August’s community call recap: Reflecting on the role of the community manager in STEM

This year we’ve been releasing community manager case studies: two-page interviews, each describing one of 25 community managers from across the STEM ecosystem. On this month’s community call, we shared some of the observations we’ve made as we’ve compared these case studies.

Next month we plan to publish a report that will describe the details of our analysis and make several recommendations for what’s needed to support the emerging community management profession, setting community managers, their communities, and their covening organizations up for success.

During the call, we also heard from two of the community managers who took part in the project, Connie Clare (Research Data Alliance) and Nathaniel Gore (PeerJ), and invited reflections and feedback from all of the participants on the call. We’re so grateful to everyone who came and shared their frank perspectives, and we plan on continuing the conversation on a future call later this year. Read on for a recap of the discussion, and watch the presentation portion of the call in the embedded video clips. 

CSCCE Community Manager Case Studies

CSCCE’s Director, Lou Woodley shared some of the emerging trends we’re seeing from the case studies – ranging from information about community manager backgrounds, what they enjoy about their roles, the skills they use, and the challenges they face. These included the observation that STEM community management is a highly gendered profession, culture change is a common goal of many communities, and community managers rely heavily on skills in the interpersonal competency of the CSCCE skills wheel to get their jobs done. She also noted that community managers tend to hold junior positions, which they often took soon after completing their terminal degrees (in most cases, a STEM PhD). 

Lou also described five challenges that our analysis showed community managers face: 

  • Under-appreciation – Community management remains poorly understood by the wider scientific community, and so community managers often feel that some or most of the people in their professional networks underestimate the complexity of the often “less-visible” work that they do. This issue may be exacerbated by the fact that women and early career professionals (who hold most of these jobs) have historically been undervalued and professions involving “care work” are under-appreciated.
  • Overwhelm – While community managers enjoy varied work, there is often too much to do to meet high expectations.
  • Keeping community members engaged – A reliance on volunteer labor combined with recent pressures brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic have presented challenges for many community managers. On the call, we also discussed how the proliferation of community projects in STEM can make it challenging to maintain member engagement, with members pulled in multiple directions across several projects.
  • A lack of formal training in community management – Community managers are frequently the only people within their organizations who are working to build community, so they often have little guidance from their teammates on how to do the work well.
  • Engaging international communities – As science becomes a global endeavor, community managers find themselves needing strategies for juggling time zones, creating multilingual content, and managing cultural differences. This has been underscored by remote working during the pandemic.

Participants used a shared notes document to reflect on how these challenges showed up for them and to point out other challenges that they face, including the lack of a clear career path for advancement. This is reflected in the case studies themselves, where only 4 out of 25 interviewees are in director-level positions (and that may be an over-representation because we actively sought out examples of roles of different seniority). We also talked about the constant need for many community managers to justify their roles and responsibilities, which can be emotionally draining and demoralizing. 

Connie Clare, who is now Community Manager for the Research Data Alliance but previously filled a similar role at 4TU.ResearchData, then took the mic to share some of her thoughts on the pros and cons of community management work in STEM.

She was followed by Nathaniel Gore, a “trend-bucking” Director of Communities for PeerJ. As a man without a scientific background working at the Director level, Nathaniel is something of an outlier in the case studies collection. 

Our recommendations for supporting scientific community managers

The last section of the call focused on the future. How can we as a community, and CSCCE as an organization, work together to take on these challenges. Lou shared a draft set of recommendations, asking for comment and feedback from those in the virtual room. 

Draft recommendations

Elevate the value of human infrastructure and care – This includes sharing foundational frameworks and advocacy efforts at the community manager, organizational leadership, and funding levels to demonstrate the value of interpersonal labor and strategic community engagement efforts. 

Increase strategic engagement – Burnout and overwhelm may be combated by a more strategic focus on community engagement, helping community managers identify upfront their necessary tasks and supporting them in the shift from a reactive to a more intentional, directed stance in their daily work. This requires institutional support to devise and deliver relevant community programming and to adequately staff agreed-upon engagement plans.

Have realistic expectations about community work – As well as a greater emphasis on strategic engagement, there also needs to be a more general understanding that “community” is not the answer to every challenge in STEM. Avoid over-proliferating communities to avoid exhausting volunteers.

Provide access to practical training – To support community managers in their careers, access to external training is essential. For example, funding community managers to take CSCCE’s Community Manager Certification Program can set them up with the skills and peer network they need to thrive in these new roles.

Help community managers connect with each other – In addition to formal training, access to informal learning networks such as the CSCCE community of practice and domain-specific CoPs can support community managers working alone and lessen the feeling of isolation that many experience. 

In general, call participants agreed that these recommendations would help address the challenges outlined above. Additional suggestions included working to better understand and delineate a career path for STEM community professionals and helping individuals advocate for themselves specifically with human resources departments and their communities. Commenters also recommended trying to understand why the role is so gendered, and whether the common path from PhD to community manager reflects a necessary skill set or a reaction to difficult experiences while working in academia. 

Coming soon…

We’re planning on publishing our final report analyzing the community manager case study collection in September. If you’re not already on our mailing list, make sure to sign up here to be the first to know when the report is available. And if you’re interested in joining our community of practice for STEM community managers, you can find more information here

If you have any questions or feedback on the call, please do reach out to us: We’d love to hear from you.