slippery to grasp because they ‘intrinsically involve states of character and the possibly of character change’ (p. 3). Flights are “not all or equally reprehensible” (1969, p.4). Rather, they can be positive and/or negative and can take many paths. Schwab (1970) identified six flights from the field. These included:

  • General flight from the field (‘A translocation of its problems and the solving of them from the nominal practitioners of the field to other men’ (p.17)).
  • Flight upward (‘from theory to metatheory and from metatheory to meta-metatheory’ (p.17)).
  • Flight downward (‘an attempt by practitioners to return to the subject matter in a state of innocence, shorn not only of principles but of all principles, in an effort to take a new, pristine, 
and unmediated look at the subject matter’ (p.17)).
  • Flight to the sidelines (‘to the role of observer, commentator, historian, and critic of the contributions of others’ (p.17)).
  • Flight with marked preservation (‘a repetition of old and familiar knowledge in new languages which add little or nothing to the old meanings embodied’ (p.17)).
  • Flight (debate that is ‘eristic and contentious…[with] warfare of words among contending exponents of [for example], different theories of personality’ (p. 18)).

Each author collected data over the space of 12 months by writing reflective notes and thoughts about their place in academia and their positioning as early career researchers. A framework guided the narratives shared:

  1. General flight – experiences that contribute to you want to enter/entering academia.
  2. Flight upwards – opportunities that are exciting in your career trajectory/what is inspiring.
  3. Flight downward – the challenges/barriers/questions you ask about experiences, lack of opportunities or how you have been treated/or seen others been treated.
  4. Flight to sideline – moment(s) when you have stepped to the side to observe, reflect and reconsider how to look after yourself or reconsider where you are heading and what you would like to achieve.
  5. Flight of perseveration – looking after you and your needs as a women in academia/trying to enter academia.
  6. Final flight – where to next, what do you want to achieve, what strategies help you in focusing on yourself and your career?

Ways Forward

Part of the process for the way forward has been to create a community of practice for early career females. This is the creation of this book that has allowed women to come together and share stories. The term “CoP” is defined as a purposeful social structure where teachers regularly come together to work for the collective benefit of students (Lave & Wenger, 1991).

Using a collaborative approach this project has become more common-place as both a top-down and bottom-up initiative to allow greater understanding of experience. As a recognized key strategy for improving practice (Fullan, 1993), CoP and the resultant collaborative practices have been implemented as a part of school improvement initiatives. These initiatives have been seen as a means of improving outcomes through shared learning and individual and collective development of the community members (Fullan, 1993). Making these stories known establishes a sense of collaboration and community. This action serves to perpetuate and further develop the established pedagogy and look to improve practice. A community practice seeks to locate the learning in the process of co-participation (building social capital) and not just within individuals (Hanks, 1991). It allows females to come together to share experience and discuss ways forward.


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Clandinin, D. J., & Connelly, F. M. (2000). Narrative inquiry: Experience and story in qualitative research. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Cochran-Smith. M. (2003). Learning and unlearning: The education of teacher educators. Teaching and Teacher Education, 19, 5-28.

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Fullan, M. (1993). Change Forces: Probing the Depths of Educational Reform. London: Falmer Press.

Handal, G. (2008). Identities of academic developers: Critical friends in the academy? In R. Barnett & R. Di Napoli (Eds.), Changing Identities in Higher Education: Voicing Perspectives (pp. 55-68). Abingdon: Routledge.

Hanks, W. F. (1991). Foreword. In J. Lave, & E. Wenger (Eds.), Situated learning: Legitimate peripheral participation (pp. 13-24). Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.

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Land, R. (2008). Academic Development: Identity and Paradox. In R. Barnett & R. Di Napoli (Eds.), Changing Identities in Higher Education: Voicing Perspectives (pp. 134–144). Abingdon: Routledge.

Lave, J. & Wenger, E. (1991): Situated learning: legitimate peripheral participation, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.

Loughran, J. (2007). Researching teacher education practices: Responding to the challenges, demands, and expectations of self-study. Journal of Teacher Education, 58(1), 12-20.

Mason, J. (2002). Researching your own Practice: The discipline of noticing, London & New York: Routledge and Falmer.

Novinger, S., & O’Brien, J. (2003). Beyond “boring, meaningless, shit” in the academy: Early childhood teacher educators under the regulatory gaze. Contemporary Issues in Early Childhood, 4(1), 3-31.

Riessman, C.K. (2008). Narrative methods for the human sciences. Los Angeles: Sage Publications.

Sameras, A., & Freese, A. (2006). Self-study of teaching practices. New York: Peter Lang.

Schwab, J.J. (1969). College curriculum and student protest. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Schwab, J. J. (1970). The practical: A language for curriculum. Washington, DC: National Education Association, Center for the Study of Instruction.

Schwab, J.J. (1978). Science, curriculum, and liberal education. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Whitchurch, C. (2008). Shifting Identities and Blurring Boundaries: the Emergence of Third Space Professionals in UK Higher Education. Higher Education Quarterly, 62(4), 377–396.

Wilson, J., & Clarke, D. (2004). Towards the modelling of mathematical metacognition. Mathematics Education Research Journal, 16(2), 25-48.





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