Bottom-up initiatives to shape and strengthen both doctoral training and career development services

Many ECRs still feel ill prepared and highly uncertain when facing the professional transition from the academic to the non-academic labour market. Despite the fact that the vast majority must continue their career outside of academia, doctoral candidates continue to desire and often deem the academic career as the superior career path [11]; as a result, their training often remains primarily focused on academia. Transferable skills, i.e. cross-disciplinary skills learned in one context that are useful in another, are crucial for increasing the employability of ECRs and to support their diverse career paths. Such skills are ideally acquired throughout the doctoral training, which preferably starts at the very beginning of the doctoral programme. However, while training programmes and supportive services are typically in high demand, they are often (over-)used by only a small proportion of ECRs and commonly at the end of their research track instead of on a continuous basis from the start onwards [12]. The acquisition of transferable skills and competences can come in many forms and often requires continuous learning and development. Skills can be acquired through formal training courses provided by higher education institutions but are not limited to well-defined courses and professional accreditations [4]. Many transferable skills can be obtained through a variety of experiences and contexts, e.g. through what is commonly termed as ‘learning-by- doing’ (see Figure 11.1). The training currently offered to ECRs could therefore be extended to include opportunities to actively implement what they learned in a day-to-day fashion. Moments to give and receive feedback using a peer-support dynamic could be created conjointly, allowing ongoing skills improvement and documented personal development. The acquisition and development of transferable skill-sets should be tracked and documented through portfolio assessment (e.g. diplomas, certificates or examples of various outputs like video and audio material or presentations that were used for teaching) [13] which is widely accepted in, for instance, pedagogy' [14] or medical professions [15].

Supportive and empowering working environments, ensuring that ECRs develop clear career perspectives, will be likely also to help to prevent work-related stress and mental health issues. In addition, such working environments help them to valorise many of their other tasks besides their publications (e.g. lab management, supervision, science vulgarisation, intellectual properties, etc.). However, this also requires a proactive mind-set from ECRs themselves; they should learn to continuously reflect on their personal development so that they can create an individual training and development plan that is in line with their competencies, interests, values and both short- and long-term career goals. Bottom-up initiatives and mentoring programmes that encourage ECRs to take proactive ownership of their personal career development are therefore crucial, and ECRs need to actively communicate with the experts from the third space in order to shape and improve doctoral training and career development services in such a way that they respond optimally to their needs.

Transferable skills acquisition, a continuous process of both formal and informal learning that constitutes the individual portfolio

FIGURE 11.1 Transferable skills acquisition, a continuous process of both formal and informal learning that constitutes the individual portfolio

Key ingredients for healthy working environments that prepare ECRs for any career in our innovation-driven knowledge economy include opportunities for proactive career development, a supportive network of inspirational mentors and sustainable resources for self-driven professional development in intersectoral and interdisciplinary contexts. At the institutional level, many good practices have already been developed or are currently in development. However, institutes are only one component of a system in which funders and ECRs themselves can also play an important role. Within the ECR communities, it is crucial to foster an active and empowering dialogue on career development, (social) entrepreneurship and employability. Funders in turn can greatly contribute to breaking down walls between disciplines and institutes in order to boost synergistic inter-university and intersectoral collaborations at regional, national and international levels.

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