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The toll of short-term contracts

Sophie Pelisson loves her job as a data scientist for Frateli Lab, a Paris-based R&D organization promoting equal opportunities in education. But it’s a far cry from the academic career she had in mind as she completed her astrophysics Ph.D. at the Paris Observatory in 2012. She applied for permanent research and university positions, which in France are won through nationwide competitions, but her efforts came to no avail, leaving her increasingly frustrated with the French research system. So, after a string of short-term positions in academia—1 year teaching, a 2-year postdoc in Italy, and 16 months in a second postdoc back in France—she decided to try her luck elsewhere.

Pelisson is just one of the many French scientists who have spent years on short-term contracts as they struggle to secure permanent positions in academia. Their plight—which is likely familiar to early-career researchers around the world—is illustrated by a recent survey of the French research and higher education sector, including Ph.D. candidates and Ph.D. holders in a variety of disciplines and roles. The results of the survey (in French), which was carried out by a grassroots association of scientists called Sciences en Marche, reveal “a very strong level of anxiety, demotivation, and mistrust among non-permanent staff members regarding the conditions surrounding their work and professional recognition in higher education and research and their perspectives in the long term,” the report states.

Even so, “many … prefer to continue practicing their profession in precarious conditions rather than reorienting themselves toward more stable types of careers,” the report continues. But, as Pelisson’s experience illustrates, that does not have to be the case. The survey shows that, even in a country like France where there is little culture of industry employing researchers, such a career transition is not only possible, but often a rewarding professional choice. Meanwhile, the report—which adds to the growing body of literature documenting the challenges that early-career researchers around the world are facing—also calls for measures to address the problems in academia.

Short-term contracts … and long-term solutions?

Over the past 15 years, the number of public workers on short-term contracts in France has drastically increased to now represent 35% of university staffs and 27% at research institutions, according to official figures cited in the report. The survey found that such contracts tend to be very short, with approximately 40% of the more than 1200 postdoc respondents holding contracts lasting less than a year and another 40% or so working on contracts lasting between 1 and 2 years. Such short postdoc contracts are “counterproductive,” says Patrick Lemaire, a group leader in developmental biology at the Cell Biology Research Center of Montpellier who is co-author of the report and co-founder of Sciences en Marche, because they don’t offer the time or stability necessary to develop a research direction or acquire new skills. The survey also found that the situation grew worse as careers progressed: the more time Ph.D. holders spent on short-term contracts during their academic career, the shorter their contracts became.

Potentially worse than short contracts is unemployment, which has become increasingly common for academics. In the survey, 9% of the respondents were currently unemployed, and 70% of the respondents who had secured academic positions after 2011 reported previous periods of unemployment. For those who got their positions a decade earlier, that number was about 30%. Plant biologist Romain Pierron, who at the time of the survey had a 1-year contract as a tech transfer officer, went through two periods of unemployment—one between the end of his doctoral contract and his defense in 2015, and another as he was applying for positions the following year—before recently taking a 2-year postdoc at the Stellenbosch University in South Africa. For him, the pros of an academic career still outweigh the cons, but he laments that the low salaries and lack of job security have made it impossible for him to buy a house in France, let alone easily rent an apartment for himself and his family. “At 31 and with a doctorate under my belt, my retired parents must vouch for the renting of my flat,” Pierron says.

Short-term staff members are also vulnerable in many other ways, the report highlighted. “Generally, … there is little recognition of young researchers” by their permanent peers, says Marie Boichu, who won a permanent position in the Laboratoire d’Optique Atmosphérique in Lille after 6 years as a postdoc. Adding to the already intense competition for permanent positions, principal investigators impose “crazy pressures” on young researchers who are working on their projects and often not in a position to push back, she says.

Despite the challenges of job instability, almost half of the postdocs and adjunct teaching staff members who responded to the survey had never taken their chance in the nationwide competition for permanent jobs. Lemaire partly attributes this to young scientists falling into the trap of always feeling they need more experience to compete. In addition, travel expenses for interviews typically aren’t reimbursed, so, he says, if “you are doubting that your CV might land you the position and you know it’s going to cost you a fair bit of a 1-month salary to apply to different positions, you will just not apply.” According to the survey, almost 60% of those who obtained permanent academic positions after 2011 had applied between two and five times.

The report calls for a battery of government and institutional measures to better support scientists on short-term contracts, including gathering comprehensive data on their working conditions, helping them devise career plans, creating more academic jobs, and encouraging them to apply for permanent positions. Additionally, because most of the permanent jobs in France are at universities, it is important for young researchers to gain teaching experience, Lemaire says. According to the survey, only 20% of the Ph.D. students and postdocs had done any teaching during the previous academic year.

Despite the grim situation, the survey results also offer “a bit of hope,” though outside of academia, Lemaire says. In France, employers in the private sector tend to be unfamiliar with what Ph.D. holders have to offer them—and vice versa. About 80% of the responding postdocs and adjunct professors had no industry experience, and almost half had never submitted a CV for an industry position. But survey contributions from respondents now employed in industry—Pelisson among them—suggest that the bottleneck is only “at the hiring stage. Once Ph.D.s are hired in private industry, they actually perform well, and they tend to be happy,” Lemaire says.

The report goes on to recommend building more bridges between academia and industry and helping early-career researchers find rewarding careers in other sectors. Meanwhile, Lemaire suggests that scientists who want to make the jump to industry—in France and elsewhere—get to know the sector by talking to people in R&D departments they might be interested in. Also important is the ability to explain how your research experience is relevant beyond academia. For instance, even if you studied an aspect of fly development that seems of little relevance, you can highlight the fact that you learned “how to develop tools to actually answer a complex question for which there was no pre-made solution,” which is a highly valued skill in industry, Lemaire says.

The French Confederation of Young Researchers (CJC), which was not involved in conducting the survey, welcomes the report and its recommendations. The findings reflect what the local associations of young researchers are seeing on the ground, the CJC writes in an email to Science Careers. The CJC is, however, not optimistic that change will come from above, citing similar reports that have had little impact in the past. France is not alone in grappling with the issue, with the United States also seeing little progress in this area despite several seminal reports and recommendations.

On an individual level, it is important that researchers be realistic and proactive when it comes to pursuing their careers. Boichu’s experience illustrates how important it is to choose your postdoc well. In addition to perseverance, key to her success was never taking contracts that lasted less than 2 years and having the support of a few permanent researchers “who believed in the research direction I wanted to pursue, thereby giving me confidence, and advised me judiciously,” Boichu says.

As for Pierron, he plans to return to France after his postdoc, where he hopes the newly elected government will implement policies to address the problems in the academic sector. His training and research have a strong applied component, which makes it easier for him to pursue both academic and industry opportunities. “I am envisioning my professional future with serenity,” he says. “I know that maybe I won’t be a researcher, but I am certain that the transferable skills I will have accumulated after 7 years of research will allow me to be useful to a company.”

Early-career researchers wishing to make a move to industry may face various challenges depending on their subject, Pelisson notes, though the data analysis and statistics skills she gained from her background in quantum physics made her transition relatively smooth. Even though Pelisson is happy about her current position, she says she took part in the survey “because I strongly believe that support for fundamental research and the opening of permanent positions in academia are crucial for the future and should be a priority. I moved out of academia after several years of precarity with little rewards, but if someone offers me a position tomorrow in a university to do fundamental research, I would probably consider the offer.”

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