Life at the Bottleneck

CREDIT: The GNU Free Documentation License

As a scholar of science and technology studies (a social science field that aims to understand the social processes of knowledge production), I focused the 4 years of my Ph.D. on studying how the academic landscape in which today’s postdoctoral life scientists develop their careers influences their working practices.

Some of my results paint quite a grim picture of academic careers, baring the profound anxieties that many postdocs have about their professional futures and livelihoods. They highlight the detrimental effects of pervasive insecurity and career competition on social cohesion within research groups, as well as on training and collaboration.

[P]ostdocs try to eschew collaborations with peers in their groups, fearing authorship disputes and loss of first authorship.

—Ruth Müller

This work caused me to become more critical of the working conditions faced by today’s academics, a group that includes me. Here, I share the main conclusions of my research and some lessons I have drawn for my own career development.

A changing culture

My Ph.D. research was part of a larger study—Living Changes in the Life Sciences: Tracing the “Ethical” and the “Social” within Scientific Practice and Work Culture—at the University of Vienna’s Department of Social Studies of Science, with Ulrike Felt as project leader. The project sought to elucidate how transformations in the broader societal context affect work cultures and scientific practices in the academic life sciences.

One of these transformations was brought about by the rapid growth of the life sciences in Austria in the last decade. Before then, long-term positions and in-house careers were common in research institutions. But as new institutions, departments, and programs arose, most adopted a new organizational paradigm focused on project-based work, short-term contracts, international workforce mobility, and quantitative performance indicators such as publication numbers and impact factors.

Based on 21 interviews with postdocs in the biomedical, plant, and microbial sciences and bioinformatics at key academic research institutions in Austria, my Ph.D. work aimed to understand what it means to strive for an academic career today and how individual researchers’ career aspirations are reflected in the ways they relate to and work with their peers in the lab.

I decided to focus on postdocs because most life scientists identify the postdoc period as the crucial time to succeed or fail, a major bottleneck on the academic career trajectory. The number of Ph.D. holders in the life sciences are rising, and there are not enough senior positions in academia to welcome them all. This means that more and more people work as postdocs for longer periods of time, on a series of short-term contracts, often in a number of different countries, before they will—or will not—transition to a group leader position.

While personal preferences play a role in choosing this uncertain career path, it seems that during Ph.D. programs, young researchers learn to regard academic employment as more desirable than other employment. The university system benefits greatly from this emphasis, which encourages young people to direct all their hard work toward the goal of obtaining an academic position instead of spending some of their time exploring and preparing for other employment options. By the time they finish their Ph.D.s, many see few alternatives to academic work.

Consequently, I found that during the postdoc, pressure to succeed is high. Fear of failure is ubiquitous and often connected to a nearly existential angst: If forced to abandon their hopes for an academic career, many postdocs worry they would not be able to find any job at all due to their age, overspecialization, and a “too academic” demeanor. Interviews with postdocs include statements such as: “Really everything depends on how you perform in the postdocs,” and “It feels like I have to publish this next paper to still have bread to eat tomorrow.”

CREDIT: Austrian Institute for International Affairs /Kathrin Alas
Ruth Müller

The price of pressure

Naturally, these high stakes and strong emotions influence how postdocs operate. The postdocs that I interviewed try to shape the research process to maximize their productivity as measured by the number of publications and the impact factor of those publications. This influences how they approach peer-to-peer collaboration and student supervision.

The interviews showed that, if possible, postdocs try to eschew collaborations with peers in their groups, fearing authorship disputes and loss of first authorship. Even everyday decisions to offer or accept assistance from others in the group are often affected by considerations about sharing or losing credit. This situation impedes teamwork, training, and the flow of ideas within the group.

Postdocs feel that, in a highly competitive academic system that values research output above all other factors, it is difficult to devote time to other academic duties such as supervising students. Postdocs regularly assess whether supervising a student is likely to turn into an additional publication, which would offset the time they lost on their own research. The increased emphasis on output and efficiency shifts attention away from the educational aspects of mentoring relationships (e.g., providing room to try, fail, and try again).

The bigger picture

Policymakers and scientists emphasize how much today’s societies need well-educated, collaborative scientists to produce creative and innovative science that will help address global challenges and maintain economic wealth. My research suggests that current career pressures work against meeting this need. When will postdocs find the time, opportunity, and incentive to pick up the other essential skills they need—lab management, creative collaboration, compassionate mentoring, inspiring teaching, visionary innovation, and so on—to become versatile, productive, and resourceful scientific leaders? Some will still succeed, surely, but much human potential is lost in the race to publish and become group leaders. And this is without even considering the challenges of building and maintaining a fulfilling private life as they sprint along.

Lessons drawn

Similar issues affect my field, too. Has my research helped me draw lessons for my own career development and research practices? Indeed, I think it has. Through my research, I understand that there is a larger organizational problem in academia that cannot be fixed by personal devotion. This means that while I am pursuing an academic career with commitment and passion, I am also aware that that the odds are stacked against our generation of young scholars and that success and failure depend on more than our personal effort.

In this context, I have found it important to keep an open mind and work out other potential interests and fields of occupation to increase resilience to career anxieties. I have also found that having a group of colleagues from different fields with whom I can regularly talk about the tensions and ambivalences of academic work helps all of us develop individual standards for what we consider desirable work practices and relationships. For me, for example, it is important to devote quality time to teaching, comment on colleagues’ works in progress, and regularly engage in collaborative writing. Furthermore, I choose to work with senior scholars who I know support healthy work practices.

Conquering career and livelihood anxiety and developing inspiring and balanced work practices is key to creative knowledge production. Yet these individual approaches do not fix the larger problem. Policymakers and university administrators need to step up and provide open, collaborative, and sustainable work environments. If they should fail to do that, we will continue to waste great human potential by creating an often desperate and increasingly cynical scientific workforce.

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