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Compare: A Journal of Comparative and International
ISSN: (Print) (Online) Journal homepage: https://www.tandfonline.com/loi/ccom20
Early career researchers making sense of their
research experiences: a cross-role and cross-
A. Sala-Bubaré , I. Skakni , K. Inouye , C. Weise & L. McAlpine
To cite this article: A. Sala-Bubaré , I. Skakni , K. Inouye , C. Weise & L. McAlpine (2020):
Early career researchers making sense of their research experiences: a cross-role and cross-
national analysis, Compare: A Journal of Comparative and International Education, DOI:
To link to this article: https://doi.org/10.1080/03057925.2020.1834349
Published online: 29 Oct 2020.
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Early career researchers making sense of their research
experiences: a cross-role and cross-national analysis
, I. Skakni
, K. Inouye
, C. Weise
and L. McAlpine
Faculty of Psychology, Education and Sports Sciences Blanquerna, Universitat Ramon Llull, Barcelona,
Department of Educational Research, Lancaster University, Lancaster, UK;
Rectorate, University of
Applied S ciences and Arts, Hildesheim, Switzerland;
Department of Education, University of Oxford,
Department of Basic, Evolutive and Educational Psychology, Universitat Autònoma De
Barcelona, Bellaterra, Cerdanyola del Vallès, Spain
Early career researchers’ journey (i.e. doctoral researchers and post-
PhDs) is increasingly challenging, but little is known about how they
live and interpret their signicant experiences, that is how they attri-
bute meaning to these experiences and their associated feelings.
Moreover, research about how doctoral researchers and post-PhDs
deal dierently with such experiences remains scarce, especially
when accounting for the interpretation of signicant experiences
across countries. This paper explores how role (doctoral researchers
or post-PhDs) and country (Spain, UK and Switzerland) can inuence
individuals’ interpretation of signicant events. It draws on the most
signicant events reported by 544 early career researchers in two
open-ended questions. Analyses revealed dierences between roles
only regarding the sense-making, especially in the future implications,
and across countries in both the sense-making and the associated
feelings. This interaction between role and cultural/workplace prac-
tices, is the most compelling, especially given the high mobility
expected of post-PhDs.
Early career researchers;
signiﬁcant events; sense-
making; feelings; cross-
In a highly competitive and global academic context, the journey of becoming a researcher is
increasingly challenging. The term early career researchers (ECRs) comprises doctoral
researchers and post-PhDs (graduates with either a fellowship or a contract). The term points
to the increasing complexity of research careers and the lack of a smoother transition between
graduation and independent research, especially in terms of securing funding and positions
(Scaﬃdi and Berman 2011; Science Europe Working Group on Research Careers 2016;
Skakni et al. 2019). Despite national and supranational initiatives aimed at supporting
ECRs’ development, drop-out rates remain high at the doctoral level, and those who persist
tend to report high levels of stress and anxiety, work-life balance issues, and few career
development opportunities (Åkerlind 2008; Pyhältö, Stubb, and Lonka 2009).
CONTACT A. Sala-Bubaré firstname.lastname@example.org Faculty of Psychology, Education and Sports Sciences
Blanquerna, Ramon Llull University, C/ Císter, 34, 08021 Barcelona, Spain
© 2020 British Association for International and Comparative Education
While this situation aﬀects doctoral researchers and post-PhDs to a similar extent, there
are many diﬀerences between them regarding the research conditions. Doctoral researchers
often have more institutional support: they should have a supervisor or a mentor and in
most countries, doctoral researchers are also obliged or oﬀered the opportunity to take
research courses, although the degree of support may vary across individuals (Wisker and
Robinson 2013) and depend on the disciplinary and institutional contexts (Deem and
Brehony 2000; Gardner 2008). Post-PhDs might have stronger research networks due to
longer trajectories, but they often lack institutional support structures (Scaﬃdi and Berman
2011; Skakni et al. 2019; van der Weijden et al. 2016). Although both groups report
signiﬁcant ﬁnancial and job problems, such as underpayment and diﬃcult access to
funding, post-PhDs seem to be particularly struggling due to higher precarity (van der
Weijden et al. 2016) and increasing demands from their workplaces. This includes more
pressure to publish, secure funding for projects, undertake other institutional tasks (such as
teaching and administrative tasks) and be more mobile than doctoral researchers (Kyvik
and Aksnes 2015; Turner 2015). Finally, there is some evidence that the nature of employ-
ment (e.g. full/part-time; short/long-term contracts) can vary nationally and by discipline
(Janger, Campbell, and Strauss 2019; van der Weijden et al. 2016).
ECRs need to be very agentive and strategic in accessing and navigating a research career
in such complex conditions (McAlpine and Amundsen 2009; Ryazanova and McNamara
2018). The decisions ECRs make are inﬂuenced by contextual factors (e.g. perceived
constraints and opportunities), personal values, motivations and intentions (McAlpine
2012) and the way in which they experience and interpret events and situations (Leonard
et al. 2006; Skakni and McAlpine 2017). Indeed, the meanings ECRs make of negative or
positive events and the extent to which they manage emotional responses, develop resi-
lience and self-belief, to emotionally challenging experiences (McAlpine 2016), are also
crucial in understanding individuals’ decision-making (Edwards and Ashkanasy 2018;
Kaplan et al. 2016; Sala-Bubaré and Castello 2017). How ECRs interpret and respond to
emotionally challenging events is, in turn, related to their sense of self–their identity as
researchers (Kaplan et al. 2016; McAlpine 2012).
Many studies have explored the experiences and identity development of academics
and ECRs (see, for instance, Åkerlind 2008). However, few have focused on the way
ECRs make sense of these experiences or on the feelings involved. (In the next section,
we provide an overview of the studies focused on the topic.) Moreover, research
remains scarce about how these two diﬀerent roles (i.e. doctoral researchers and post-
PhDs) may deal diﬀerently with these issues and there is no research we are aware of
that examines the meaning given to signiﬁcant experiences across countries.
This study builds on a longstanding research collaboration among scholars in Spain,
Switzerland and UK to explore the sense ECRs make of the most signiﬁcant positive and
negative events in their research trajectories across roles and the three countries. Looking
at this does not only provide insight about the events themselves but also, and most
importantly, sheds light on individuals’ current knowledge, attitudes and sense of self
(Kaplan et al. 2016). Moreover, as perceptions are likely to change as researchers progress
in their careers (Edwards and Ashkanasy 2018), comparing doctoral researchers’ and
post-PhDs’ view can help us understand how ECRs’ interpretation of their experiences
changes over time.
2A. SALA-BUBARÉ ET AL.
The study is guided by the following research questions:
●What sense do ECRs report making of their most signiﬁcant positive and negative
●How do feelings related to these events change over time?
●What are the diﬀerences and similarities between doctoral researchers and post-
PhDs in the sense-making of the signiﬁcant events they reported and the feelings
●What are the diﬀerences and similarities across Spanish, UK and Swiss ECRs in the
sense-making of the signiﬁcant events they reported and the associated feelings?
In the next sections, we present the conceptual framework in which the study is framed
and the description of the three national research contexts.
This study draws on both the critical incident approach (Butterﬁeld et al. 2005; Flanagan
1954) and the concept of sense-making (Weick 1995). From this perspective, we deﬁne
signiﬁcant events as similar to critical incidents in that they are events that stand out from
the everyday (Martin 1996) or are vivid happenings that are considered signiﬁcant or
memorable (Brookﬁeld 1998) in the course of individuals’ lives and career trajectories. In
this study, we focus on both the most positive and negative – or upsetting – events
participants have encountered so far. These events constitute what McAdams (2008)
would qualify as the high and low points of the ECRs’ academic trajectories.
The range of signiﬁcant events that mark ECRs’ trajectories is broad. They include
diﬀerent aspects of research, such as writing and publication (e.g. Fisher et al. 2019) and
relationships within the research community (e.g. Boyd, Delk, and Russell 2016). For the
purpose of this study, we were more interested in analysing how these events were
interpreted by our participants than in the nature of the events themselves. Asking
participants to recall and describe in writing the most signiﬁcant events that have marked
their academic trajectories gave us access to the way they express personal memories and
emotions (Graci and Fivush 2017). In that sense, remembering past events is more than
simply recollecting facts and observations; through this process, individuals reconstruct
their autobiographical memories into subjective, meaningful experiences that shape their
identities, orient their future behaviour and connect them with others (McLean,
Pasupathi, and Pals 2007). Thus, recalling and describing signiﬁcant events can be
considered part of a re-storying development process (Elliott 2005) in which the sig-
niﬁcance that individuals attribute to such events might be more important than the
Indeed, individuals understand the world and make sense of reality through their
experiences (Weick 1995). Sense-making can therefore be deﬁned as the process through
which people assign meaning to personal or professional experiences (Weick 1995).
Sense-making occurs when individuals or groups encounter issues or events that are
surprising, confusing or ambiguous (Colville, Brown, and Pye 2012). By reducing
equivocality and creating coherence (Elliott 2005), sense-making enables ECRs to initiate
change, make decisions or adopt strategies to resolve their career development issues
(Mills, Thurlow, and Mills 2010). According to Weick, Sutcliﬀe, and Obstfeld (2005),
sense-making is grounded in identity construction since a person’s identity is continually
re-storied, re-constructed, as a result of interpretations of personal and professional
experiences and contact with others in light of past personal experiences (Elliott 2005).
For this reason, the same signiﬁcant event may be experienced and interpreted diﬀerently
from person to person. Thus, in the case of ECRs, signiﬁcant events can either con-
solidate or call into question their still-developing researcher’s identity. Moreover, sense-
making occurs within speciﬁc nested contexts (McAlpine and Norton 2006) – in this
case, three national academic systems (macro-context) – though diﬀerent universities
(meso-context) – and is contingent on social interactions (micro-contexts). Hence, ECRs’
sense-making can be seen as either constrained or enhanced by their national regulations
and disciplinary research cultures, their institutional conditions or their daily work
environments. Their respective national and institutional work environments’ rules,
norms and languages inﬂuence how they make sense of activities and events while
providing them with guidelines for appropriate conduct (Mills, Thurlow, and Mills
Feelings are important in this sense-making (Maitlis, Vogus, and Lawrence 2013).
Deﬁned as the subjective and conscious experience of emotions, feelings and their
regulation are culturally-rooted and present great variations across individuals due to
many personal and social factors (De Leersnyder, Boiger, and Mesquita 2013; Diener
et al. 1995; Keith 2019; Matsumoto, Yoo, and Fontaine 2008). Feelings direct personal
attention to certain cues in an experience (Öhman, Flykt, and Esteves 2001) and reveal
the surprising or unusual dimensions of ongoing events. They inﬂuence how individuals
interpret these events, revise their beliefs and make decisions. Thus, the feelings related
by signiﬁcant events are crucial to shaping the sense-making process that follows
(Maitlis, Vogus, and Lawrence 2013).
The scarce body of research exploring feelings involved in academic and research work
suggests that feelings are an important part of ECRs’ experiences and emerge in a wide
variety of areas, such as writing, relationship with the community or engagement with
sensitive topics and populations (Cotterall 2013; Doharty 2019; Sala-Bubaré and Castello
2017; Skakni and McAlpine 2017). Both doctoral researchers and post-PhDs expressed
frequent, varied, intense and complex emotions related to their research life. Research also
suggests the power of positive emotions in promoting ECRs’ engagement, maintenance of
motivation (Gloria and Steinhardt 2017; McAlpine 2012; Skakni and McAlpine 2017) and
resilience to negative emotional experiences (McAlpine 2016). Ambivalent or contradicting
emotions are frequent, and even negative experiences can eventually lead to positive
emotions (Aitchison and Mowbray 2013). ECRs’ ability to deal with diﬃcult situations
and learn from them is an important factor in understanding their persistence in working
towards their goals (McAlpine 2016; Wisker and Robinson 2013).
National research contexts
While the three countries in this study are part of Western Europe, they are
culturally diverse and have diﬀerent research systems. At the doctoral level, the
main diﬀerences refer to the proportion of doctoral researchers who are interna-
tional; part-time; and self-funded, and the status conferred on them in their
4A. SALA-BUBARÉ ET AL.
institution, either employees or students. In the three countries, the employment
rate of doctorate holders is high, but few of them will eventually ﬁnd a position in
academia. However, the proportion of doctorate holders who work in universities
diﬀers slightly between the three countries.
In 2017–2018, there were almost 80,000 doctoral researchers in Spain. Amongst them,
49.8% are women 25.1% are international doctoral researchers, mostly from Latin
America (MCIU 2019), and 33% are part-time (OECD 2019). Doctoral researchers
have student status, and they may also have faculty status if they have a pre-doctoral
scholarship. Around 12–20% of them have funding to do a PhD (MCIU 2019).
The employment rate of doctoral holders is 80%, higher than people with lower
degrees and their salaries are 60% higher (Caparrós-Ruiz 2019). However, new graduates
face diﬃculties to secure a job in academia. While 60% of doctorate holders are working
in Higher Education sectors (OECD 2019), these ﬁgures are much higher in Arts and
Social Sciences than in STEM. In public universities, only 45.4% of the faculty hold
permanent positions (MCIU 2019), and there has been a dramatic increase of fake
adjunct professors (falsos profesores asociados,
in Spanish) (32.6%). Many hold this
position for years or they go through one or several post-docs, often in other European
countries, until they can apply for tenure-track positions.
In 2018, around 25,400 people were undertaking a PhD in one of the 10 research-oriented
Swiss universities. Amongst them 46.7 % were female and 55,8% international (OECD
2019). In the Swiss context, people undertaking a PhD are generally not considered
students but junior researchers or ‘doctoral assistants’. While most PhD programmes are
not structured (e.g. no curriculum or doctoral exams), individuals are often hired by
a university on ﬁve-year contracts for which they must dedicate 50% of their working
time to teaching/research assistantship duties and the remaining 50% to the thesis itself.
One year after completing their thesis, 33% of doctoral graduates are working in
a research position at a university on ﬁxed-term contracts, 58% are engaged in another
type of professional activity, while the remaining 9% are unemployed (4%) or not seeking
employment (5%) (FSO 2018). In Switzerland, PhD holders generally must wait for 6 to
10 years after the PhD before being perceived as experienced enough for applying to
tenure track positions in academia. Five years after graduation, 34% of the PhDs hold an
academic position in a university (research or teaching – permanent or ﬁxed-term
contracts), while 61% hold positions outside academia (FSO 2018). Ultimately, around
15% of PhD holders get a tenure track position, one of the lowest rates amongst OECD
countries (OECD 2019).
In 2018–19 112,815 postgraduate research students were studying in the UK 101,885 of
whom were in doctoral programmes (HESA 2020). Amongst the postgraduate research
population, 48.8% were female, and 41.2% were international (HESA 2020). Part-time
students accounted for 24.2% (HESA 2020). Doctoral candidates have student status and
about one third of students are self-funded (Vitae, n.d.b.). Funding is provided primarily
by universities (21% of students) and research councils (15% of students) (Vitae, n.d.b.).
Although UK PhD programmes are designed to take between 3 and 4 years, for many
students it is likely to take much longer (Jump 2013).
The unemployment rate amongst PhD holders has been estimated at around 3%, which
is lower than that of holders of lower degrees (Vitae, n.d.a.). However, ﬁnding and
maintaining a career in academia remains challenging, and 63% of PhD holders in the
sciences and 39% of PhD holders in arts, humanities and social sciences work in sectors
outside higher education (Vitae 2019). Within academia, only 33% of academic staﬀ were
on ﬁxed-term contracts as of 2017–18 (HESA 2019). Further, pursuing an academic career
in the UK typically requires several years of post-doctoral experience before progressing to
lecturer and then professorial positions (European University Institute 2018).
Participants in this study were 544 ECRs aﬃliated in research-intensive universities in
(40), Switzerland (4) and the UK (28). Of these, 357 were doctoral researchers and
187 were post-PhDs. See Table 1 for distribution across countries. Females represented
62.9% of participants. The mean age was 33.9. Most of them were ECRs in the
Humanities and Social Sciences (86.5%) and 13.5% were STEM researchers.
This study is part of a larger European mixed-method project about researcher identity
development (see, for instance, Castelló, Pyhältö, and McAlpine 2018; McAlpine,
Pyhältö, and Castelló 2017). During this project, researchers from diﬀerent countries
developed a cross-national questionnaire to explore ECRs’ research experiences and
conceptions. The present study focuses on two free-write items of the questionnaire:
the positive and negative signiﬁcant events.
This scale has two structured open-ended questions about the most signiﬁcant events
experienced – a) positive and b) negative – since the beginning of their doctoral/
postdoctoral journey until the moment they responded to the questionnaire. The struc-
tured nature of the open-ended questions ensured that participants provided enough
detail for researchers to understand the experience. For both events, respondents were
asked to describe what happened, why the event was important, how they felt at that time
Table 1. Distribution of participants across countries and roles.
TotalUK Switzerland Spain
ROLE Doctoral student 99 123 135 357
Post-PhD 60 42 85 187
Total 159 165 220 544
6A. SALA-BUBARÉ ET AL.
and how they currently felt about the same event (survey questions, as well as some
examples of responses, are provided in the results).
Researchers contacted doctoral schools and heads of department at several universities
in each country and asked for their collaboration in sending out an invitation to respond
the survey to all doctoral researchers and post-PhDs in their institution. Snowballing was
also used to recruit post-PhDs working within academia, as they were more diﬃcult to
reach through the initial contacts. The survey took 15–20 minutes to complete. Before
answering, participants received written information about the project and gave their
consent to participate according to the research ethics clearance at the respective
Data analysis involved a two-step process. First, cross-national thematic analysis was
conducted on the participants’ answers from the three countries. Particularly, we looked
at the meaning they made of the positive and negative experiences described in the survey
(sense-making) and the eﬀect of time on their feelings (inuence of time on feelings). The
coding scheme developed by Skakni and McAlpine (2017) was the basis of the thematic
analyses and was revised and extended to accommodate data and linguistic diﬀerences in
the meaning and scope of the codes and their deﬁnitions. All codes were deﬁned in a way
that could be used to describe both positive and negative experiences to allow for
comparison. Table 2 shows the codes, subcodes and deﬁnitions in each dimension.
The authors, organised in three country teams, conducted the analysis using
MAXQDA 12 software through a collaborative consensus approach (Syed and Nelson
2015). To ensure consistency within the dataset and especially across the national
databases, the team started coding excerpts of English data, as it was the lingua franca
of the team. In this phase, researchers discussed examples of the data and familiarised
themselves with the coding system. Then, each country team coded a set of responses in
the national database, noting doubts, disagreements and suggestions for revision of the
codebook that were brought to discussion with the whole group. This big group-country
team-big group iteration was repeated several times until we developed a shared under-
standing of codes and data. Then, each country team coded the remaining responses of
their national data. In each step, the codebook was revised, and more examples were
included when necessary. Responses that did not provide enough description of the
meaning of the experience, were coded with ‘other sense-making’ and were excluded
from further analysis. Likewise, responses that did not provide enough information about
the feelings related to the experience, were coded with ‘other eﬀects of time’ and were
excluded from further analysis.
Interrater reliability tests were conducted within each country group for at least 30%
of participants’ responses to ensure consistency among coders. In all cases, and for all the
categories, agreement rate was higher than 75%. Disagreements were discussed until
consensus was reached.
To further illustrate the coding system, we provide three examples of the coding
signiﬁcant events in relation to sense-making and inﬂuence of time on feelings. In the
ﬁrst example, a female post-PhD in the UK (post_UK_75) reports a negative event coded
as Future career implications, and Evolution of feelings – negative to positive:
●The most negative event or experience from the beginning of my doctoral/post-
doctoral journey until now was when [please note when, where and who was
involved]: When I repeatedly made coding errors in a Matlab script & even more
during a time when I saw no future career chances because I had a delay in publishing
●This event or experience was important to me because: being able to do your job well
is a prerequisite for doing the job at all; publishing is a prerequisite for getting a good
●At that time I felt: downcast
●In relation to this, now, I feel: much better
In this second example, a male doctoral researcher in Switzerland (doc_SW_32) reports
a negative event coded as Insights/Lessons and evolution of feelings – negative to neutral:
●The most negative event or experience from the beginning of my doctoral/post-
doctoral journey until now was when [please note when, where and who was
involved]: medical leave due to a professional overload, in the 3rd year of my thesis.
Table 2. Coding system used in the thematic analysis.
Motivation Variation in the desire to continue–or not–activities, experiences or eﬀorts towards hoped-for
goals (outcomes): must either a) reduce or b) drive, direct or incentivise towards desires,
interests, meanings, purpose, usefulness, sense or engagement in the experience.
Accomplishment Seeing the event as an accomplishment (or lack thereof). It potentially involves hard work, extra
eﬀort or something diﬃcult to achieve, unique, special and important, or that was done for
the ﬁrst time.
Validation by others The individual or their research work in general or speciﬁcally is either validate or call into
question their growing sense of being a researcher. It includes the eﬀects of feedback,
comments and evaluation made by others about one’s work/progression.
Self-validation Personal aﬃrmation or questioning of legitimacy and ability as a researcher or of the relevance
of one’s work.
The event has implications in the individual’s future career. It includes perceived restrictions,
uncertainty and pressure but also opportunities or favourable circumstances for the future.
Insights/Lessons Nature of insights, lessons or Aha! moments emerging from the experience that the individual
made more broadly than just about the event.
INFLUENCE OF TIME ON FEELINGS
PERSISTENCE OF FEELINGS
Positive Persistence over time of positive feelings. It included all the emotions/aﬀect even if the speciﬁc
Negative Persistence over time of negative feelings. It included all the emotions/aﬀect even if the speciﬁc
Neutral Persistence over time of perceptions that are low or no emotional component (more cognitive
or objective description of impact). It also includes feelings both positive and negative.
EVOLUTION OF FEELINGS
The emotion associated with the signiﬁcant event changes over time from positive to neutral.
The emotion associated with the signiﬁcant event changes over time from positive to negative.
The emotion associated with the signiﬁcant event changes over time from negative to neutral.
The emotion associated with the signiﬁcant event changes over time from negative to positive.
The emotion associated with the signiﬁcant event changes over time from neutral to positive.
The emotion associated with the signiﬁcant event changes over time from neutral to negative.
8A. SALA-BUBARÉ ET AL.
●This event or experience was important to me because: it was my ﬁrst experience of
[burnout] and because it allowed me to realise that I didn’t want to sacriﬁce my life for
●At that time I felt: Collapsed, anxious, defeatist, guilty.
●In relation to this, now, I feel: I want to make sure it doesn’t happen again.
Finally, the last example, a female doctoral researcher in Spain (doc_SP_110) describes
a positive coded as validation by others and persistence of feelings – positive:
●The most positive event or experience from the beginning of my doctoral/post-
doctoral journey until now was when [please note when, where and who was
involved]: I was appointed representative of my university for the [Name] Conference
●This event or experience was important to me because: I felt my work was being
●At that time, I felt: Very happy
●In relation to this, now, I feel: Glad
As a second step, the analysis of all participants’ responses (frequencies of codes for each
participant) was transferred to the statistical software SPSS 22 for quantitizing purposes
(Sandelowski, Voils, and Knaﬂ 2009). Relationships between dimensions and diﬀerences
across countries and ECR roles were assessed using Chi-square tests. We used adjusted
standardised residuals to identify the cells in which frequencies were signiﬁcantly diﬀer-
ent than expected, that is when z values fall outside ±1.96 (Field 2013). The eﬀect size of
the signiﬁcant relationships was measured through Cramer’s V.
Findings are presented in three sections. First, we present frequencies of the diﬀerent
ways in which participants made sense of the experiences and the inﬂuence of time on
their feelings. Second, we focus on the diﬀerences between doctoral researchers and post-
PhDs in relation to the two dimensions of analysis. Finally, the third section is devoted to
the diﬀerences across the three countries. In each section, we highlight the results which,
from our view, are the most interesting and have more implications for practice and
Participants’ sense-making and inuence of time on their feelings
Sense-making. The way in which participants made sense of their experiences was diverse
depending on whether they talked about positive or negative experiences. When describ-
ing positive events, our participants highlighted more frequently the importance of
accomplishment, validation by others and self-validation. In contrast, future career
implications and insights and lessons were much more frequent when describing nega-
tive experiences (see Table 3).
Eect of time on feelings. As we observed in participants’ sense-making, if we look at
the general eﬀects of time on their feelings related to the most signiﬁcant experiences they
reported, we see there are no big diﬀerences between persistence (52.9%) and evolution
of feelings (47.1%) (see Table 4). However, once again, the diﬀerences are large between
positive and negative experiences. The feelings related to a positive experience were
much more likely to persist over time, whereas feelings associated with negative experi-
ences tended to change towards neutral and positive feelings to a greater extent. Not
surprisingly, neutral feelings were not frequent at the time the event happened, as
participants described the most signiﬁcant experiences they encountered.
As some of the categories were quite infrequent (e.g. neutral towards negative),
categories were re-grouped to calculate the relationship between variables. For positive
experiences, we re-coded the persistence of feelings as a) positive and b) others, and the
evolution of feelings into a) positive – change for those experiences that were initially
positive but changed (that is, positive towards neutral and positive towards negative), and
b) the other four codes were grouped into others – change. For the negative experiences,
the same logic was followed: for persistence of feelings, we re-grouped into a) negative
and b) others, and for the evolution of feelings, the re-grouping was: a) negative – change
for those experiences that were initially negative, and b) others – change for the remaining
codes (initially positive and neutral experiences).
Dierences and similarities between doctoral researchers’ and post-PhDs’
interpretation of the experiences
Sense-making. The relationship between participants’ role and sense-making of the
positive experiences was found to be statistically signiﬁcant (χ2 (5) = 18.27, Cramer’s
Table 3. Frequency of the diﬀerent types of sense-making for positive and negative experiences.
Positive Negative Total
N % N % N %
Motivation 73 14.7 54 13.6 127 14.3
Accomplishment 120 24.2 50 12.6 170 19.1
Validation by others 136 27.5 37 9.3 173 19.4
Self-validation 111 22.4 34 8.6 145 16.3
Future career implications 41 8.3 70 17.7 111 12.5
Insights and Lessons 14 2.8 151 38.1 165 18.5
TOTALS 495 100 396 100 891 100
Table 4. Frequency of the diﬀerent eﬀects of time on feelings for positive and negative experiences.
Positive Negative Total
N % N % N %
PERSISTENCE OF FEELINGS 371 71.9 162 33.0 533 52.9
Positive 351 68.0 9 1.8 360 35.7
Negative 2 0.4 137 27.9 139 13.8
Neutral 18 3.5 16 3.3 34 3.4
EVOLUTION OF FEELINGS 145 28.1 329 67.0 474 47.1
Positive towards neutral 91 17.6 1 0.2 92 9.1
Positive towards negative 30 5.8 3 0.6 33 3.3
Negative towards neutral 7 1.4 212 43.2 219 21.7
Negative towards positive 8 1.6 108 22.0 116 11.5
Neutral towards positive 9 1.7 4 0.8 13 1.3
Neutral towards negative 0 0.0 1 0.2 1 0.1
TOTALS 516 100 491 100 1007 100
10 A. SALA-BUBARÉ ET AL.
V =.19, p < .01). As we see in Table 5, doctoral researchers and post-PhDs diﬀered in
relation to accomplishment and future implications, which were more frequently men-
tioned by post-PhDs, and insights and lessons, which doctoral researchers described
signiﬁcantly more than their counterparts.
The two roles also interpreted the negative events diﬀerently (χ2 (5) = 19.63, Cramer’s
V = .22, p < .01) (see Table 6). As with positive events, post-PhDs mentioned future
career implications much more frequently than doctoral researchers, whereas the latter
mentioned motivational issues signiﬁcantly more than post-PhDs. Interestingly, we see
that both doctoral researchers and post-PhDs reported the insights and lessons they
learned from negative experiences as the most frequent sense-making.
Eect of time on feelings. Diﬀerences are much smaller when looking at ECRs’ feelings
and the eﬀect of time, both for positive and negative events (p > .05). Doctoral research-
ers and post-PhDs described primarily positive feelings related to the positive events, and
these feelings were normally maintained over time. In contrast, as explained in the
previous subsection, the feeling associated with negative experiences changed quite
frequently, and we do not see diﬀerences between doctoral researchers and post-PhDs
in this regard.
Dierences and similarities between Spanish, UK and Swiss early career
researchers’ interpretation of the experiences
Sense-making. Statistically signiﬁcant relationships were found between participants’
country and their sense-making of both positive (χ2 (10) = 37.55, Cramer’s V = .20,
p < .01) and negative experiences (χ2 (10) = 120.96, Cramer’s V = .39, p < .01). In relation
to positive events, the meanings most frequently mentioned by Spanish ECRs were
related to validation by others and accomplishment, like Swiss ECRs (see Table 7). UK
ECRs were signiﬁcantly diﬀerent from their counterparts in that they mentioned fewer
events related to validation by others and more related to self-validation. Spanish parti-
cipants also mentioned future career implications and especially gaining insights and
lessons more frequently than participants in the other countries.
As for the negative experiences, there are several diﬀerences across countries (see
Table 8). Spanish ECRs mentioned many more insights and lessons than the other
countries, especially the UK, and more accomplishment issues than Swiss ECRs.
However, they mentioned fewer problems related to future constraints than the other
two countries, signiﬁcantly fewer negative experiences related to lack of self-validation
and motivation than UK ECRs, and less negative experiences related to validation by
others than Swiss ECRs.
Table 5. Doctoral researchers’ and post-PhDs’ sense-making of positive experiences.
N 53 71 95 80 19 13
% 16.0 21.5 28.7 24.2 5.7 3.9
−2.1 −2.9 2.1
Post-PhDs N 20 49 41 31 22 1
% 12.2 29.9 25.0 18.9 13.4 .6
z 2.1 2.9 −2.1
Eect of time on feelings. As explained before, for most of the positive events across the
three groups of participants, the feelings triggered were positive and stayed positive over
time (see Table 9). However, we observed some statistically signiﬁcant diﬀerences across
the three countries (χ2 (6) = 63.01, Cramer’s V = .25, p < .01). UK participants reported
signiﬁcantly more events in which feelings evolved due to time. This was true for events
that were initially positive, as well as those that were initially negative and neutral. In
turn, Swiss participants reported signiﬁcantly more persistence of positive feelings than
There are fewer diﬀerences among countries in relation to the negative experiences.
Only the persistence of negative feelings was statistically signiﬁcant across them (χ2
(6) = 19.42, Cramer’s V = .14, p < .01). Although, as mentioned above, feelings related to
negative experiences were more likely to evolve from negative to neutral or positive
feelings, Swiss participants reported signiﬁcantly higher persistence of the negative feelings
than the other two countries, and especially more than Spanish ECRs (see Table 10).
Table 6. Doctoral researchers’ and post-PhDs’ sense-making of negative experiences.
N 44 27 27 24 33 94
% 17.7 10.8 10.8 9.6 13.3 37.8
z 3.0 −3.0
Post-PhDs N 10 23 10 10 37 57
% 6.8 15.6 6.8 6.8 25.2 38.8
z −3.0 3.0
Table 7. Spanish, UK and Swiss ECRs’ sense-making of positive experiences.
Spain N 24 46 53 36 26 12
% 12.2 23.4 26.9 18.3 13.2 6.1
z 3.2 3.6
UK N 25 40 29 45 8 1
% 16.9 27.0 19.6 30.4 5.4 .7
z −2.6 2.8
Switzerland N 24 34 54 30 7 1
% 16.0 22.7 36.0 20.0 4.7 .7
Table 8. Spanish, UK and Swiss ECRs’ sense-making of negative experiences.
Spain N 14 31 6 7 17 113
% 7.4 16.5 3.2 3.7 9 60.1
z −3.4 2.2 −3.3 −4.3 8.6
UK N 25 18 13 18 29 10
% 22.1 15.9 11.5 15.9 25.7 8.8
z 3.1 3.3 2.6 −7.6
Switzerland N 15 1 18 9 24 28
% 15.8 1.1 18.9 9.5 25.3 29.5
z −3.9 3.7 2.2 −2.0
12 A. SALA-BUBARÉ ET AL.
This study sought to explore early career researchers’ (ECRs) interpretations of the most
signiﬁcant positive and negative events in their trajectories and the diﬀerences and
similarities across roles (either doctoral researchers or post-PhD) and three countries
(in this case, Spain, UK and Switzerland).
In line with Weick, Sutcliﬀe, and Obstfeld (2005) view of sense-making, the analysis
revealed that ECRs make sense of their most signiﬁcant events in diverse ways and that
the meaning they attribute to them varied depending on whether the experience was
positive or negative. ECRs considered positive events to be validation of their skills or the
quality of their work, either by themselves or others, or they considered these events as
providing a sense of accomplishment, which may be seen as another way of validating
their skills and trajectory. It seems that for ECRs the positive events that boosted or
reaﬃrmed their identity as researchers (McAlpine and Amundsen 2009) were particu-
larly signiﬁcant. In contrast, the most negative events were reported for their impact on
ECRs’ future career and motivation and, interestingly, for the insights and lessons they
could draw from them. The fact that more than a third of the participants described what
they learned from the most negative experiences they encountered when asked after some
time, speaks to the resilience and the agency researchers develop when dealing with
diﬃculties and barriers (Turner 2015). Resilience was also evidenced in the inﬂuence of
time on feelings, as most of the ECRs managed to reinterpret initially negative feelings
(Edwards and Ashkanasy 2018; Kaplan et al. 2016) to move towards positive feelings.
This ability to reinterpret and learn from negative experiences is not only a particularly
important skill to navigate academic careers, but it is also key for the development and
Table 9. The eﬀect of time on Spanish, UK and Swiss ECRs’ feelings related to positive experiences.
Persistence of feelings Evolution of feelings
Positive – persistence Others – persistence Positive – change Others – change
Spain N 151 9 45 5
% 71.9 4.3 21.4 2.4
UK N 71 8 58 17
% 46.1 5.2 37.7 11.0
z −7.0 5.0 4.5
Switzerland N 129 2 18 2
% 85.4 1.3 11.9 1.3
z 5.4 −4.0 −2.3
Table 10. The eﬀect of time on Spanish, UK and Swiss ECRs’ feelings related to negative experiences.
Persistence of feelings Evolution of feelings
Negative – persistence Others – persistence Negative – change Others – change
Spain N 46 15 147
% 22.1 7.2 70.7
UK N 40 6 96 4
% 27.4 4.1 65.8 2.7
Switzerland N 50 5 83
% 36.2 3.6 60.1
consolidation of their identity as researchers, as individuals tend to orient their future in
order to anticipate and overcome the diﬃculties (McAlpine and Amundsen 2009;
Ryazanova and McNamara 2018). We believe asking ECRs to recall and describe these
events might have helped them in this process (Graci and Fivush 2017; McLean,
Pasupathi, and Pals 2007).
In our study, doctoral researchers and post-PhDs were alike in regard to agency and
resilience as they seemed to manage feelings in similar ways. These results suggest that
individual variation in the way ECRs deal with and regulate their feelings is more
important than the years of experience in academia (Bonanno and Burton 2013;
Matsumoto, Yoo, and Fontaine 2008). However, we observed some diﬀerences between
roles. Doctoral researchers reported events that harmed their motivation more than twice
as much as post-PhDs, which may indicate that the more experience researchers have in
academia, the stronger their will to pursue an academic career is, and the more strategies
they have to maintain motivation despite diﬃculties. In turn, because sense-making is
grounded in identity construction (Weick, Sutcliﬀe, and Obstfeld 2005), this result may
also relate to diﬀerences in their still-developing identity as researchers (McAlpine and
Amundsen 2017), which is likely to be more consolidated amongst post-PhDs.
Another interesting, yet not surprising, diﬀerence between doctoral researchers and
post-PhDs was that post-PhDs gave much more importance to implications for their
future career both in the negative and positive events (Scaﬃdi and Berman 2011; Skakni
and McAlpine 2017). Since post-PhDs often experience more job insecurity and precarity
(Skakni et al. 2019; Woolston 2015), they are also more likely to value opportunities for
future career to a greater extent than doctoral researchers. Moreover, doctoral research-
ers are in a process that has an end. Obtaining their diploma is a goal for which they must
maintain their motivation over the years. While many doctoral researchers seek an
academic career (Lambert et al. 2020; Skakni 2018), others might already have a job in
the public sector or industry, or might not want to pursue an academic career after
graduation. Their concerns often seem to be related to the ability to ﬁnish, or to a sense of
belonging – or not belonging-to academia (Pyhältö, Stubb, and Lonka 2009; Sala-Bubaré
and Castello 2017). Most postdocs are rather in a transitional stage which explains their
focus on the next steps and their concerns about events that might impact their career
trajectories (van der Weijden et al. 2016).
The results also revealed important diﬀerences across countries. In relation to their sense-
making of signiﬁcant events, UK ECRs were more likely to report self-validation (or lack
thereof) and negative impact on motivation to a greater extent, whereas Swiss researchers gave
more (positive and negative) importance to external validation. Spanish ECRs reported more
often the lessons learnt from the positive and negative events, the impact of an event on their
future opportunities, and a perceived lack of accomplishment induced by an event.
It is likely that some of the diﬀerences observed relate to dissimilarities in the research
culture in each country (Deem and Brehony 2000). Previous studies conducted by our
team and involving some of the same participants suggested Spanish doctoral researchers
have a greater interest in research as knowledge creation and personal and professional
development than UK and Finnish doctoral researchers (Pyhältö et al. 2020).
Moreover, in the UK and Switzerland, the environment and job market are arguably
more competitive in the academic sector than in industry (Pyhältö et al. 2020; McAlpine,
Skakni, and Inouye forthcoming). Switzerland has one of the lowest rates among OECD
14 A. SALA-BUBARÉ ET AL.
countries of PhD holders working in the academic sector (OECD 2019). In the UK, the
academic sector suﬀers from greater job precariousness and economic pressure, with
casualisation of post-PhDs and cost of doctoral programmes rapidly increasing in the last
years (University and College Union 2019). In contrast, in Spain, such diﬀerences are
smaller. The insecurity in non-academic sectors is also very high (OECD 2019) and the
attractiveness of jobs within academia is lower than in the other two countries (Janger,
Campbell, and Strauss 2019). Moreover, the low number of funded doctoral researchers
implies that many of them also hold a job outside academia. It is thus plausible to assume
that there is a higher proportion of Spanish ECRs that do not seek a career in academia,
which may explain the diﬀerences in the sense-making between Spanish, Swiss and UK
In turn, for the UK and Swiss participants, the inﬂuence of time on feelings was the
same for positive and negative events: UK ECRs were more likely to report persistence in
their feelings (whether positive or negative), whereas Swiss participants described
changes in the feelings over time to a greater extent. Spanish ECRs, in turn, were less
likely to maintain feelings related to negative events. These results might be related to the
sense ECRs made of the experiences. As discussed above, Spanish researchers were more
likely to focus on lessons learnt from negative events, which could explain why the related
feelings changed over time, generally from negative to positive. In turn, UK participants
tended to focus more on experiences they see as self-validation, which may have a more
lasting impact on their emotions (e.g. feeling more conﬁdent after a ﬁrst paper is accepted
for publication) than eﬀects of external validations more frequently reported by Swiss
ECRs (e.g. negative feedback from reviewers).
However, we are mindful of the limits of our interpretation, as it is beyond the scope of
this study to explore the mechanisms that inﬂuence ECRs’ sense-making processes.
Diﬀerences in the expression and interpretation of feelings are very likely to go beyond
research context inﬂuences. Studies exploring feelings in diverse areas and populations
have repeatedly found important cultural diﬀerences in the meaning of feelings and the
cultural rules for their expression and communication between individuals (Diener et al.
1995), especially when it comes to intense experiences such as the ones analysed in this
study (De Leersnyder, Boiger, and Mesquita 2013). In some cases, studies also show
cultural diﬀerences in the regulation and suppression of negative feelings (Keith 2019;
Matsumoto, Yoo, and Fontaine 2008).
Beyond these speciﬁc suppositions, all noted diﬀerences across countries are likely to
be aﬀecting participants’ sense-making of their experiences in diverse and complex ways
(Weick, Sutcliﬀe, and Obstfeld 2005). Thus, further research needs to be conducted to
explore the mechanisms by which research-related country cultures may inﬂuence ECRs’
experience and trajectory by collecting extensive information about participants’
research conditions and contexts. Further, such research should attend to the interaction
of role and cultural and workplace practices.
This study did not look at potential diﬀerences with regards to other important
sociodemographic and work-related aspects, such as gender, age and availability of
institutional and interpersonal support. While we recognise the likely impact of these
factors, their analysis was beyond the scope of this article; in fact, it constitutes
a challenge for future research. Another potential limitation of our study was the use
of surveys instead of in-depth interviews to explore ECRs’ sense-making. While the
choice was intentional, we acknowledge the need for future research to explore in greater
depth the diﬀerences and relationships reported in this paper.
This study was one of the ﬁrst to explore diﬀerences and similarities in the sense-making
and feelings of the most signiﬁcant events between doctoral researchers and post-PhDs
across three European countries. Our results suggest that ECRs value diﬀerent aspects of
their experiences depending on their role and that resilience (through shifting negative
into positive perceptions over time) is common (and arguably a desirable trait). The
widespread ability to focus on the lessons learnt from the most negative events was
another interesting ﬁnding. Furthermore, the evidence of possible interaction between
role and cultural/workplace practices suggests the need for further research, especially in
the current context in which high mobility is expected from post-PhDs.
Results highlight the importance of supporting ECRs in the development of resilience
and strategies to cope with and learn from failure and deception (Edwards and Ashkanasy
2018) but also to help them make sense of success and accomplishments, as they have
a signiﬁcant contribution to ECRs’ identity as researchers (McAlpine 2012). Promoting
reﬂection about their experience is key to developing agency and having a more positive
and successful trajectory. The cross-national ﬁndings might inform the design of suprana-
tional training resources and European policy-based recommendations.
1. ‘Profesor asociado’ is an underpaid casual part-time non-tenure track category at Spanish
universities that was initially meant for expert professionals working outside academia.
Nowadays most early career researchers take this position to start their career in academia
even though they do not have a job outside university. Contracts are typically for
3–12 months and involve 3–12 hours/week of teaching and have no research load.
2. The project was based and funded by the Spanish government and mostly focused on
doctoral researchers. So, in the overall sample Spanish doctoral researchers were much more
numerous than were those in the UK and Switzerland. Thus, for the purpose of comparison,
in this study we randomly selected a subsample of approximately 12% of doctoral research-
ers who completed the free-write signiﬁcant experiences items of the questionnaire
(n = 1135) was selected using the ‘Select cases: Random sample’ feature of SPSS 22.
3. Only statistically signiﬁcant z values are displayed to make tables easier to interpret.
No potential conﬂict of interest was reported by the authors.
This work was supported by the European Commission under the programmeEuropean Erasmus
+ Programme the project ‘Researcher Identity Development: Strengthening Science in Society
Strategies’ [grant number 2017-1-ES01-KA203-038303] and by the Fonds de recherche du
Québec – Société et culture [grant number 2016- Q24 B3-193871].
16 A. SALA-BUBARÉ ET AL.
A. Sala-Bubaré http://orcid.org/0000-0003-1733-2063
I. Skakni http://orcid.org/0000-0001-7704-7737
K. Inouye http://orcid.org/0000-0002-3961-3811
C. Weise http://orcid.org/0000-0003-2491-554X
L. McAlpine http://orcid.org/0000-0002-5361-1361
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