The COVID-19 pandemic found me at the end of my PhD, and even though my graduation plans will be delayed, I will…
Student research networks host social and professional activities designed to enhance the ECR experience, and these networks help ECRs share knowledge while also making valuable personal connections. I’ve learned firsthand about the benefits of these networks as president of the Students of Brain Research (SOBR) network. Here, I’ll share more information about SOBR and give you my top three tips on building a successful student-led student research network.
SOBR was founded in 2011 to connect ECRs in the brain research community in Melbourne, Australia. Among its other activities, SOBR holds a student symposium each year. This year, the organizing committee received high-quality abstracts from student researchers hailing from 14 local universities and research institutes. There were even some inter-state researchers in attendance! Local post-doctoral researchers and academic staff reviewed student abstracts, judged posters and talks, and shared feedback and career advice with the students. Overall, it was very exciting to see the depth and diversity of brain research in Victoria and indeed Australia at this year’s symposium. Equally exciting was to see SOBR continue to flourish in its fifth year.
The continued success of SOBR is due to multiple factors – if you’d like to start a new research network, I hope that you’ll find the below tips helpful.
Pick the right scope and structure
As in other professional activities, such as research projects, it is important to identify and define your scope early on. In the case of a network, there are many important questions: Who is the network intended to benefit? What geographical region(s) are these people from? What activities will the network organize? What resources (financial and otherwise) does the network require to conduct its activities?
Keep in mind that the answers to these questions may change over time. In the case of SOBR, the network was originally designed for students and post-doctoral researchers within the city of Melbourne, Australia, but grew to become more student-oriented and to cover the larger region of Victoria, Australia. In addition to the student symposium, SOBR also holds a yearly networking event and often other smaller events. We also send occasional emails to members and maintain social media pages with relevant professional information and opportunities. SOBR relies on the generous support of sponsors, such as local university departments and professional associations, to conduct its activities. All events and activities are organized by a student committee.
Other structures (and scopes) have proven equally valid and successful for student research networks. Looking at the field of neuroscience, organizations such as the London Students’ Neuroscience Network are similarly autonomously-run by students and focus on a relatively small geographical area. Others are based at, and primarily serve, individual institutions, like at Cambridge or Princeton. Some networks have risen out of pre-existing national societies such as the Young Swiss Society for Neuroscience, and groups or programs associated with the Society for Neuroscience, the Bernstein Network in Germany, and the Network of European Neuroscience Schools. In Australasia, the Australasian Neuroscience Society have proposed establishing a similar, international student group.
An advantage of structures which are attached to preexisting societies like these are that questions related to geographical area and funding can be defined and agreed upon early on. This gives the group a clear direction and brand recognition from day one, whereas in an autonomous network these are built up over time. Therefore, in starting or growing a student network, it important to consider whether or not the network’s potential scope could be better realized through certain structures.
Identify and manage key players
After scope and structure have been determined, it is vital to identify the network’s key players or stakeholders. These are the people who will be interested in the initial and continued success of the network. Once identified, you should formulate a plan to engage with and maintain support of these stakeholders.
In the case of SOBR, our stakeholders represent many different groups, like the students who attend our events, their academic supervisors and peers, the institutions and departments they represent, and the organizations funding their research. Other stakeholders include other postgraduate student groups, professional societies, the future employers or professional associates, and Australian government agencies associated with scientific research and research training. Most student networks of a similar scale will have a similar list of stakeholders, but the important and specific interests of different stakeholders will be different and may change over time. For example, in the case of a network directly associated with a professional society, the weight given to the professional society is likely higher.
Perhaps the most difficult part of running student networks is managing these stakeholders, since invariably conflicts between the interests of various stakeholders will arise. In these situations, there may be a middle-ground option which will only partially satisfy relevant stakeholders, and this might seem the best or fairest option. However, it may instead be in the long-term interests of the network to satisfy particular stakeholders more than others. There are many books and articles written on this subject – I personally found this book helpful, as well as tools such as stakeholder mapping and power/interest matrices.
One of the best features of conferences, symposia, and networking events is the ability to meet and interact with new people. Indeed, at SOBR’s events this year, there were researchers from fields as diverse as consumer psychology, computational neuroscience, psychiatry, and science communication. As someone working in computational and theoretical neuroscience, I had a highly valuable interaction with a clinician-researcher. This clinician-researcher was highly interested in the applicability of my findings to their patients – but I had not previously focused on this subject. But by the end of our conversation, we had both learned a great deal about each other’s research and the challenges we’d need to overcome to bridge the gap between our fields.
Diversity across personal and social backgrounds is also important so as to promote and engage research students from underprivileged backgrounds. This is important not only in terms of social justice, but also to improve the breadth of human experience and ideas that enter scientific research. Networks like SOBR represent a unique opportunity to connect with and help shape the future of a particular region’s research capacity in a particular field. Therefore, the more professional and personal backgrounds represented, the more opportunities there are for that future research community to develop cross-fertilization of scientific ideas and techniques.
SOBR has proven itself to be a strong, impactful student network for the ECR neuroscience community in Victoria, Australia. I have certainly benefited personally from being involved in its organization and operation, having been given the opportunity to make connections with leading researchers and ECRs from other research institutions. I have also learned many useful professional skills, especially related to event and stakeholder management. The 2016 SOBR committee will soon pass the torch to our 2017 counterparts, and I am confident SOBR will continue to flourish in their care and beyond.
Featured Image: 2016 SOBR Dinner