This post is based on the article which will be published in the journal
Internationalisation of Higher Education – Policy and Practice, issue 1/2021
Anyone would agree that academic networks matter for academic development, career, sense of belonging, and not least for the quality of one’s academic work (e.g. Heffernan, 2020; Ortlieb & Weiss, 2018; Zeivots, 2020). As Heffernan stressed in the title of his recent paper, “There’s no career in academia without networks”. We agree, and wish to offer a complement: There is no academia without communities. Communities—be they disciplinary, interdisciplinary, subject- or issue-oriented, national or international—are the lifeblood of scholarly enterprise.
The best-known scholarly communities usually have institutionalised coordination and administrative support, regular meetings, journals, and some kind of organisational or quasi-organisational infrastructure. As any recognised area of research, higher education has dedicated societies, which can be found on every continent and even in some national contexts. Although few could be characterised as exclusively national, most of these societies primarily cater for the scholars working or interested in specific geographic regions. The Society for the Research into Higher Education (SRHE) primarily caters for the higher education research community in the United Kingdom. United States has its Association for the Study of Higher Education (ASHE). Then there is the Higher Education Research and Development Society of Australasia (HERDSA). The Consortium of Higher Education Researchers (CHER) is European. And so on. From this perspective, therefore, it is not surprising that the questions we ask and the knowledge we produce are also, by and large, driven by specifically national or regional developments, debates, and concerns. Advantages and disadvantages on the side, this raises important questions about the plausibility and possibility of a community which transcends these geographical containers.
In this contribution we offer an account of an effort in this direction. Specifically, we reflect upon our personal efforts to strengthen the Early Career Higher Education Researchers (ECHER) network. We see three reasons for telling this story. First, it is an opportunity to take stock of the main developments with respect to the ECHER network, which is, to the best of our knowledge, the largest and possibly the only international network of early-career researchers in the field of higher education studies . Second, we wish to draw attention to some of the challenges, which have formatively shaped and continue to shape this journey. Third, we wish to reflect on what we believe this network means for both early-career higher education researchers and the field of higher education research.
We begin by briefly discussing what, in our view, ECHER is. This is followed by a narrative reflection on its short history, the way we have experienced it. Here we orient ourselves, and the reader, around what we consider to be the landmark events. We draw attention to the value of a peer-based community for an early-career researcher, which we support by evidence from literature. We also emphasise the core characteristics of ECHER, which we encapsulate in the following adjectives: international, informal, loosely structured, voluntary, and independent. We conclude the article with a short outlook focused on challenges inherent to the field of higher education research and the importance of keeping the idea of ECHER alive.
An open-ended experiment in community building
Wishing to remain agnostic when it comes to categorisation or an exact definition, we propose thinking of ECHER as an open-ended experiment in community building. Experiment because we are trying out something new, with the aim to learn from it. Open-ended because, as the wording suggests, there are no pre-defined expected outcomes or an expiration date. It does, however, have a starting point. ECHER was initiated on the eve of the 25th annual CHER conference, which took place in Reykjavik in June 2011. It started as a small network and, in many ways, the network character has remained one of its most dominant features ever since. When observed from the outside, ECHER may look as an organisation: it has a name, a logo, a website, a designated purpose, members, and activities. Strictly formally speaking, however, ECHER is not an organisation.
Since its outset, ECHER’s international character—which goes beyond the narrow European borders—has been essential to the network. The inaugural meeting itself, for example, gathered 25 early-career researchers from ten countries: Germany, Finland, Ireland, Italy, England, Norway, Slovenia, Serbia, Canada, and the United States. Today, members of the ECHER network can be found in more than 50 countries, across five continents. Most members, however, are still based in Europe. Even as we actively work to diversify the network in this sense, working against the grain of the aforementioned structural properties of the global landscape of higher education studies continues to challenge this ambition.
In terms of structure, or mode of operation, ECHER has always functioned as a loose and informal network of colleagues and friends. Its primary purpose has always been to act as a support, however loose and informal, for junior scholars who wish to share experiences and resources, talk to each other, and expand opportunities to meet and collaborate. For example, discussion groups, which occasionally come together and are organised around members’ interests, are autonomous and independent of each other. In this sense, the advantages of ECHER having a loosely defined inner structure and highly permeable boundaries have always been obvious. This, of course, does not mean that there are no disadvantages to the predominantly informal nature of the network. Occasionally, discussions on formalising the network have surfaced and this is something which may become more of a pressing issue over time.
Membership in ECHER is free. Anyone who sees themselves as early-career researcher in higher education, regardless of age or where in the world they are, can become part of the network, participate in its activities, and contribute to its work. For this reason, all the work in ECHER has always been done on a purely voluntary basis. One might ask, who is in charge or how are decisions made? Since the very beginning, there has always been an informal group who would take care of coordinating the network . Practically, this meant anything from doing the minimum so that an idea was not lost, to organising workshops, writing a book together and, more recently, running this blog. The question of whether and under what conditions this model is sustainable is an important one.
ECHER is not affiliated to or part of any scholarly society. Members of our network are, of course, members of numerous interdisciplinary and disciplinary associations. ECHER has always operated in close proximity to CHER as its annual conference has been the one to be regularly attended by many of ECHER’s core members. However, if we look at numbers, only a handful of the approximately 270 current ECHER members are part of CHER or attend its annual conference. And much like with formalising the network, ECHER’s relationship with various societies—and not least its independence thereof—has been discussed on many occasions, and will continue to be debated.
From network to a community
A community is, however, more than a network. For a network to become a community, a better recognised and a more solid “common ground” may be needed. From a practical point of view, communities which are operational at some level share common spaces—physical or virtual—for the members to come together. Ideally, there is a shared understanding of what those spaces are for. They need to be maintained, and this further requires resources, such as time, money, and ideally some vision and skill. This can be a challenge, particularly when we factor in the structurally precarious state of the early-career researcher in a rather diffused interdisciplinary field, such as higher education (e.g. Davies et al., 2010). However, we believe that it is precisely this aspect of the field of higher education studies, which makes the challenge of building an international community of early-career higher education researchers important to address.
If we were asked to identify two or three overarching themes or domains of ECHER’s activity, doctoral studies and postdoctoral careers would certainly be among them. Doctoral researchers have always made up about two-thirds of ECHER members. In a way, most conversations we have been having over the years somehow revolve around the issues that are typical of the earliest of stages in one’s path on the road of becoming an independent scholar. These conversations are important, not only because one can come across valuable pieces of information or advice on those occasions, but also because they offer an opportunity to give, share, and relate to others.
We also know, from both research and experience, that interacting with colleagues and peers is essential to developing personal identity as a scholar. For doctoral researchers this usually happens in formal and informal communities (Baker & Lattuca, 2010; Cumming, 2010; Hopwood, 2010). For example, in her study on doctoral researchers’ experiences in Australia, Mantai found out that talking about research in different formal and informal settings—research seminars, conferences, workplace encounters, coffee breaks, and so forth—is a major contributor towards “feeling like a researcher” (p. 636). As Mantai elaborated, talking about research with others who understand either the process or the content and who are or have been through the same experience, makes doctoral researchers feel that they have both knowledge and skills of producing valuable research.
Moreover, for many doctoral researchers, doing a PhD can be a very solitary journey. Doctoral studies are popularly portrayed as an activity one mostly does in isolation. “All PhDs are solitary affairs”, said Michael Perfect in an article published in The Guardian. Scholarly works on doctoral education also recognise isolation and feelings of loneliness as issues faced by doctoral researchers. These feelings seem to be especially present in the case of part-time and distance doctoral researchers as well as international doctoral researchers, who are often doing their studies far away from social support structures, such as friends and family (Ali & Kohun, 2006; Janta et al., 2014; Laufer & Gorup, 2019). Recent research on doctoral researchers’ mental health issues (see e.g. Barry et al., 2018; Levecque et al., 2017; Woolston, 2017, 2019) also speaks to the importance of openly addressing the challenges which are increasingly more faced by early-career academics.
One additional aspect of being an early-career researcher seems to further aggravate the position of doctoral and postdoctoral researchers: Early-career , from whichever angle one looks at it, is a transitory phase in one’s academic life. It has been characterised by what Djerasimovic and Villanie called the “protracted state of precariousness” (p. 248). It is not a phase one is keen on staying in for any lengthy period of time. Rather, it is more of a stepping stone or a progression towards a more distant goal. It is also a time when many early-career researchers are still undecided: Is academia really for me? Is this scholarly society the right one for me? Should I stay closer to a discipline or should I go only to higher education conferences and focus on those networks? If I cannot find a job after I graduate, what are my options? Where should I publish if I want to increase my chances of landing a good postdoc position? Where can I publish? What does it mean to be a higher education researcher? What does it mean to be a scholar? 
Although these questions are routinely faced by early-career scholars everywhere, they do not have one-size-fits-all answers. Being somewhat, if not outright existential, they turn out to be particularly acute when the opportunities to physically travel, meet and talk to people are limited, such as during the COVID-19 pandemic. When in spring 2020 all international conferences and seminars were either cancelled or moved online, ECHER’s online meet-ups were a welcome initiative for many. Without any particular agenda in mind, early-career researchers from all corners of the world would come together once a week to chat about things, ranging from questions like “how are you” to “how to respond to reviewers’ comments”.
Scholars have already evidenced how disruptive the pandemic has been for doctoral students. Sharing experiences and feelings during challenging times not only helps make sense of our current situation but also allows us to think about the future. Naturally, we were aware of how indispensable the technology is for keeping diffuse international communities “alive” and active, but the pandemic transformed and deepened our interactions.
Digital infrastructures and virtual spaces are incredibly important for international communities. In his autoethnography of the “connected doctoral researcher”, Rainford highlights the opportunities which digital technologies can offer as a way to create new spaces for doctoral researchers to discuss their work. Digital public spaces, he contends, can “offer a lens on a previously hidden private world” (p. 58); one can establish a dialogue with those who they would not necessarily meet otherwise (Carrigan, 2016). These new spaces of peer learning also enable sharing experiences and tacit knowledge with people outside one’s own department and discipline. For example, issues related to article writing, publishing, or other “hidden” practices within academia are of interest to most early-career scholars, despite their discipline or university. To be able to learn about those practices, one should be able to discuss them in a trustworthy environment.
A virtual home
While face-to-face meetings are far more enjoyable and stimulating than online ones, websites are exclusive to the virtual realm. The idea to relaunch the ECHER website as a blog was born in late November 2018. At that point, ECHER had an outdated website, little-used mailing list, and a not-so-active Facebook group. It was not particularly clear who was part of the network and who was not, who was responsible for it, or how one could become involved. It was difficult, if at all possible, to know where one could look in order to find answers to any of these questions. Amidst informal discussions on what could be done to revive ECHER’s virtual presence, the idea of having a blog was born.
ECHER Blog was originally conceived as a simple project: A space which would be accessible for and visible to anyone, anywhere; which would “speak to” any internationally oriented early-career researcher, be they in Berlin, Cape Town, Boston, or Melbourne. Finally, one which would specifically cater for higher education researchers and their needs and, crucially, which would be also curated and owned by early-career higher education researchers. In other words, a space we could all potentially identify with.
As we had hoped, the ECHER Blog, accompanied by more active social media presence, did make the network more visible. This led to more people joining, which brought new perspectives, new ideas, and more help. We started a new mailing list and put further thought into how to make it easier for people—across time zones, interests, sectors, and disciplines, and other possible divides—to be aware of each other and to connect. During its first year, the blog grew in thematic coverage and the amount of content shared.
For some, ECHER Blog was the first experience in writing for academic audiences in the blog format. In this sense, the blog offers not only an opportunity to reach out, but also to improve one’s writing and editing skills. Writing in the blog format is very different than writing an article for a journal. The audience may be similar, if not the same, but the way the message is conveyed is simply different. It may seem counterintuitive to think so, but for many of us writing in the blog style can be more challenging than writing in academic jargon, simply because we are not used to it. In this sense, academic blogging can be an enriching experience.
In our effort to make the blog a valuable place for as many as possible, we have, for example, reached out to our more experienced colleagues and asked them to give us advice on academic writing in our field, which we then published on the blog. We also approached journal editors and talked to them about, among other things, journal policies, publishing, and the state of the higher education field in the most general sense. This generated further interest among some members of the network, who joined the collaboration by conducting interviews with journal editors of their choice. These are some of the things that became possible thanks to the ECHER Blog, but the list does not end there.
In the article aptly titled “Mobility as homelessness”, Balaban identified multiple kinds of mobility among early-career researchers, namely, geographical, interdisciplinary, and cross-sectoral. All three, she argued, play a role in one’s feelings of homelessness. Regardless of how well made and effective they are, website and blogs can hardly remedy such feelings, or do much to alleviate one’s situation. But the fact that one exists, can be found and is welcoming, can make a difference. Through our own experience and from many discussions with ECHER members over the years, we have learned that navigating the vast and incredibly diverse area of higher education studies is a daunting task for someone just entering the field. One often feels lost, which makes ECHER features such as quality content, relevant information, and space for peer networking and discussion, all the more valuable.
As a field of study, higher education research is not short of divisions (e.g. Lincoln & Klemenčič, 2013; Macfarlane, 2012; Tight, 2004). These divisions, however, go beyond geography. Always torn between disciplines, policy, and practice, higher education research shares the struggles and joys of many subject-driven areas of scholarly interest. Its researchers seem equally scattered. Sometimes as isolated individuals, sometimes in groups, higher education researchers are usually found in education faculties, sociology departments, policy analysis institutes, own units specialising in higher education alone, or—as it is often the case and as we see in the ECHER network—in more than one “place” simultaneously. We do not even have to be part of universities—many of us find ourselves in ministries, foundations, civil society organisations, and consultancy firms offering services to universities, students, and policy makers.
Despite these many divides, we are brought together by a shared interest in one of the defining institutions of modernity—higher education. Therefore, unless we understand these divides, routinely challenge conventional wisdom about why they persist, and work on a language which will help us communicate across them, they will only get deeper. And while academia does thrive on divisions, it also thrives on the common. In times when individual achievements are celebrated before any other, when we are repeatedly told that the only way to succeed is by being competitive, by striving to perform on questionable criteria—we see it as our mission, a duty even, to work on strengthening the latter.
The two of us writing this text feel immensely privileged to have come across the opportunity to not only participate in ECHER, but also to shape it as it grows. We are also privileged because our current positions have allowed us to dedicate some of our time to coordinating the network and its activities. The work has been incredibly rewarding for both of us, personally and professionally. However, many early-career scholars cannot afford to volunteer and experiment the way we have. This is regrettable, not only because this or any other community would greatly benefit from more engagement, but also because we are deeply convinced that keeping experiments such as ECHER operational is a worthy cause.
Like any experiment, ours too is permeated with questions: What does it mean to support early-career higher education researchers? What can we do to help each other? What is the best way to share information? What common problems do we all face? How can we be there for each other? Who are we and what could we be, as a network or as a community? Could ECHER be a virtual home for all of us, despite the many divisions that characterise our field? What do we want the field of higher education research to be like in the future? We do not have ready answers, yet we hope these questions will continue to preoccupy a growing number of our peers—junior and senior alike.
Meanwhile, we will continue experimenting.
 We use the adjective “international” because it is a common way of referring to networks such as ECHER. However, we note that the adjective “transnational”—referring to a network which transcends national boundaries—would probably be a more appropriate way of describing ECHER.
 In the first several years, these people were, in alphabetical order, Bojana Ćulum-Ilić, Mari Elken, Filipa Ribeiro, Yurgos Politis, Christian Schneijderberg, Rachel Sweetman, and Mitchell Young.
 The meaning and use of the phrase “early-career researcher” depends on the context. In ECHER, we have always thought of “early-career” as doing more justice to what the network is about than alternative attributes, such as “young” or “junior”, which may be more common in certain contexts.
 Quite certainly, some of these questions and dilemmas trouble many far more experienced and senior academics.
We wish to thank the following ECHER members for their invaluable comments and reflections on earlier draft of the article (listed alphabetically): Dana Abdrasheva, Saule Anafinova, Richard Budd, Elizabeth Cook, Davide Donina, Grischa Fraumann, Daniel Kontowski, Franziska Lessky, Jiajie Liu, Gregor Schäfer, Irina Shcheglova, and ZW Taylor. We wish to stress that this article in no way represents these, let alone, all members of the ECHER network. We would also like to thank the journal Internationalisation of Higher Education – Policy and Practice for inviting us to contribute on this topic. All errors are our own.
Jelena Brankovic is a postdoctoral researcher at the Faculty of Sociology, Bielefeld University (Germany). Currently she is researching the role rankings in the institutional dynamics within and across sectors. Her interests extend to the practice of theorizing in social sciences, academic writing and publishing in interdisciplinary fields, and academic peer work. She serves as Books Editor on the Editorial Board of Higher Education and is Joint Lead Editor of the ECHER blog. Twitter: @jelena3121
Melina Aarnikoivu is a postdoctoral researcher at the Finnish Institute for Educational Research, University of Jyväskylä (Finland). Her research interests include doctoral education, academic writing, and ethnographic research methodologies. Her other responsibilities include being an Assistant Editor at the Journal of Praxis in Higher Education and Joint Lead Editor of the ECHER blog. Twitter: @MAarnikoivu.