February 2, 2023

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Early-career researchers in Australia are miserable at work

5 min read
Early-career researchers in Australia are miserable at work
Woman in lab coat pipetting at a bench.

A young scientist working in a laboratory in Brisbane, Australia.Credit: Getty

Early-career scientists in Australia, including postdoctoral researchers and those who are already independent investigators, are less satisfied with their jobs and their workplace culture than they were before the COVID-19 pandemic, a survey finds1.

The study was led by research manager Katherine Christian at Queensland University of Technology in Brisbane, Australia. The authors examined responses from more than 500 participants who work at research institutions and have earned their PhD in the past 10 years. Just 57% of respondents reported that they are satisfied or very satisfied with their job, compared with 62% who said the same in a similar survey in 2019. That’s much lower than the average of 80% across the nation’s entire workforce.

More than three-quarters of respondents said that it’s a bad time to start a science career, up from roughly two-thirds in 2019. “That tells the story in itself,” says Christian. The survey also found increasing concerns about workloads and “alarming” rates of bullying.

A ‘depressing’ story

David Vaux, a biomedical researcher at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research in Parkville, Australia, says that the survey’s measures of factors such as job satisfaction, workload and experience of bullying tell an unsurprising yet “depressing” story. “Everything seems to be going in the wrong direction,” says Vaux.

The results echo those of many international surveys of academic scientists, including a 2020 Wellcome report on the experiences of 4,000 researchers, Nature’s 2021 salary and job-satisfaction survey and a 2021 policy paper by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) on job security in the global scientific enterprise. These efforts highlight that most researchers love their work but have deep concerns about their workplace, including the harsh effects of a highly competitive career environment, discrimination and bias, and the lack of institutional support.

Career challenges

Australia faces particular challenges in its research community. It confers a high number of science PhD degrees each year, yet has a relative paucity of secure science, technology, engineering or mathematics positions in both academia and industry, for example. According to the Early- and Mid-Career Researchers (EMCR) Forum Executive, a committee of the Australian Academy of Science, the country spends relatively little on research and development compared with other nations. Australia spent 1.8% per capita in 2019–20, compared with a global average of around 2.5% as reported by the OECD. Australian universities were hit hard by the pandemic, mostly because of their reliance on international student fees. Universities Australia, a committee for advancing higher education, estimated that the nation’s 43 universities collectively lost 17,300 jobs and Aus$1.8 billion (US$1.25 billion) in revenue in 2020 compared with 2019.

Low job security and high competition could be contributing to the long working hours for early-career researchers (ECRs), the survey found. Some 61% of respondents in 2022 said they felt that their workload was too high, whereas only 49% gave that response in 2019. “Working 60–70 hours a week is normalized and expected; if you don’t do it then you’re not a good researcher,” wrote one participant in the free-text section of the survey. “I’ve seen this pressure destroy PhD students and ECR peers, who work themselves to the bone without any end in sight.”

Christian says that these pressures, along with a strong desire to work as a scientist, could also be prompting some researchers to put up with unreasonable levels of abuse or unethical behaviour. About half of respondents reported being bullied, but only 22% thought that their institution would act on a complaint. In 2022, 47% of respondents reported being affected by ‘questionable research practices’, most often the inappropriate inclusion or omission of author names on papers. That’s up from 38% in 2019. “People are not chasing the truth, they’re chasing something else”, such as publications and jobs, says survey co-author Michael Doran, a biomedical engineer who completed his PhD at the University of New South Wales in 2006 and is now a director at pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca in Gaithersburg, Maryland.

Scope for improvement

The survey authors make several recommendations for resolving these issues, including boosting universities’ levels of support for ECRs. This could include, for example, making sure that mentorship duties are more heavily weighted in promotion decisions for ECRs. The authors also call for an independent body to investigate claims of scientific misconduct, as is the case in the United States and the United Kingdom. The Australian Academy of Science is spearheading a move to make this happen.

Doran also suggests reducing the number of PhD degrees conferred in Australia. “We have too many PhD students for the number of jobs; I’m concerned it’s counter to our national prosperity,” he says. He adds that fewer students might be prompted to enter a PhD programme in Australia if the nation’s universities were forced to publish career and salary outcomes for their graduates. Increasing the time needed to obtain a PhD degree from three years to four or five, he says, could also help to reduce the number of students in PhD programmes while boosting their level of training.

Reversing the trends

This year, Australia will launch a 10-year programme that will link 1,300 PhD candidates with industry partners and provide funding for each candidate for up to four years. That’s good, says Doran, but not if it produces 1,300 new doctorate holders, but no available matching jobs.

Vaux says that perhaps PhD degrees should be split into research-focused doctorates intended for academic jobs and practitioner doctorates aimed at industry. Others argue that efforts to improve junior scientists’ career progression should focus instead on workplace conditions and available jobs. “Rather than limit opportunities to engage in a PhD, it would be better to adapt the EMCR community,” says the ECMR Forum Executive, to “diversify the opportunities available during and after a PhD”.

Work is needed in any event, Christian argues, to reverse the declining job satisfaction, increasing workload concerns and rampant bullying uncovered in the survey. “The job insecurity and stress and misery we have identified is just completely unacceptable,” she says.

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