Survey of Australian STEMM Early Career Researchers: job insecurity and questionable research practices are major structural concerns
Preprint posted on 20 February 2020 https://www.biorxiv.org/content/10.1101/2020.02.19.955328v1
Article now published in eLife at http://dx.doi.org/10.7554/eLife.60613
Peering into the chasm of academia; troubling concerns amongst early career researchersSelected by Jonny Coates
The preLighs team consists of over a hundred early career researchers (ECRs), many of whom hold interests in the academia career landscape (1–3). We are vocal advocates for promoting positive change in academia in areas such as mental health and wellbeing, publishing practices and open access and ECR training and development. Hard evidence for the current concerns amongst ECRs is lacking, despite the abundance of anecdotal evidence that suggests ECRS are unhappy. Here, Christian et al survey ECRs to provide some insights into the current problems that this group is facing.
Remit and scope of the study
There is no shortage of anecdotes regarding the difficulties in academia. The authors collected data to investigate the challenges faced by ECRs in Australia. The respondents were current ECRs (defined as those holding a PhD awarded no more than 10 years prior to the survey) and were largely based in the life sciences. Additionally, the authors conducted a focus group to further explore the survey findings. This remit does potentially skew the data towards those who are more disenchanted with academia but nonetheless shines an important light onto the current issues facing young researchers.
- Absence of effective leadership and accountability from senior staff leads to dissatisfaction in ECRs
In the 15 quotes provided to the question of why ECRs stay in research, every comment stated that the respondent loved research/their job. However, despite this positive attitude, one of the most striking findings was that a large number of ECRs stated that they had been impacted by questionable research practices. Lack of funding was frequently cited as the reason behind these questionable research practices. In addition, bullying was often stated as an issue in the workplace, despite almost 85% of those surveyed stating that they felt safe at work. This perhaps worryingly signifies that bullying and unacceptable practices by established academics are normalised in academia.
Over a third of those surveyed stated that they had experienced inequitable hiring practices, which was higher for women. Moreover, over 50% of ECRs stated that they had been negatively impacted by a lack of support from institutional leaders. The void of leadership at the higher levels in academia is a global problem with this preprint providing evidence to the impact this has on ECRs.
Together, this illustrates a dire situation in which academics (junior and senior) are unprepared for the leadership aspects of their role. Academia could perhaps learn from other sectors in this regard and provide appropriate training and continued development for staff at all levels in addition to effective mentoring.
- High levels of stress associated with relocation and settling into new environments
The pressure from the lack of funding not only promotes questionable research practices, but also creates a requirement for frequent relocation, especially during the postdoc years. Common to other industries are relocation expenses. However, these are not often included for academic staff who must relocate. Almost 70% of the survey respondents had changed location in order to advance their career, with 40% changing location more than once. This can be especially challenging for those requiring visas or who have families. Importantly, this preprint highlights that relocation is associated with a high personal cost and loss of career momentum. Furthermore, the comments from ECRs suggested that there is a general lack of support for settling into new environments.
Importance of this work
Several members of the preLights team hold interests in the academic career landscape, mental health and career development. This work highlights some of the underlying concerns from ECRs. This is particularly important for funding bodies, who (in the UK and USA at least) are increasingly moving towards promoting a more positive mental health environment. Additionally, institutions can use this information to help retain staff and improve the often-difficult working environments. The current feeling amongst ECRs can perhaps best be summarised by one of the responses to the survey as being “just trapped in a strange circle to struggle for a living” (excerpt from supplemental table 1).
- Can the data be split to look at concerns from specific groups, e.g. postdocs with 0-5 years’ experience vs 5-10 years’ experience? Would you expect this to reveal different concerns between the groups?
- It is very troubling that ECRs have concerns surrounding questionable research practices. To combat this there is likely a requirement from funding bodies and leadership within academia. There have also been increasing calls for independent bodies who can investigate research misconduct. What do you think can be done to help remedy this?
- In relation to the above question, a well-founded issue in academia is the lack of leadership. Your preprint eloquently further supports this problem. What do you propose can be done to start changing this? Does this issue lie with funders or universities?
- The underlying problem that drives many of the current concerns is related to a shortage of funding (or low salary). What can be done when science funding worldwide is generally low? Should we create more positions for staff scientists and career postdocs? Should students be trained more for alternative careers, or should we even potentially restrict the numbers of PhD students admitted each year?
- Tessa Sinnige. The life of P.I. Transitions to Independence in Academia [Internet]. preLights. 2019. Available from: https://prelights.biologists.com/highlights/the-life-of-p-i-transitions-to-independence-in-academia/
- Gautam Dey, Tessa Sinnige. Co-reviewing and ghostwriting by early career researchers in the peer review of manuscripts [Internet]. preLights. 2019. Available from: https://prelights.biologists.com/highlights/co-reviewing-and-ghostwriting-by-early-career-researchers-in-the-peer-review-of-manuscripts/
- Jonny Coates, Gautam Dey, Sejal Davla, Maiko Kitaoka. Insights from a survey-based analysis of the academic job market [Internet]. preLights. 2019. Available from: https://prelights.biologists.com/highlights/insights-from-a-survey-based-analysis-of-the-academic-job-market/
Posted on: 22 March 2020
doi: https://doi.org/10.1242/prelights.17681Read preprint
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