CAREER COLUMN

‘I’ll work on it over the weekend’: high workload and other pressures faced by early-career researchers

Stress and long working hours are regrettably common among early-career researchers, reveals a survey by the Young Academy of Europe.
Toma Susi is Vice-Chair of the Young Academy of Europe and an assistant professor at the faculty of physics at the University of Vienna.

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Shaul Shalvi is an associate professor at the Amsterdam School of Economics, University of Amsterdam.

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Mangala Srinivas is Chair of the Young Academy of Europe and an assistant professor at the Radboud University Medical Center, Nijmegen, the Netherlands.

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Illustration of people working on clock

Credit: sorbetto/Getty

Scientists face many uncertainties. Their career paths are not always well defined, even when they have secured a permanent position. The part that administrative and teaching duties play, and the time researchers should devote to them, is often vague.

Such career uncertainties are costly, and burnout rates among tenure-track researchers (those who are on track to a permanent position) seem to be on the rise. Researchers often feel obliged to work long hours, assuming — correctly or not — that this is the norm and the only way to reduce job uncertainty and to increase productivity. ‘I’ll work on it over the weekend’ or ‘I’ll work on it this evening’ have become regrettably common phrases among early-career researchers.

A survey of members of the Young Academy of Europe (YAE), a pan-European network of early-career researchers, has examined several career factors, including work–life balance, tenure-track requirements and administrative workload. The aim of the survey, carried out in the first half of 2018, was to gain a better understanding of the conditions that researchers face early in their career, and the main challenges. The YAE also wanted to address the general lack of openness in discussing the individual, and highly variable, requirements for tenure across Europe. YAE members were invited by e-mail to participate in the survey, a web-based questionnaire, generating 100 complete replies.

The YAE has presented the results in meetings with other academies to raise awareness of the issues early-career researchers face and it will host a panel discussion at the group’s annual joint meeting with the Academy of Europe, taking place in Barcelona, Spain, in October 2019.

The survey suggests that researchers want work expectations to be clear and well-calibrated. The YAE calls on European Union policymakers to require that work hours are realistically calculated, accounting for the full time spent on each task. For example, teaching includes not only standing in front of a class, but also preparation and marking. The requirements should also, ideally, be at least roughly uniform across institutions and countries, which is currently not the case.

The survey results highlight that simply conducting excellent research might no longer be sufficient for obtaining tenure. Career paths have become ever-more precarious, the age at which researchers obtain a permanent position — if they do at all — is rising ever higher, and research that was, until quite recently, considered ‘excellent’ is now the bare minimum expected. Even researchers that have gained recognition and support through prestigious funding schemes such as the European Research Council’s Starting Grant face uncertainty and stress over their career prospects.

One survey respondent said: “YAE should do something, anything, to help reduce the administration duties of academic faculty. By administration duties I mean the situation where assistant professors spend weeks compiling timetables for sometimes hundreds of students, prepare from scratch and run university questionnaires and polls, are supposed to handle university documentation, etc. This is nonsense! Universities employ hundreds of office staff, but most of the administration and bureaucratic work is given to research faculty!”

Four main challenges were noted by respondents: the main concern was lack of time, followed by securing a permanent position, obtaining funding, and excessive administration. The survey revealed that people often feel they should work longer than the standard working day. The YAE found that 95% of respondents report working more than 40 hours per week, and of those, 50% worked more than 50 hours, significantly more than their contracts say they should. Although strong conclusions cannot be drawn owing to limited geographical statistics, the data suggest that long working hours are more prevalent outside western Europe.

How are these long hours spent? On average, only 30% of working time is spent on research. Supervision and administration take up 19% each, whereas teaching occupies 15%. Grant writing consumes 13% of researchers’ time, and the remaining 4% is spent on other tasks. In other words, supervision, administrative tasks, teaching and trying to obtain further funding consumes two-thirds of their time.

With high workload comes high stress, although the main causes varied widely in the responses. An important stress factor for early-career researchers was the lack of clarity about career opportunities, and, in particular, what is required to get a tenured position. Only one in three respondents felt that they understood tenure requirements at their institution. Many mentioned stress due to colleagues, family and personal issues, but these factors are probably unavoidable. However, it was administration that prompted some of the most bitter comments, some decrying “100% irrelevant” or “excessive and pointless” administrative tasks.

Finally, despite many of the respondents currently holding or having held large grants, keeping the group funded was a major concern. Such data from people who are doing very well in their field are striking.

European policymakers should ask young researchers about their needs to create policies that will foster a cooperative and healthy scientific community. As the future of research, young scholars must be better supported.

doi: 10.1038/d41586-019-01914-z

About the Young Academy of Europe

Researchers can apply to join the YAE within 12 years of their PhD graduation (with extensions for starting a family or military service), and typically have their own independent research group based in Europe.

Most YAE members are funded by large and prestigious personal grants. There are currently 200 members, covering most EU states and affiliated countries, across all disciplines.

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