Fostering a sense of belonging in academia!

Academia is a challenging environment, in which power dynamics negatively affects early career scientists. As a result, this population may feel disadvantaged in the system. Therefore, in order to foster a productive future of science, where the workforce is appreciated in the process, and early career scientists work in a healthy environment with good work-life balance, it is very important for them to feel a sense of belonging. 

In a professional sense, settings such as seminars and lab meetings are useful for having early career scientists present their work and receive feedback, which may help them feel like they belong in the ecosystem. But in a personal sense, this is more difficult to attain, and multiple groups should be involved in fostering this sense of belonging for them. This can be within the laboratory, within the department, across the university or outside of it. It can manifest by building meaningful connections with peers in the laboratory, having open and honest conversations with mentors, and building a strong support network outside of work.

Belonging to a particular group or environment is critical for well-being and success of early career scientists, who feel a lot of pressure to perform research and deliver high-quality results while also being in training. Mentors should take the time to train early career scientists in skills they will need to succeed, as well as discuss the future career goals with them to ensure that they feel connected to and supported by the laboratory environment. They can also foster a sense of community within the laboratory by organizing outside events such as Christmas parties, Secret Santa gift exchanges and other settings where interactions between laboratory members may occur in various ways on a regular basis. 

Within the laboratory, more experienced peers can also help foster belonging of the newer early career scientists joining the group by taking the time to get to know them, taking them out to lunch, asking about their working styles to better work together but also about their outside hobbies and interests. This type of interaction can help create a support system right off the bat, so that early career scientists can feel comfortable going to their more experienced peers for advice, whether experimental, personal or career-related. 

Departments and universities as a whole can also foster more of a sense of belonging for early career scientists by hosting Happy Hours and other larger initiatives such as Halloween costume contests with prizes, as recognition is really important. They can also facilitate small group interactions within the university such as ice cream socials where individuals may feel more comfortable connecting to and speaking up in smaller groups as opposed to in larger crowds. This could be facilitated by having a buddy system where an experienced student takes their “buddy” around to show them the campus before they officially come to the university, and then keep in touch with them and have coffee periodically to maintain this connection. Such an interaction can also be helpful for the “newbie” to find out more about local resources that he or she may be reluctant to ask from their supervisor.   

Overall, there are many things that academia can do to improve the system for early career scientists. Fostering a sense of belonging can make a large impact in their personal and professional success, as well as productivity, well-being, and overall happiness on various fronts. If we can achieve this, the system itself will be better in the long run, and the individuals within it will be happier too.