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An Emerging Global Picture of Early-Career Scientists

CREDIT: Public Domain

According to the Global Young Academy (GYA), early-career researchers play a major role in shaping our increasingly global and knowledge-based societies. Consequently, societies must provide them with adequate support. Yet, little is known about how to best support young scientists on a global scale, the GYA maintains, or how their concerns and realities differ from region to region. Last Tuesday, the GYA released the first report in their "Global State of Young Scientists" (GloSYS) project, which looks at the working conditions and career development opportunities of early-career scientists worldwide.

The Berlin-based GYA was founded in 2010 under the auspices of the InterAcademy Panel (IAP)—the Global Network of Science Academies. The GYA has since received extensive financial support, from the Volkswagen Foundation, the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization's The World Academy of Sciences, the German Academic Exchange Service, and the Robert Bosch Foundation, among other sources. Today, the GYA counts 155 members and 63 alumni from 55 countries in all of the continents and a wide range of disciplines.

"Many young scholars shoulder extreme workloads to progress in their careers and to live up to what is expected from them."—The Global State of Young Scientists: Project Report and Recommendations

The GloSYS researchers conducted one-on-one interviews with 45 young scientists—defined in the study as researchers 30 to 40 years old within 10 years of obtaining their Ph.D.s—from around the world, working in academia. They also conducted a quantitative online survey with 650 young scientists from universities and research institutions in Brazil, Canada, Egypt, Germany, Japan, Nigeria, Pakistan, South Africa, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Tunisia, and the United States. About a fifth of the survey respondents were members of a national Young Academy, and slightly less than a third were in permanent positions. Most participants work in the natural, medical, environmental, social, and computer sciences, and engineering, although scholars in the arts, humanities, and business were also surveyed. A little more than half were female. The study lumped countries by regions: Brazil, Canada, and the United States were combined into a category called "Americas"; Egypt, Pakistan, and Tunisia were grouped into the "Middle East and North Africa" (MENA); Nigeria and South Africa represented the "Africa" region; and Japan, Sri Lanka, and Thailand constituted "Asia." Germany represented Europe.

The report was coauthored by project leader Catherine Beaudry—an associate professor studying innovation and the impact of science and technology at the École Polytechnique de Montréal—and Irene Friesenhahn, GYA project officer. Here are some of the study's most interesting findings. All quotes are from the text of the report.

<p>Irene Friesenhahn</p>

Irene Friesenhahn

CREDIT: The Global Young Academy/Irene Friesenhahn

CREDIT: The Global Young Academy/Irene Friesenhahn
Irene Friesenhahn

The appeal of a scientific career

• More than 80% of respondents across all countries said that they had pursued a science career for, in effect, the love of the work. "The opportunity for intellectually stimulating work, the passion for a field of research and the chance to contribute to new knowledge are the most esteemed benefits of working in academia."

• In developing countries, in particular, researchers were also motivated by a desire to give back to their country or contribute to the advancement of knowledge and society.


• Overall, respondents spent an average of 54.7 hours at work each week during the academic term. The data shows that 16.3 of those hours were allocated to research, almost 11 hours to teaching, 8 hours to administration and services, 7 hours to training and supervision, and 4.6 hours to managing groups.

• Respondents were not unhappy with these working hours but expressed a desire to spend more time on research, training, and supervision.

• Researchers in the MENA countries spent less than 8 hours teaching during the academic term; the next-lightest teaching load was in the Americas, where researchers spent 10.3 hours each week.

• Researchers in the Americas spent more time on research than researchers in any other region: 20.8 hours.

• Respondents expected their workload to change over time. "A perceived paradox is that pursuing a career in academia is only possible for outstanding researchers; however their actual research time decreases in favour of management, teaching and supervision tasks in the course of their career."


• Young scientists around the world highlighted the importance of having a circle of people who could advise them on their career decisions. The data showed that 63% of respondents said senior colleagues were their most important advisers in that respect, 39% mentioned mentors, and 34% said family and friends.

• Supervisors, mentors, and senior peers were particularly important for "the encouragement and reassurance they provide in addition to giving feedback, exchanging ideas, discussing results, and encouraging young scholars to accept new challenges."

• All over the world, trusting relationships with senior colleagues were seen as the most important source of support for career development. But, "[w]hile in developing countries those friendships helped in securing the most attractive jobs, such as professorships, within their national higher education system, researchers in developed countries benefited from the global network of their senior friends giving them access to the most respected research groups, labs and universities, allowing them to present their work at the most prestigious conferences and publish in the most important books and journals."

Career success factors

• Survey respondents globally listed the number of publications and reputation of the journals as the two top criteria for career advancement, followed by funding, citations, and awards.

• Yet, young researchers across the world felt that many important factors were out of their control. "[E]ven if they are hardworking, productive and well-connected, young scholars—in particular in developed nations—feel that this is not sufficient for career success as they are also dependent on luck, the availability of suitable positions and the number and the quality of their competitors."

Career prospects

• "[I]n spite of the job insecurity, two-thirds of the survey respondents stated that they feel hopeful or somewhat hopeful about their career prospects" within academia.

• Respondents in Africa believed they had a 68.2% chance of finding a permanent research position in academia, versus 66% in the Americas, 58.7% in Asia, 56.4% in MENA, and 34.8% in Europe.

• The percentage of respondents listing job insecurity as a career obstacle was much higher in Europe—83.3%—than anywhere else. That compares to 44.4% in the Americas, 30.8% in the MENA countries, 31.2% in Africa, and 15% in Asia.

• A lack of training opportunities was most strongly felt by early-career scientists in the MENA countries (55.8%), but it was also a significant issue in Africa and Asia.

• A shortage of human resources and equipment was most often reported as a difficulty in Asia (64%) and MENA (61.5%), followed by Africa (51.6%) and Europe (51.4%).

• The lack of funding opportunities was universal, but it was reported most often by early-career researchers in Africa (70.3%), MENA (71.2%), and the Americas (66.7%). Respondents all over the world estimated their chances of winning funding at around 50%.

• Significant numbers of early-career researchers in MENA countries considered political instability and war to be career obstacles (30.8%).

• A common source of career anxiety was researchers' fear of not being able to secure a position that will allow them to demonstrate their skills and pursue independent research; another source was the general lack of transparency in the evaluation criteria for grants, jobs, and promotions.

• Europeans thought it less likely than researchers from other regions that they would find a permanent research position outside academia; yet, Europeans were also the most confident about their prospects of securing an "alternative" career.


• Globally, male and female respondents had similar perceptions about scientific careers and shared all of the identified career obstacles.

• However, women more often reported a lack of support from superiors (50.6%, versus 41.2% for men), gender bias (17.1%, versus 4.6% for men), and seeing their job cut by their institution (21.3%, versus 13.1% for men).

• Women thought they needed to work much harder than their male counterparts to move their careers forward, but they noted that support from other women helps: "Mutual understanding of each other’s situation and shared experiences in their careers are perceived as important support system amongst women."

• "[M]en are more hopeful than women regarding their career prospects in general, and in particular about finding a research position, teaching position or a professorship in academia." No gender differences could be found regarding research funding, finding a permanent nonacademic research position, or pursuing alternative careers.

• For women, the most common reason to have a career break was maternity leave. The second most important reason was to care for sick children or elderly relatives. Women without children cared for elderly relatives much more often (18.4%) than women with children (3.7%) or men without children (4.2%).

• For men, the most common reason to put their academic career on hold was to pursue job opportunities in nonresearch fields. The next most common reason was unemployment.

• The decision to have children has a big impact on careers. Fewer than a third of men and women without children reported work-life balance as a career obstacle, compared to 47% for men with children and 72% for women with children.


• The report's authors call for better mentoring and support structures, more transparent evaluation procedures, and tailored training opportunities. "There is a need for aligning young scientists’ skills with the responsibilities and diversified tasks on the next level and helping them to acquire knowledge, techniques and procedures that help them to be globally competitive."

• The report also recommends cultivating a more moderate workload. "Many young scholars shoulder extreme workloads to progress in their careers and to live up to what is expected from them. They not only feel that originality and inspiration take second place, but also that their working conditions can place unneeded constraints and barriers to their private life."

• In conclusion, "a modern research system must break with the habit of regarding young scholars as 'cheap labour'. Instead, the academic system … must learn to nurture and encourage their young talents by providing the opportunities for training and professional growth to establish a sustainable and strong academic workforce."


Reactions from the people Science Careers contacted—including professional development and policy experts and early-career scientists—suggest that while the report should help highlight the plight of early-career scientists worldwide, its ambition, methodology, and framing inhibit it from really moving the issues forward.

The report highlights many important problems that countries like the United Kingdom have been focusing on to provide better support to early-career researchers, such as "the multi-facetted role of the early career researcher and the need for professional development in areas beyond research such as people management and winning funding," writes Ellen Pearce, director of Vitae, a U.K. organization that promotes the professional development of early-career researchers, in an email to Science Careers. It also highlights "Strategic management of networks, collaborators and online profiles" as "a key aspect of career advancement," she adds.

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

"This report certainly involved a lot of work and it reflects insights which somehow are expected: young researchers sacrifice their personal life for their career, with a lot of overtime, insecurity, pressure and difficulties to find a fixed position," writes Thomas Schäfer, a group leader at the University of the Basque Country’s Institute for Polymer Materials in Donostia-San Sebastián, Spain, in an email to Science Careers. Schäfer is also vice-chair of the Young Academy of Europe (a pan-European, grassroots association of top young scientists) and chair of Sci-GENERATION (another pan-European, bottom-up platform for young scientists supported by the intergovernmental framework for European Cooperation in Science and Technology). "Unfortunately, given the global focus of the investigation, the number of interviews/reports were seemingly too little in order to draw statistically sound and comprehensive conclusions that go beyond these general insights," Schäfer writes.

Ruth Müller, a postdoctoral research fellow at the Research Policy Institute at Lund University in Sweden, who focused her Ph.D. on studying how the academic landscape influences the working practices of postdocs in the life sciences, notes that while the study acknowledges the diversity of the European system, it uses just one European country—Germany—in its quantitative survey. Müller suggests that the report may have somewhat overreached. Such a global study is "a hard task you set yourself up to," she says. "Then the question also becomes, how do you interpret these findings in a way that makes sense in the specific national and local contexts?" 

Pearce expresses regret that the report "didn’t focus on … the range of opportunities and career paths undertaken by scientists and researchers in a whole range of employment sectors." A "better understanding and valuing of these roles would enable early career researchers to feel more positive and in control of the options open to them and their career decisions."

Müller proposes a rethinking of some of the vocabulary that this study, and many others, uses. Referring to scholars as old as 40, with up to 10 years of postdoctoral experience as "young" unwittingly implies that they still need to prove their worth and justifies their job insecurity and lack of clear career prospects, she says.

<p>Thomas Schäfer</p>

Thomas Schäfer

CREDIT: Thomas Schäfer, Polymat

CREDIT: Thomas Schäfer, Polymat
Thomas Schäfer

Müller also notes that while the report criticizes the current model in which all early-career researchers must juggle a range of activities and compete for the same achievements, it does not contemplate alternatives to that model. "Within the debates about careers in science, we often tend to reproduce a model of locating all the capacities for innovation within the individuals, rather than thinking about how do we build good teams of people who can be creative and innovative," Müller says. "I think it’s part of the problematic labor conditions found in academia today," where in order to stay in science you must become a group leader, given that the staff scientist position has almost entirely disappeared.

The study's authors are recruiting partners to continue the GloSYS study. Beaudry and Friesenhahn hope "to open a global discourse based on our first results and inspire regional studies on this issue," they write in a joint email to Science Careers. "It is important to dig deeper into the findings we already have but it would also be very valuable to consider regional and cultural issues more strongly." The ideal situation, they add, would be to run several regional studies in collaboration with regional partners.

The report can be found here.

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