TUESDAY, 11 AUGUST 2020Many students at the University of Cambridge dream of a career in academia, and the first step in achieving this is to complete a PhD. Indeed, with surveys performed in 2019 by both Nature and AdvanceHE indicating a satisfaction level of ~75 % among PhD students, it appears to be an attractive option. However, there are difficulties along the way and the world of academia is not without problems, as demonstrated in a recent report on research culture by the Wellcome Trust. Carried out to provide a rigorous dataset from which factors that contribute to productivity of the research sector could be identified, this survey of 4,000 researchers from all stages of their careers raised some worrying questions about the sustainability of the current system. Together, the surveys found that complaints fall into three main areas: long working hours, insecurity about career progression, and the impact of externally applied metrics on the quality of research.
Nature’s survey of 6,300 early career researchers from across the globe reveals that three-quarters of respondents work over 41 hours a week compared to an estimated 38.4 hours a week for the average British person. 85% of those who worked over 41 hours a week were dissatisfied with their hours, suggesting that reasons other than passion for their project led to such long days. The situation appears to be driven by academic culture, with nearly half of respondents saying they felt their institution called for them to work long hours and even through the night.
Students are also uncertain that the hours they put in will be worth it. The Wellcome Trust report shows that only 37% of researchers at entry level feel secure about their job prospects, with this figure falling to just 19% for early-stage researchers. In fact, just under half of those who have left academia cite their main reason for doing so as difficulty in finding a job and an uncertain career trajectory.
Another reason for leaving may be academic research culture itself. When asked to describe research culture in the Wellcome Trust’s survey, the most common response was ‘competitive’, with the majority meaning this negatively. Competitive atmospheres may be driven by the importance of external metrics such as publications and citations in assessing the worth of academics’ research, meaning young researchers feel pressured to outperform their peers rather than work collaboratively. There was also concern that the emphasis on metrics encourages academic dishonesty, such as distorting or embellishing data to get published in more prestigious journals. Metrics may not be the only factor pushing scientists towards over-emphasising the impact of their results. Respondents felt that key stakeholders are becoming increasingly risk-averse and interested only in the short- term impact of projects. This is having a negative impact on the ability of scientists to explore curiosity-driven ‘blue skies research’, with 75% of respondents feeling that their creativity was being stifled.
Furthermore, the survey found that bullying, harassment, and discrimination were rife with 61% of people having witnessed it and 43% having experienced it. Alarmingly, only a third of respondents felt that they would be comfortable speaking out about cases of bullying or harassment, citing concerns about being viewed as a troublemaker and potential negative impacts on their career.
The combined effect of these stresses is taking its toll on the mental health of researchers and PhD students. Only 14% of postgraduate students surveyed by AdvanceHE reported low anxiety, compared to 41% in the general population, with the Wellcome Trust reporting that just over half of researchers had sought or received help for anxiety or depression at some point during their academic career. Many academics reported feeling lonely and isolated. Furthermore, researchers under pressure often find it hard to separate professional failings from personal ones. This means that upsets at work or negative results can have a broader impact on their personal lives.
That being said, what can, and is, being done to improve the situation? All of the surveys agreed that researchers are proud of what they do and enjoy the intellectual challenge of their job. However, they feel stuck in a system that demands too much of their time and rewards those willing to step over others to get ahead. The rising levels of concern and discontent about the problem can be seen from last year’s strike of the University and College Union, which was partly brought about by academics’ grievances relating to workload, equality, and job security.
In 2018, the Royal Society held a conference entitled ‘Research culture: Changing expectations’ in an effort to examine these issues and create a space in which academics from all stages of their career could discuss possible solutions. There was a broad consensus on what needs to change, including changing how people are evaluated and rewarded within academia, a focus on collaboration over competition, and moving away from a ‘publish or perish’ culture. This points to an overall need for academia to change focus from where a paper is published to what the paper contains. There needs to be a shift in emphasis from volume of output to how that output was generated and what it means, both in terms of progression of knowledge and what it can contribute to society. These points, and other recommendations for good scientific practice, have been encapsulated in the San Francisco Declaration of Research Assessment (DORA), which UK Research and Innovation recently signed up to.
Furthermore, to support those doing their PhDs and early in their career, the conference has recommended emphasising that academia is not the only option and that pursuing another career does not make one a ‘failed academic’. The conference recommended that PhD students should have opportunities to improve their skills in a range of areas, such as public engagement and policy development, so that their PhD better equips them to carry out a range of roles both within and outside academia. This would give PhD students a wider range of options once they finish their degree and ensure they feel less confined to a particular career path.
Universities also have a role to play, by making it easier to access appropriate mental health support so that those struggling don’t feel so alone. There is widening recognition of this problem, with Cambridge having recently received part of a £1.5 million partnership between Mind and Goldman Sachs. This partnership aims to provide support and specialist training to students and staff to help them look after their mental health. However, the availability of such services is highly variable between universities, and much of it is focused on undergraduates. Furthermore, even if counselling and mindfulness courses are on offer, it can be difficult for students in high-pressure environments to justify taking the time off to look after themselves.
With these facts in mind, embarking on a PhD may seem like a less enticing career move to some. Long hours, a competitive atmosphere, and questionable career prospects would be enough to turn many people off a job. However, the call of science is
a hard one to ignore and many students see the risks as being worth it to pursue the subject they love. Hopefully, by raising awareness of the issues existing within the academic community, surveys such as these will help to trigger tangible changes to research culture, and so create an environment better suited to allowing researchers to thrive.
Lucy Hart is a 3rd year Physics student at Peterhouse College. Artwork by Prannoy Chaudhari-Vayalambrone