Mastermind groups: Creative tactics for thriving as an ECR (Marcella Carragher, Rochelle Fogelgarn, Hannah Robert)

Graphic conversation | Image by Marc Wathie
Being an Early Career Researcher (ECR) can feel a bit like being Red Riding Hood setting out into the dark forest.

We're armed with our basket of goodies (our research qualifications and experience) and we know where we're supposed to be going: heading for Grandma's house (i.e. working towards becoming an established and productive researcher).

But, like Red Riding Hood, the path is by no means clear or without hazards. That was certainly how we felt when we attended a RED-hosted ECR Career Planning day in 2014.

Little did we know that one of the strategies that emerged from that planning session, Mastermind groups, would become a central part of our own research career planning!

What is a Mastermind group?

It is a small group of peers who provide mentoring to one another within a confidential and supportive atmosphere.

The concept dates back to the 1930s when Napoleon Hill wrote a business manual enticingly titled Think and Grow Rich. Ellen Daniell applied this model within a scientific research context in her book Every Other Thursday, which chronicles a group of Berkeley women scientists who met fortnightly for over 25 years.

Mastermind groups have worked successfully in a range of different contexts and professional fields. Whatever the context, Mastermind groups have key characteristics relating to format and function.

The format

A Mastermind group is a small, committed group of peers facing similar challenges, often in very different disciplines, meeting regularly in a confidential and supportive environment. We meet monthly for 90 minutes, each of us having 30 minutes to discuss our current goals/projects and recent wins, challenges and dilemmas. We brainstorm solutions if that’s what is needed; sometimes getting it off your chest is enough. As listeners, we provide encouragement, practical suggestions and genuine interest in each other’s academic wellbeing and resilience. We always meet over coffee so that meetings feel informal and conducive to sharing.

The function

The point of meeting is not to offer generalised support, but to act as a GPS for one another. That means offering a key space to develop, maintain and regularly check in with your research goals and to problem-solve any obstacles and challenges that arise as you pursue those goals.
    There is a sense of being held accountable – once you’ve said to the group you are going to apply for a grant or publish a paper, you feel like you’ve made a commitment to follow through. However, this isn’t like a performance review with your supervisor. There are no penalties for not achieving what you had hoped for. If you achieve something, the group celebrates and congratulates you. If you don’t, the group gives you space to talk about why it wasn’t possible and what Plan B might be.

    As ECRs, we can get caught up in prioritising urgent tasks and neglect to spend time planning longer-term goals. Meeting as part of a Mastermind group allows you to check in and assess your career, regularly shifting this meta-priority to the top of the pile.

    For us, it’s become an essential part of developing and thriving as an ECR.

    Mastermind groups have particular value for women and underrepresented minorities, who are statistically more likely to "leak" out of the academic "pipeline" during critical transitions (e.g. from doctoral study or ECR status to becoming an established researcher). Peer mentoring can be an invaluable way to build confidence and resilience, and share crucial institutional knowledge to help you through such transitions.


    The number and identity of individual members of a Mastermind group are important and it’s often tricky to get these right.

    In terms of group size, three to five people is ideal. This small number means that each member has the opportunity to contribute within the group. Time is dedicated to allowing each individual to discuss their work, priorities, concerns or ideas. Keeping a cap on the number of members helps to foster trust and candid reflection.

    Small numbers mean you can’t disappear into the background. And if you skip a meeting, your absence will be felt. Therefore, you develop a sense of commitment, accountability and a vested interest in showing up for each meeting. Everyone within the group is equal – there are no facilitator or leader roles.

    Having members from diverse disciplines is key. This pushes you to explain your career goals and aspiration without relying on assumed knowledge. There is also great freedom in discussing your current work and aspirations with people from outside your department and the daily politics that might otherwise exist.

    Why start a Mastermind group?

    Each of us has been surprised at how much we have gained from our meetings. Our group offers opportunities for brainstorming, learning, giving and receiving support. We often leave our meetings feeling refreshed, re-motivated and energised to tackle a difficult goal. Having that dedicated time once a month is like therapy for your career.


    Dr Marcella Carragher is a postdoctoral research fellow in post-stroke aphasia. Marcella currently manages the ASK clinical trial (CI: Prof Linda Worrall, UQ).

    Dr Rochelle Fogelgarn is a lecturer in Teacher Education at La Trobe University, specializing in pedagogical approaches which promote and sustain positive learning environments which cater for diverse learning needs.

    Hannah Robert is a lecturer at La Trobe Law School, currently completing a PhD on Legal Parentage and also writing on colonial legal history and law and human reproduction.