On a scale of 1 – 10, how easily do you feel you can turn to others for meaningful support when you need it? Expressions such as “Birds of a feather flock together” and “Safety in numbers” tell us that it’s advantageous to associate yourself with people with shared interests and that, as humans, we tend to gravitate towards those who have things in common with ourselves. This is probably why there are so many clubs, societies and associations in the world! No matter how specialised or rare the interest, it’s likely to be represented in one or more groups at the local, national or international levels.

Everyone’s support network is diverse, consisting of close family and friends, work colleagues, mentors, acquaintances, loose associates and beyond. Networks are not static entities; people move in and out, get closer and move further away. For example, how many people are as close to their school friends as they were when in their teenage years? You’ll need help from different people at different times and for different reasons as you progress through your life (and note that this isn’t ‘using’ people; it’s a mutual association, since you will also be part of other people’s support networks).

With regard to your career, you are more likely to need support from a work associate or mentor than a close family member, depending on their background and experience. This type of professional support can be really crucial, especially for PhD and postdoctoral researchers, who are subject to relatively precarious working conditions and contracts. Professional networks can sometimes help you to get through the more difficult times in your life, to offset negative experiences such as losing funding, being rejected for a job, having to relocate to another country, or experiencing a personal crisis. On the other more positive side of the coin, being part of a like-minded community can also expose you to new experiences and ideas, allowing you to follow your passions and enhance your career opportunities.  

Maybe you are already part of one or more professional groups. PhD and postdoctoral researchers can benefit from joining groups that reflect their interests and that can also offer them support. However, as I said before, your support network is dynamic and so there’s always room for refinement. Groups that you joined a while ago may not be as relevant to you now, whilst other groups may exist that are more closely aligned with your current career interests. Perhaps it’s time to take a fresh look at the types of groups you’d like to be part of.

Here, I have listed a few ideas for groups which may be worth investigating further in terms of supporting you with your career:

PhD and postdoctoral researcher groups
Over the past decades, due to increasing pressures on researchers, many mutual peer support associations have been set up at the institutional, national and international levels. Usually coordinated and run by PhD and postdoctoral researchers themselves, their activities range from informal social get-togethers through to the organisation of more formal career conferences and scientific meetings. Find out if there are any organisations in your own institution or associated with your funding body (e.g. Marie Curie Alumni Association), or consider joining a national or international association, e.g. ANDES, National Postdoctoral Association, iCORSA

Research specialist groups
Many researchers take a particular interest in specific aspects at the core of their research. For example, it may be the research discipline itself about which you are passionate, or it may be the techniques and tools you are using that are more aligned with your interests. In this case, you would benefit from joining groups allied to your disciplinary interests, such as specialist discussion groups or learned societies, or more technical groups such as those associated with techniques, data analysis and programming, e.g. Github. This is the ideal arena in which to discuss your work with fellow researchers and academics within your field, as well as hearing about relevant conferences, funding and job opportunities. It’s particularly valuable to those aiming for an academic career. 

Research associated groups
During the course of a PhD or postdoctoral contract, many researchers get involved in extra-curricular activities, such as science communication, teaching and policy. In many cases, researchers can become more passionate about these activities than they do about the research project itself, and even decide to place them at the centre of their next career role. If you’re in this position, you can get support in progressing your career by joining associated organisations or participating in discussion groups, that are now well-established and recognised within and outside of academia. For example, teaching organisations include the European Association of International Education and AdvanceHE (which also has a fellowship scheme). Science communication is well represented at the national level in most countries, such as the British Science Association, as well as internationally, e.g. Euroscience. A catch-all discussion group for science communicators is psci-com, hosted by the Wellcome Trust and the most well-known policy organisations are Eurodoc and Sense about Science. Alternatively, or in addition to being a member of a more formal group, there may be more localised groups within your institution that you can join, including innovation and entrepreneurship, management and leadership.

‘Researchers without borders’ groups
Academia compels many researchers to be mobile and to travel the world in order to experience different research groups and to progress their careers. It can feel isolating when moving to and residing in another country and many groups have been created to help displaced researchers to keep in touch with their native countries. These groups can be very localised within the institution itself, or they may be organised at the national level. There are some great examples of diaspora groups, such as the Portuguese Native Scientist, the German Ukrainian Researchers Network, Polish Researchers Network and the Society of Spanish Researchers.

I hope this has given you a taste of the kinds of groups that might suit your career needs and help you to keep your personal and professional scaffolding robust and resilient. However, if you can’t see anything of interest, why not set up your own group?

Related content: Join the club
Career development – it’s personal

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