Students and early-career professionals (S&ECPs) in scientific disciplines and other fields constitute the proverbial “next generation” of emerging experts taking charge to tackle major questions and challenges facing society, from climate change to environmental justice. These individuals often encounter a variety of barriers as they establish their careers, such as a lack of community, toxic work environments, or an absence of institutional resources to support professional and personal needs [Gin et al., 2021; Berhe et al., 2022].
These barriers can compound the stress of working in a competitive and heavy-workload environment. Unsurprisingly, studies have found that mental health issues such as depression, anxiety, and loneliness are prevalent among Ph.D. students [e.g., Gin et al., 2021]. Such experiences can have lasting impacts on individuals, including loss of confidence, and they may drive the departure of creative and skilled S&ECPs from science disciplines.
In contrast, having a positive sense of one’s career trajectory, a sense of belonging within an institution, and a positive departmental environment can remedy S&ECPs’ distress and contribute to career success and personal well-being, particularly for those from marginalized and racialized backgrounds [Charles et al., 2022; Gin et al., 2021; Fisher et al., 2019; Brunsma et al., 2017; Johnson-Bailey et al., 2008]. S&ECP-led groups and collectives—formed at departmental, institutional, and even international levels—can fundamentally foster positive outcomes. In some organizations, they already do.
As students and early-career researchers in the geosciences ourselves, we have benefited from the community and resources provided by S&ECP groups, and we believe that institutions should offer substantial and long-term support for efforts to initiate and maintain such groups.
The Many Benefits of Student and Early-Career Groups
S&ECP groups empower individuals, especially those from marginalized and underrepresented populations, giving them a sense of belonging in settings where they have traditionally felt excluded. These groups do this in part by driving inclusive and equitable change as they share knowledge and insights into the hidden curriculum of implicit (and often biased) rules, expectations, and norms that prevails in academic and scientific cultures.
On 14 November 2022, 48,000 student workers, student researchers, and allies walked out of University of California campuses, arguing for fair wages, more support for childcare benefits, and improved job security. Ninety-eight percent of student union members supported the walkout, demonstrating a powerful collective voice. Their efforts received sustained national attention well into the protest, resulting in wage increases of up to 80% and improved benefits to cover childcare expenses and health care costs, as well as job security for postdoctoral employees.
S&ECP groups further empower people by providing spaces for community building. For example, in the Young Earth System Scientists (YESS), an international and transdisciplinary group of S&ECPs working in Earth system sciences, members can “work with like-minded scientists across the globe, stimulating many thoughts and ideas,” according to Gaby Langendijk, a former executive committee member of YESS. A 2014 report on graduate student well-being by the Graduate Assembly at the University of California, Berkeley, found that “social support” and “feeling valued and included” were among the top predictors of student well-being. Graduate students reported a desire for regular social activities, especially for affinity groups (e.g., students of color, LGBTQIA+ students, parents, etc.), to improve wellness. S&ECP groups help meet this need.
S&ECP groups can also offer spaces to self-advocate for professional development by facilitating both peer mentorship and engagement with more senior professionals and mentors through panels and workshops and by creating or collating resources for S&ECPs. For example, the AGU Hydrology Section Student Subcommittee (H3S) and the National Science Policy Network (NSPN) provide training, learning, and networking opportunities.
“H3S hosts many events…where you can chat with hydrologists from around the globe,” according to H3S alum Abby McCarthy, allowing for collective knowledge to be shared. These events include webinars on navigating academic jobs and town halls about engaging in diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives. H3S has also hosted cyber seminars with the Consortium of Universities for the Advancement of Hydrologic Science, Inc. (CUAHSI) since 2019. These seminars, which typically draw hundreds of viewers, have focused primarily on professional development, including preparing applications for tenure-track and nonacademic jobs and essential skills and issues for S&ECPs like writing, data management, and mental health.
William Ota, the national chair-elect of NSPN, said that NSPN provides support by offering “classes on science policy, paid fellowships to apply science policy skills, and events on various topics to expose S&ECPs to the many areas of need within the policy world for their skills.”
The Importance of Organization and Support
Despite their many benefits, S&ECP groups are not always found in universities, government agencies, and other institutions. In our experiences as former and current leaders of such groups, the inadequate availability of resources—specifically time, funding, and guidance—is often a hurdle to establishing S&ECP groups.
On the basis of our experiences and informal surveys of members of other groups, we’ve observed that the relatively short tenures of individuals as students and early-career professionals—before they “graduate” out of the category—also create hurdles to starting and maintaining groups across generations of members or after the founders have left. Creating an organizational hierarchy, with leadership or an executive committee, provides accountability for transferring knowledge to succeeding group members. YESS, H3S, and other sustained S&ECP groups use this model.
In groups with many participants, creating subcommittees within the larger group structure can provide the necessary organization to focus on and achieve distinct goals across multiple key tenets, such as outreach; professional development; and justice, diversity, equity, and inclusion. Depending on the size and scope of an S&ECP organization, regional or domain representatives can enable the group to tailor resources and services to S&ECPs in different communities. The Young Hydrologic Society, for example, has branches in Canada and several European countries as well as student representatives around the globe, allowing the organization to serve regional communities appropriately.
In addition to efficient organization, the success and longevity of S&ECP groups require significant external support, financial and otherwise. Guaranteed financial support allows groups, for example, to organize consistent programming for members, including social events and networking opportunities, and to offer honoraria for panel and workshop speakers. Zach Butler, a member of the Oregon State University Hydrophile Graduate Student Group, noted that funding from both internal university sources and external sources is key to the group’s success in hosting activities, such as student research symposia.
Nonmonetary support includes, for example, access to institutional leadership engaged in providing guidance, advocacy, and promotion for the continued success of S&ECP groups. “Having a leadership champion who is a true believer in our mission has ignited our drive and ability to continue,” Leslie Kinnas and Alexis Wolfe, cochairs of NOAA’s Professional Early-career Engagement Roundtable, an employee resource group supporting early-career professionals in the agency, said jointly.
Important forms of support also include the recognition, by senior faculty, institutional leaders, or those in power, of the importance of integrating S&ECP groups and their members into steering organizations and major projects. The World Climate Research Programme has included S&ECPs in planning new Lighthouse Activities, for example, and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change involved S&ECPs in group reviews for its Sixth Assessment Report [Gulizia et al., 2020]. In addition, AGU’s Hydrology section formally created a committee dedicated to addressing diversity, equity, and inclusion within the section after H3S released a white paper in 2020 calling for the section leadership to provide a framework for creating an equitable and diverse space where all hydrologists can participate and thrive.
Creating and Maintaining Support Groups
Success in academia and science broadly is driven in part by individuals’ sense of belonging, agency, and support in their community. S&ECP groups provide valuable spaces where people starting their careers can foster such support and self-agency and can share information and experiences. Creating and sustaining these spaces with limited resources is challenging, and thus support from mentors and institutions is crucial.
As a start, we recommend that institutions begin codifying support for S&ECP groups into bylaws or policies and allocating recurring budgets for these groups’ use. And we encourage institutions and departments to recognize and reward the labor of mentors who help create spaces for S&ECPs. This labor can be recognized by counting it toward service requirements and promotion considerations. We further suggest developing mentorship groups that involve all career stages, especially midcareer researchers who are 5–10 years beyond their Ph.D. completion, as these individuals often have valuable guidance—informed by their own recent experiences—for S&ECPs. Recognizing that the midcareer stage can be particularly busy for academics, the approach of creating multistage mentorship groups balances the added burden placed on midcareer researchers with the tendency for mentorship to come predominantly from late-career individuals.
S&ECP groups should be initiated by students and early-career professionals themselves. Although time is always in short supply, especially for individuals with other commitments (e.g., to children, family, or part-time work), we encourage those with time to spare to do the heavy lifting and lead the organizing. Other S&ECPs have a vital role to play in supporting organizers by attending and promoting group events and resources. And if you feel that a group is not serving your needs, you should speak up! S&ECP group organizers often spend hours generating ideas for services and events for the community—providing these groups with feedback is valuable and often much appreciated. Last, when the opportunity presents itself, advocate to your peers and colleagues about the importance of these groups because many S&ECPs have found it rewarding to be part of a group.
Ultimately, we want our community to recognize the power that students and early-career professionals have. Researchers from all career stages can work together to achieve a more inclusive, supportive, productive, and collaborative community in which we all can thrive.
Berhe, A. A., et al. (2022), Scientists from historically excluded groups face a hostile obstacle course, Nat. Geosci., 15, 2–4, https://doi.org/10.1038/s41561-021-00868-0.
Brunsma, D. L., D. G. Embrick, and J. H. Shin (2017), Graduate students of color: Race, racism, and mentoring in the white waters of academia, Sociol. Race Ethnicity, 3(1), 1–13, https://doi.org/10.1177/2332649216681565.
Charles, S. T., M. M. Karnaze, and F. M. Leslie (2022), Positive factors related to graduate student mental health, J. Am. Coll. Health, 70(6), 1,858–1,866, https://doi.org/10.1080/07448481.2020.1841207.
Fisher, A. J., et al. (2019), Structure and belonging: Pathways to success for underrepresented minority and women PhD students in STEM fields, PLoS ONE, 14(1), e0209279, https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0209279.
Gin, L. E., et al. (2021), PhDepression: Examining how graduate research and teaching affect depression in life sciences PhD students, CBE Life Sci. Educ., 20(3), ar41, https://doi.org/10.1187/cbe.21-03-0077.
Gulizia, C., et al. (2020), Towards a more integrated role for early career researchers in the IPCC process, Clim. Change, 159(1), 75–85, https://doi.org/10.1007/s10584-019-02604-5.
Johnson-Bailey, J., et al. (2008), Lean on me: The support experiences of Black graduate students, J. Negro Educ., 77(4), 365–381, https://www.jstor.org/stable/25608705.
Paige Becker (firstname.lastname@example.org), Oregon State University, Corvallis; Danyka Byrnes, University of Waterloo, Ont., Canada; Caitlyn Hall, University of Arizona, Tucson; and Yuhan Rao, North Carolina Institute for Climate Studies, Asheville