railroad tracks

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Aligning career expectations with academic reality

The difficulty of establishing a career in academia and the hardships it brings to young scientists are increasingly discussed, at least in some forums, but data underpinning the issue are still scarce, particularly in Europe. A new pilot study carried out by the European Science Foundation (ESF) aims to give research institutions, funding bodies, and policymakers a new tracking instrument to fill in the gap and to nudge them toward changing the system.

While larger and further studies are now needed, the Career Tracking of Doctorate Holders report, which ESF presented last month, helps shed light on the status of doctorate holders in Europe. One of the report’s main conclusions is that “insecure employment is a cause of considerable dissatisfaction and stress amongst the post-doctorate population.”

Be open to actively forging a successful research career outside of academia—in consultancy, in government ministries and advisory bodies, … and in industry.

—Siobhan Phillips

The report provides two complementary recommendations (neither of which is a small feat) so that, perhaps, the demand for stable academic jobs and the supply of these employment opportunities can meet in the middle: Trainees’ career expectations should be recalibrated, and the system as a whole should be restructured. Specifically, the report says, “[t]he academic career expectations of doctorate candidates need to be managed in ways that recognise that only a tiny proportion of those who undertake PhDs will progress into a career in academia.” In addition, “[t]he lack of tenure-track positions … should be critically examined with a view to developing alternative models that provide structured opportunities for tenured employment.”

The pilot study—an autumn 2014 online survey complemented with focus groups—looked into the career paths of some 500 young scientists who had obtained a Ph.D. in the previous 7 years and done at least one postdoc with one of a small and diverse range of research and funding organizations. The participating organizations were the AXA Research Fund in France, the Fonds National de la Recherche in Luxembourg, the Goethe Graduate Academy in Germany, the Paul Scherrer Institute in Switzerland, and the international Special Programme for Research and Training in Tropical Diseases.

At the time of the survey, 99% of the respondents were academic researchers, and 88% identified themselves as academic researchers. Despite these rosy overall numbers, the majority of respondents were working on temporary rather than permanent contracts, with the resulting lack of job security. Across both the public and the private sectors, 57% of the respondents were on temporary contracts; 36% were on permanent contracts. Among academic researchers, about half of the respondents were doing a postdoc or equivalent, with another 14% holding a research fellowship. At the other end of the career ladder, 5% of respondents were associate professors and readers, and another 5% were full professors and department heads.

Wanting an academic career

There are many indicators throughout the survey’s results that the first career choice of Ph.D.-holders is, perhaps not surprisingly, to stay in academia. Respondents reported that their main motivation for taking their first postdoctoral position was the belief that it was a necessary step toward obtaining an attractive job in their field. The minority of respondents who had left academia reported doing so mainly due to obstacles inherent to the current system of academic research careers, not lack of desire. “Interest in other careers or posts [outside academia] were less important factors than challenges in getting a suitable or tenured research post,” the report says. Generally, “[t]he preference and orientation of a high proportion of PhD candidates and doctorate holders is towards a career in academia, despite the extraordinary challenges involved in securing a tenured position.”

But this desire is at odds with today’s academic reality. The report cites a 2011 editorial that illustrates how the number of new Ph.D. graduates in the United States has been growing steadily while the number of tenured academic positions has been dwindling. In 2006, only 15% of U.S. biological science researchers were in tenured positions 6 years after graduating. Just over 30 years earlier, in 1973, 55% of researchers had secured tenure-track positions at that point in their careers. “The European context, like that of the US, is one of ever-increasing numbers of doctorate holders seeking employment in a sector that is already oversupplied,” the ESF report says.

Ruth Müller

Ruth Müller

Credit: Ruth Müller/Technische Universität München

The report called upon policymakers and funding and research organizations to recognize the issue and do something about it, starting at the doctorate level. “More should be done to develop greater awareness of, and knowledge about, relevant careers outside of academia in consultancy, industry, government and elsewhere,” the report recommends. Organizations “should examine how well they prepare PhD students and post-doctorates for employment outside academia and make necessary improvements/adjustments to training.”

Ruth Müller, a tenure-track assistant professor for science and technology policy at the Technische Universität München in Germany, agrees that institutions need to help broaden the discussion around career opportunities for doctorate holders. “The specific socialization in academic institutions leads to a very narrow sense of what is worthwhile employment, … and that is mostly only academic work,” Müller says. With tenure-track positions few and far between, “we are at the moment where we have to rethink Ph.D. training and make it an education that qualifies people for a broader range of professional opportunities and allows them to develop an understanding of what else might I be interested in doing.”

The pressure of short-term contracts

The report also tried to assess how researchers’ working conditions affected their satisfaction levels and scientific outputs by comparing those working on temporary contracts with those on permanent contracts. Not surprisingly, researchers on temporary contracts were generally less happy about their working conditions. When asked about job security, “62% of those [o]n temporary contracts said they were fairly or very dissatisfied with this aspect of their current employment situation compared to 19% of those on permanent contracts, where issues of job security presumably affect their staff rather than themselves,” the report says. Scientists on temporary contracts also reported significantly lower satisfaction with the scientific environment and organizational culture of their workplace as well as the career development support.

The researchers’ scientific output in the past 12 months—presentations at national and international conferences and authorship of peer-reviewed articles—varied only slightly between those on temporary or permanent contracts. The report, however, identified important differences in the broader impact of the researchers’ work. Permanent researchers were twice as likely as temporary researchers to have filed a patent, nearly twice as likely to have taken part in public engagement activities, and nearly three times as likely to have had an impact on policy.

With most permanent researchers in the survey having a tenured position and most researchers on temporary contracts being postdocs, many factors, such as experience and age, could explain these differences in productivity, Siobhan Phillips, a senior science officer at ESF who was the survey methodology adviser and lead author, says in an email to Science Careers. But despite the different career stages, the findings are suggestive of an interesting trend that goes beyond simple seniority, Phillips adds. “What strikes me is that the outcomes of those without tenure are more focused on individual achievements and the kinds of outcomes that are recognised and rewarded by the system in the form of employment security,” such as presenting at conferences and publishing papers. In contrast, researchers who are on permanent contracts and are therefore not worried about securing their next job “are ‘freer’ to produce more societal type outcomes,” such as promoting policy changes.

The report goes on to use these productivity differences as evidence that the current academic system is “inefficient and damaging.” Thus, “[if], as seems to be the case, those on permanent contracts are more satisfied … and are more productive … , the traditional and increasing trend towards less secure contracts needs to be examined as it is of benefit neither to science nor to society,” the report says. Alternative models that provide structured opportunities for tenured employment should be developed, the report recommends.

The survey’s reported differences in researchers’ outputs are in line with other studies that make the case for more tenure-track structures, Müller says. Such studies, including work from Müller, show that job insecurity affects research practices in many ways. “When living on short-term contracts, researchers have to ‘cash in’ on their research in the rather quick term to qualify for the next step,” which may, for example, hamper researchers’ ability to take on risky but potentially more interesting research questions, she says.

While the preponderance of temporary contracts may have many downsides, there is a risk that changes to the academic system would have significant knock-on effects, Phillips recognizes in her email to Science Careers. “The current system (with its big churn factor) creates its own demand for a constant supply of post doctorates into academia, and more tenure track positions will probably have the effect of reducing the number of [postdoctoral] positions available.” She suggests that such a decrease could “be counterbalanced by the development of more post-doctorate positions outside academia or even reducing/slowing down the growth in numbers of those going into PhD study.”

Sarah Blackford

Sarah Blackford

Courtesy of Sarah Blackford

Sarah Blackford, head of education and public affairs at the Society for Experimental Biology in the United Kingdom, welcomes the pilot study but would like to see the report dig further into the various forms academic permanent employment could take, to both better define the sample of respondents and clarify the positions they wished to hold in academia. “Many permanent academic posts represent leadership positions, requiring an ability to publish papers and secure external funding … as well as heavy responsibilities for management, administration and teaching. This doesn’t reflect what many postdoctoral researchers say they want, i.e. to remain working in the lab as a permanent researcher, not necessarily with teaching or academic management responsibilities. It is this research-only career track which is largely non-existent in most academic institutions,” Blackford writes in an email to Science Careers.

Further career advice

While the problem needs to be solved at the systemic level, there are things that young scientists can do, too. They should have a realistic perspective on academic career prospects and work to reduce emotional and practical dependency on success in academia, Müller says, while acknowledging that “that is, of course, a very hard thing to do.” They should “think realistically about the fact that today’s careers in science do not only depend on ‘Am I good enough?’ but also on the fact that there are not as many academic jobs as there are really good and talented people.”

The take-home message for young scientists is that they need to “[b]e prepared for intense levels of competition for posts in academia,” Phillips says. This makes it “important that they take regular reality checks as they progress through the early stages of their career …  to review their academic progress,” Blackford adds. Young scientists should also realize that suitable research opportunities may exist in a diverse range of sectors. “Be open to actively forging a successful research career outside of academia—in consultancy, in government ministries and advisory bodies, … and in industry,” Phillips says.

Nonresearch careers may become an option, too. Young scientists should bear in mind that the “[d]evelopment of good management and other 'softer' transferable skills will act as [a] good ‘safety net’ for alternative careers,” Phillips says. The report mentions engaging in outreach activities, interacting with industry, or doing internships or short-term contracts in management or consultancy as potential ways to open up new opportunities in other sectors. This is backed up by Blackford, who adds that using social media is another good way to network your way out of academia.

“Most people I know who have left academia have no regrets, whilst more evidence is emerging that people in permanent academic positions are suffering mental stress related to the high work load [and] the constant pressure to publish and secure funding,” Blackford says. “So approach your career with your eyes open. Find out the reality of career sectors of interest. Do your own research, [and] don’t just listen to other people’s advice and opinions,” she adds. “Managing and taking control of your own career is vital.”

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