Building an Early Career Researchers Community

In April 2023, the University of British Columbia (UBC) launched a new student-led project to build a community of early career researchers, emphasizing graduate students, who care deeply about engaging directly with experts outside academia through their research. This is designed as a pilot project to determine if there is an appetite among graduate students to belong to a cross-campus, student-led community of this type, and to demonstrate that it is feasible to establish it through a series of focused, student-led activities.

The motivation for this project

Graduate students increasingly have a strong desire to positively impact society, and they seek meaningful, engaged research opportunities that would allow them to fulfill this desire. Many students, however, are unable to find fulfilling research opportunities, in part because aspects of academic research culture have historically been largely inward-looking. For example, the promotion and tenure system unintentionally motivates faculty members (and by extension their graduate students) to de-emphasize partnering with real-world experts and instead follow a more narrowly-defined research excellence path. This can repel some of the students that universities should most want to attract and retain, since those students are left with a perception that university research is out of touch with the needs of society. This project aims to create a welcoming community for students who feel this way, by reinforcing their sense of belonging within the academic research environment.

The pilot project

The community-development activities of this project will showcase societally-engaged projects that are underway at UBC and offer meaningful research opportunities for students. Scholarly projects of this type aim to discover new knowledge and address societal problems, and they do so in deep partnership with problem-solvers outside of academia. These projects, which can be described as Highly Integrative Basic And Responsive (HIBAR), have always existed in universities. But they are not common: we estimate roughly 5% of research projects at UBC would be described as truly HIBAR. Students who participate in HIBAR projects gain opportunities for meaningful societal connections through their research and, by highlighting such projects and the important team role played by graduate students, this pilot project will help reinforce the university’s commitment to improving the world through research.

Because HIBAR projects are not common, students who are currently participating in a HIBAR project may not know of other examples of such work at UBC, and students who are not currently participating in a HIBAR project may not even know they exist. For these reasons, focused and intentional activities are necessary to build awareness of HIBAR projects and to enable those who are particularly interested in this type of research to connect with and learn from one another. This student-led project focuses on activities that will showcase impactful HIBAR projects, emphasizing the role of graduate students as key members of these research teams. It will also highlight opportunities for students to participate in activities that will, over time, help to change the academic culture toward more societally-engaged research.

There are a number of well-established initiatives at UBC that have demonstrated significant interest among graduate students in societally-engaged research, including the Public Scholars Initiative, the Public Humanities Hub, and the Institute for Community Engaged Research. Like these initiatives, this new pilot project is similarly motivated to better align university research with the needs of society, and it also has several unique and complementary characteristics:

  • It is a student-led effort.
  • Community activities will be open to all graduate students, regardless of their research discipline or program, and regardless of whether they are currently participating in societally-engaged research.
  • The value of co-leadership of research projects by academics and external experts (a topic that is intrinsic to all HIBAR projects and typically not addressed in graduate student curriculum) will be a central focus of the activities.

We think this the first time this specific approach has been taken to develop a cross-campus, student-led community of early career researchers who care deeply about engaging directly with experts outside of academia through their research. For this reason, a core aspect of the project is assessing its effectiveness and widely sharing the lessons learned. We hope the resulting community can continue to grow, both at UBC and beyond.

We gratefully acknowledge the funding for this pilot project, provided by:

  • UBC Science Strategic Innovation Fund
  • Irving K. Barber Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences Endowment
  • The UBC Faculty of Applied Science
  • The UBC Faculty of Forestry
    UBC Science Strategic Innovation Fund
  • The UBC Faculty of Health and Social Development
  • Walter H. Gage Memorial Fund
  • Tuum Est Student Initiative Fund

To learn more about this pilot project as it progresses, please click below to join our Early Career Researcher (ECR) community mailing list.