Transitioning from Early-Career Researcher to Mid-Career Researcher

Recently I’ve been thinking about the transition from being an early-career researcher (ECR) to a mid-career researcher (MCR). Six months ago I finished my UTS Chancellor’s Postdoctoral Research Fellowship, which funded me for three years at the Centre for Health Economics Research and Evaluation. The idea of these fellowships is to transition early career researchers into independent, mid-career researchers. The CPDRF has a number of objectives, two of which are particularly relevant to this idea of shifting from ECR to MCR:

  • To attract and retain talented and high-achieving postdoctoral research fellows, within 5 years of the award of their PhD, who have an outstanding track record or who show evidence of excellent research potential.
  • To develop a broad range of research, engagement and communication skills in the Fellows that will equip them to become the next generation of excellent early career and mid-career researchers at UTS

When I started the fellowship this seems like the perfect fit for my career but was still quite daunting. Having completed my PhD and a post-doc in Ireland, I had been lucky enough to work with some great senior health economists, but now I needed to step up to become an independent researcher in my own right. I felt pressure to live up to the potential that had been seen in me, and a need to start demonstrating achievements.

Now that I’ve finished the fellowship, have I become a mid-career researcher? And if so, what should this look like as I plan my research and professional development in my new position, a continuing academic position with a mix of research and teaching?

I have been trying to understand what an MCR looks like, and have realised that it is a somewhat nebulous concept.

The definitions of ECR and MCR in grant schemes and professional organisations are not very helpful, as they focus on time since PhD, rather than performance (eg: ARC Future Fellows and Victorian Cancer Agency MCR Fellowships and the Australian Academy of Science). To make it even more confusing, different organisations have different definitions, so although I’m no longer an ECR if you use the 5-year post-PhD cut-off, for some schemes I am still an ECR as I’m less than 10 years post-PhD.

Perhaps it is not time so much, as what a MCR does that is different to an ECR? Is there something fundamentally different about an MCR’s research or role, or does an MCR simply do the same things as an ECR, just to a higher standard? The typical aspects on which an ECR is judged include undertaking research which is both excellent and original, having strong networks, and undertaking service roles for the University and the broader community. Perhaps an MCR simply does better research, has broader networks and contributes more to the community.

One of my mentors had a nice suggestion – he thought the main things an MCR should do that are not required of an ECR are demonstrating impact and leadership. So a MCR should be able to demonstrate that their work has relevance and can change practice, whether that be clinical, policy, or research methods. In relation to leadership, a MCR should be starting to lead teams, which might include Masters or PhD students, research assistants, or a group of peers on a research project.

Another mentor proposed that as you become more senior your research ideas must grow larger. So that as an MCR it is no longer enough to work alone on a small project, and your research ideas should be large enough to require a team to implement and ensure impact.

Overall, I still feel like I’m still evolving from an early-career researcher to a mid-career researcher. I’ve realised there is no blueprint for what an excellent mid-career researcher does to differentiate themselves from an early-career researcher, but it probably isn’t a strict cut-off based on time since PhD. As I continue to evolve into a MCR, I will start to be able to demonstrate that my research has an impact and that I can build and lead a team, but will also develop other skills and abilities that I can use to demonstrate my achievements.