(How) do we value early career researchers in academia?

by Adriana Bankston

INTRODUCTION

Academia often does not value those who are in the research enterprise, thus begging the question of why, how we can change that, and who is responsible for it. We each have a responsibility of ensuring that we are not losing academic talent, and stepping in to intervene when our fellow scientists are struggling in the system. Since a large part of improving the system comes down to making the individuals within it feel valued, it is important to consider how to measure that value and consequences that might result from undervaluing people in the system.

In December 2018, there was a tweet by Maren Wood on an article related to the value of someone’s work outside of academia, which included the quote “Suddenly, my work mattered” (from Loriel Anderson @LorielAnderson). This statement prompted the question of why it is that former academics always feel more valued outside of academia, and what that means for the research enterprise itself. This reply as a tweet, stating why people feel more valued outside of academia (screenshot below) elicited a number of interesting responses, which prompted this blog post. 

The idea of how we can show the value of scientists is really important; however, it is also very concerning that the contributions of early career researchers (ECRs) (and likely also other groups) aren’t valued in academia. This likely contributes to the loss of talent we are seeing in academic research, in which the best and brightest choose to use these talents elsewhere. Granted, research is not for everyone and there may be those who realize this early on and leave academia because it is a poor fit for their career interests and goals. Nevertheless, for many ECRs who enjoy the intellectual challenges and scientific discoveries that can come from being in a research career, there are clearly many systemic issues preventing the best talent from staying in academia, which has larger consequences.

Given the interesting responses, it is worthwhile summarizing some of the major themes and highlighting some specific areas that Future of Research is seeking to address and work on from various angles. These responses were also very informative and educational in terms of learning about the issues that academics are facing today, particularly for those of us who have left academia a number of years ago and now seek to improve the research enterprise from the outside. 

MAIN SYSTEMIC ISSUES BROUGHT UP

A broken culture. Many of these responses revolve around the fact that academic culture is broken, with an emphasis on getting data and the “publish or perish” mentality. Academia has also been compared to a “corporate machine” and a system where the voices of many remain unheard due to the way it operates. This particularly affects early career researchers, for whom the power dynamic is so prevalently not in their favor. The voices of many often include marginalized/underrepresented individuals in academia who tend to be silenced.

Competition over collaboration. There is also generally a lack of a sense of belonging and working together towards a larger common goal. In this tweet, Eric J Perkins (@AllostEricSite), states that academia operates with an “underlying sense of competition rather than cooperation” and that without having a common goal, it can be difficult to “gauge one’s own value.” This insinuates that academia is a very “sink or swim” mentality compared to non-academic careers, where people felt more valued in part due to more of a collaborative atmosphere instead of a competitive one. This was an interesting observation. The competition for funding and grants also likely distracts from the training aspects of academia, and those who are unable to secure grants may be forced to leave. These issues could again affect ECRs in significant ways. Due to the strong focus on funding, aspects related to training and truly valuing lab members are often put on the back burner. 

Greater flexibility outside of academia. Of course, the idea of creating too many PhDs with a lack of available positions can also contribute to their lack of feeling valued for their skills while working on their PhDs. As it was pointed out by some groups in this conversation, there are often more career options outside of academia. Therefore entering academia is not profitable for those who want more job flexibility. Indeed, several individuals pointed out the limitations that come with being in academia (Joe Fruscione‏ @Joe_Fru), going so far as to say that work and experience since 2014 have been “more valued than they were in 15 years as an academic” and that it is “not smart to stay in academia as it is” (from Symbolic‏ @subsymbolicmind). Also, in some cases, people realize that their passion is not their academic project, and end up leaving academia to work on something with more of an immediate and visible impact.

Source of value. One way to think about the question of value is the source of this value itself. For example, Dr. Aggretsuko‏ (@JulieRoseAlex) pointed out that she feels “valued by academics, not by academia,” which begs the question of which of the systemic flaws can lead someone to feel this way. Some of these systemic issues mentioned are restrictions to intellectual diversity (from Dr. Karen Errichetti‏ @karenerrichetti) and a focus on “the academy’s fixation on hierarchy and faculty castes” according to Claire Robinson May‏ (@clairecrm). Once again, these problems lead to a sense of inequality and power dynamics which only worsen the negative feelings of people in academia who already feel undervalued.

WHAT CAN BE DONE

These comments require serious considerations of how we might show academic scientists that they are valued, and we may be able to identify which elements contribute to this concept. At Future of Research, we believe that there should be no factors limiting someone’s ability to pursue a research career. A fair level of pay, positive mentoring, leadership opportunities and valuing the intellectual contributions of researchers (including in peer review) are the key elements contributing towards this value. We currently work on these aspects in our projects. 

Fair level of pay. Since everyone knows that postdocs are underpaid, this was one of the causes we advocated for as an organization over the past couple of years. We did this by monitoring institutional policies in response to a federal labor law (2016 Fair Labor Standards Act) and collecting actual postdoc salary amounts. This project highlighted the importance of studying the postdoc population at large and understanding their unique challenges. We aimed to not only show the value of postdocs by paying them what they are worth, but also to indicate how critical this segment of the workforce is for moving the enterprise forward. This change needs to come in a manner that takes into account the well-being of postdocs, and paying them well certainly contributes to this overall situation. 

Positive mentoring. One important aspect of improving the research enterprise is the need for positive mentoring, in particular, holding mentors accountable for their behaviors and practices. Good mentors can make a big difference in someone’s experience in academia, and positive mentoring experiences can contribute very strongly to their sense of feeling valued. Mentors can celebrate small victories, have real conversations and be a resource for someone who is struggling. For example, mentors can pay attention to the subtle cues coming from lab members in order to truly understand what they might be going through. Another important aspect is for them to make it clear that failed experiments do not equate with personal failures. Creating a positive and nurturing environment for researchers can be very important, especially as lab members progress through their personal and scientific journey in the lab. Mentoring is one aspect of the research enterprise that is often undervalued compared to grants and publications – other mentoring tips you can read about here

Leadership opportunities. Another really important way of making someone feel valued is to give them the freedom and agency to explore, grow and develop themselves. Part of this goal is ensuring that early career researchers are placed in positions where they can exert some power and contribute their voices to decision-making processes in academia in a real way. We aim to do this with our “Who’s on Board” project, starting with scientific societies and later expanding to other areas of the research enterprise. 

Valuing intellectual work. Showing lab members that you value their scientific contributions can increase their ability to persevere in the face of failure, and feeling more confident in their research abilities in general. A critical part of this aspect is making sure that ECRs are getting the credit and recognition they deserve for the work they are putting in while in academia. Specifically, we have chosen to highlight the contributions of ECRs in peer review. One of our projects in this regard focuses on ECRs in peer review, an area where early career researchers traditionally have not been getting the necessary recognition. We seek to increase transparency around the contributions of ECRs to the peer review process, as a way of highlighting the importance of both scientific and service contributions in academia.  

More information about each of these projects, as well as Future of Research history and goals as an organization, can be found in our prospectus on the website. 

CONCLUSIONS

In conclusion, it is critical to make ECRs feel valued in academia. If we don’t, we will lose the best talent, leading to an entire generation of researchers unable to utilize their talents to benefit society. 

This post represents my personal views and not the views of my employer (University of California).

Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.