Download icon

Research Culture: A survey of early-career researchers in Australia

  1. Katherine Christian  Is a corresponding author
  2. Carolyn Johnstone
  3. Jo-ann Larkins
  4. Wendy Wright
  5. Michael R Doran  Is a corresponding author
  1. School of Arts, Federation University Australia, Australia
  2. School of Engineering, Information Technology and Physical Sciences, Federation University Australia, Australia
  3. School of Science, Psychology and Sport, Federation University Australia, Australia
  4. School of Biomedical Sciences and Centre for Biomedical Technologies, Queensland University of Technology, Australia
  5. Translational Research Institute, Australia
  6. Mater Research Institute, Australia
  7. Skeletal Biology Section, National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research, National Institutes of Health, United States
Feature Article
Cite this article as: eLife 2021;10:e60613 doi: 10.7554/eLife.60613
5 figures, 8 tables, 1 data set and 3 additional files

Figures

Demographic data of survey respondents.

(a) Gender of respondent n = 658. (b) Age of respondent n = 660. (c) Years since completion of PhD n = 833 (ineligible respondents subsequently terminated). (d) Nature of employment n = 638 (does not include ‘other’). (e) Country of birth n = 658.

Why respondents stay in research.

Word cloud of the responses to survey question number 76 (Why do they stay in science?). The analysis tool NVivo v12 for Mac was used to count the frequency of words in the answers. Of the 334 answers, 108 mentioned love, 16 mentioned passionate and 11 mentioned passion (see Figure 2—source data 1).

Figure 2—source data 1

These data were generated from the open ended responsed to question 76: Why do you choose to stay in science?

https://cdn.elifesciences.org/articles/60613/elife-60613-fig2-data1-v1.xlsx
Figure 3 with 1 supplement
Job satisfaction does not influence the decision to make a major career change.

(a) Respondents were asked to rate their overall satisfaction with their current work (Question 31–4 in survey, n = 566). (b) Respondents were asked if within the last five years they had considered any major career or position changes, and what these might be (Question 61 in survey, n = 470). (c) For those considering a major career or position change in the previous 5 years, we stratified responses from respondents based on satisfaction with their current position (n = 470).

Figure 3—figure supplement 1
Satisfaction with workplace culture stratified by gender and country of birth.

(a) Influence of gender on satisfaction (n = 559). (b) Influence of appointment or position on satisfaction (n = 479). (c) Influence of country of birth on job satisfaction (n = 390).

Aspects of mentoring that are the most and least important to ECRs.

(a) We asked respondents to indicate how much value they placed on different aspects of mentoring from more senior colleagues (n = 481 respondents). (b) We asked respondents who had participated in staff performance reviews to indicate which aspects of the review process they valued (n = 322 respondents who received a review).

ECRs expectations of their current position and their intention to leave.

Answer to survey Question 73, ‘How does your job as an early-career researcher meet your original expectations?’ (n = 469), and respondents’ intention to leave or remain in their position. (a) Data shown as raw number of respondents. (b) Data shown as percentage of each group of respondents. Note correlation between job expectation and intention to leave (n = 469, regression analysis, p=0.0234). (c) These data outline likely reasons for why ECRs would consider leaving a career in research (Question 67 in survey, n = 425, note that 38 answered other and are not accounted for in this graph).

Tables

Table 1
Distribution of research disciplines in STEMM.

The percentage of academics in Australia that work in different STEMM disciplines, relative to the percentage of survey respondents in each discipline (n = 658). **Australian work force data sourced from Australian Research Council, 2019.

Discipline**Percentage of Australian academic STEMM workforcePercentage of respondents to this survey
Mathematical Sciences3.8%2.8%
Physical Sciences4.3%8.1%
Chemical Sciences4.7%5.7%
Earth Sciences3.5%3.0%
Environmental Sciences3.2%4.0%
Biological Sciences12.6%20.9%
Agricultural and Veterinary Sciences4.5%1.4%
Information and Computing Sciences6.9%2.2%
Engineering15.4%3.6%
Technology2.1%0.8%
Medical and Health Sciences38.9%47.5%
Table 2
Selected responses to the question: Why do you choose to stay in science? (question 76 in our survey).

Quotes were selected as they conveyed respondents’ love of science. In addition to the positive responses shown here, respondents also expressed concerns about job security, mentorship and workplace culture.

Quote numberSpecific response
1I love figuring stuff out. I love inventing new ways to measure stuff.
2I love it! I am passionate about my work and driven to make a difference. I will keep going as long as I can.
3I love my job - it doesn't feel like a job - I get to do what I enjoy. That said, the lack of job security and the challenges of having a family, buying a house and staying in the one city in Australia makes it difficult to imagine remaining in research/academia.
4I love my job, being able to develop new research questions and work with clinicians and patients. But I do not love the industry. The lack of job security, challenges in supporting a team, and constant pressure to do more as soon as you can is deeply problematic.
5I love research and discovery, a core part of my identity is 'scientist'. I'm not sure who I would be outside academia.
6I love research and I love teaching, and academia offers the opportunity for both of these. Improved job security would be the one key thing to improve my experience.
7I love research and my research area, I want to help people through my science discoveries and the sharing of these results.
8I love research! No two days are the same and it is extremely rewarding. You have to celebrate the few good days you have (manuscript accepted, award at a conference, grant etc.). The opportunity to truly make a difference to the lives of people is what keeps me going!
Table 3
How does country of origin influence job satisfaction?

Table shows the percentage of respondents born in Australia and born outside Australia who agreed with the following statements (under Question Detail) about their job satisfaction.

Question detailAustralian bornNNot born in
Australia
NAll
I am satisfied with the attitude to people of my ethnicity48.7%26344.2%24946.4%
Overall, I find my work rewarding78.0%28776.4%27177.2%
I am satisfied with the culture of my workplace53.0%28749.3%27051.0%
I have been impacted by harassment based on power position32.7%26334.4%24933.5%
I have been impacted by lack of support from institutional supervisors63.5%26355.6%24759.8%
I have been impacted by questionable research practices of colleagues within my institution36.1%26339.7%24737.1%
I am satisfied with the leadership and management of my workplace48.8%28745.9%27047.1%
My job is a source of considerable personal strain56.2%24245.9%22051.6%
How would you rate your overall satisfaction with your current job (satisfied or very satisfied)65.2%24259.5%22062.3%
Table 4
How gender and academic position affect job satisfaction and career advancement.

(A) Factors that impacted ECR job satisfaction and/or career progression, analysed with respect to gender (n = 511). (B) Factors that impacted on ECR job satisfaction and/or career progression, analysed with respect to ECR appointment type (n = 509). Teaching only (20) and ‘Other’ (62) responses are omitted from (B).

(A)
Workplace characteristicFemale (n = 345)Male (n = 166)
ImpactedStrongly impactedTotal impactedImpactedStrongly impactedTotal
Lack of support from institutional superiors45.5%18.3%63.8%34.3%18.1%52.4%
Inequitable hiring practices27.8%12.2%40.0%19.8%15.6%35.4%
Harassment based on power position25.4%11.6%37.1%14.5%11.4%25.9%
Questionable research practices of colleagues within their institution34.2%7.2%41.4%18.7%12.0%30.7%
Questionable research practices outside their institution27.2%6.4%33.6%21.7%7.2%28.9%
Feeling unsafe in the work environment4.3%6.7%11.0%7.0%8.6%15.6%
(B)
Workplace characteristicResearch only
(n = 282)
Research and teaching
(n = 126)
Clinician researcher
(n = 19)
ImpactedStrongly impactedTotalImpactedStrongly impactedTotalImpactedStrongly impactedTotal
Lack of support from institutional superiors37.4%17.1%54.5%42.1%22.2%64.3%63.2%15.8%79.0%
Inequitable hiring practices23.8%9.6%33.4%26.2%20.6%46.8%42.1%10.5%52.6%
Harassment based on power position20.3%11.4%31.7%27.0%14.3%41.3%15.8%10.5%26.3%
Questionable research practices of colleagues within their institution27.0%10.3%37.3%27.8%6.3%34.1%26.3%10.5%36.8%
Questionable research practices outside their institution25.3%8.5%33.8%23.8%4.0%27.8%21.1%15.8%36.9%
Feeling unsafe in the work environment8.4%4.2%12.6%6.7%7.4%14.1%5.0%5.0%10.0%
Table 5
Quotes regarding questionable research practices (from surveys and interviews).
Quote numberSpecific response
1….the bullying and stuff came to a head and the scientific work was looked at because this person had brought up kind of bullying and harassment allegations against the supervisor. So they in turn looked at the work that this person had been doing and they’d been falsifying…
2Lack of funding and the need to 'sell' your research, often leads to many researchers fabricating and embellishing data. This leads to the inability of genuine researchers to replicate findings, wasting precious time and resources, giving up and then their contracts not being renewed because the boss doesn't get the 10 publications per year they demand.
3I believe that the whole Academia environment is corrupted and has lost its true vision. The lack of funding is making researchers to sometimes make-up data to get grants or to publish meaningless papers just for the sake of raising the numbers.
4being used by post docs and high level senior researchers’ who take credit for your research work ideas and use info in your recruitment applications unethically for themselves…bias recruitment towards international students and overseas post docs who are extremely competitive and who want to get permanent residency and who also bully harass local students and researchers’ to take over their research and jobs.
5…what they wanted to see result-wise wasn’t what I was seeing. And so I was being accused of misconduct because I wasn’t seeing what they wanted me to see, and I wouldn’t change that.
6Not saying, ‘do this’ but pressure to – if something were to fail to almost keep saying, ‘Do it again, do it again, do it again, do it again’’ in order to get you to make it work. And those people have just said, ‘No, it doesn’t and I’ll spend the whole year repeating it but it’s not going to change the outcome’.
7Q But are they getting their names on because they’ve actually been involved? Are we flouting the convention here?
A They haven’t done anything.
Q So his investment in them is…
A Is purely so they can get grant funding through having papers.
Table 6
Quotes regarding the stress of relocation.
Quote numberSpecific response
1The most significant impact has been on my productivity for the few months after I move. Settling into a new environment takes time. I had little to no support to find accommodation[sic], so much of my time was spent on this. The mental/emotional drain of a move is also significant.
2Starting from scratch with a whole new group of colleagues who don't know you and struggling to find research momentum in a new institute, city and country, all of which is very different to previous places you've lived before. Everything is done differently and you're constantly learning the hard way, which takes time and significantly eats into your research progress. It's also lonely and can inhibit the development of long-lasting professional and personal relationships because you have no idea how long you'll really be in the country.
3Lack of stability, no ability to build long term friendships and networks, relationship breakdowns, financial costs, inability to buy a house.
4Loss of traction and momentum in science. Loss of family and friend support. Starting life from scratch. Financial loss from moving costs, to higher rents in locations I moved to.
5Relocation meant my partner having to give up her job
6Separation from family and friends, impact on spouse's career, new start at new institutions take time and are somewhat unproductive.
7Moving internationally with a young family has been extremely difficult. Lack of family support with both myself and husband working full time is extremely difficult to manage.
8Moving to further career progression - like an international fellowship visit - should not be applicable to all fields of research. Furthermore in families with two working adults this is unrealistic and archaic. There are other options to building an international reputation. I moved internationally to complete my PhD.
Table 7
Quotes regarding stresses in the current system (explanations offered for responses to Question 73).
Quote numberSpecific response
1I just find the other aspects of the job and the pressure to perform very difficult. I feel like there is a big clock ticking, and my productivity is always being judged relative to the steady ticking of that clock regardless of the ups and downs and other life circumstances.
2I just wish that the environment didn't feel so pressured and competitive. I have seen so many great ECRs leave research because of the challenges of finding work, meeting expectation, attracting grants. I think the field is too competitive and does not take care of our ECRs and we are poorer for it.
3I am currently looking outside academia to get away from the culture of harassment... it takes too much of a toll on my health... but I would stay in academia if I were to find a position that didn't subject me to harassment by a supervisor.
4Job security is based on churning out a large quantity of publications, regardless of quality.
Three-year fixed-term contracts are very short. In the first 2 years, I focus on my research, however, in my final year, I am thinking about where I am going next. It takes a lot of time and effort to find something else within the research field. I find having an ‘exit strategy’ important.
5Having said that, the pressures of the job have considerably increased in the last ten years and the general expectation is that you should work outside normal working hours, without getting paid extra... And that being able to work in academia is a privilege, so one should do whatever it takes to continue in Academia. In my opinion this is a very distorted and dangerous vision, which puts lots of pressure on ECRs, in particular women who are usually starting families at this stage in their careers.
6At the point of my career, where I am trying to expand my group to potentially have an independent research group, the stresses around funding are a considerable issue for me (as for everyone else, probably). While I have been relatively successful with funding, I feel the pressure of having to support not only my own research, but also the research of those who work with me, and that holds me back from pursuing opportunities that are available to me as I don't want my group to expand too quickly. It also means that I put up with being paid on a lower pay scale than I should be, rather than going for promotion, because I want to conserve funding. This is certainly a constraint on my ability to expand my career prospects.
7The personal toll it takes to have an academic position is immense. The job insecurity, being unable to plan for anything beyond 1-maybe 2 years is debilitating. Constantly responding to this opportunity, and that opportunity, doing good clever work and being available at all times is tough beyond measure. Not knowing if all this personal sacrifice and tough hard work are even going to be worth it is downright demoralizing. It might all work out, and it might not - but when do you pull the pin??
8Mental health of ECRs is overlooked and the universities treat us as second class employees that are disposable.
Table 8
Quotes from ECRs in the survey explaining why they do not leave academia, and their fears regarding employment outside of the academic workplace.
Quote numberSpecific response
1Because it took me so long to earn my PhD, not using it now would seem like a waste. Also, I don't know what else I am qualified to do.
2I didn't know what the other options were or how to pursue them.
3I enjoy science. I feel like leaving would be a failure. I try to continue/stay alive until that failure happens.
4I've spent 10 years training to be an academic. I want to be an academic, but it seems it just isn't my choice at the end of the day. I'll stay until I am no longer competitive. I am keeping my eyes open and looking at other opportunities but so far no one wants me outside academia either.
5I have no skills in anything else.
6After 13 years at university, a divorce, my body and mind falling apart, and pulling myself up from grinding childhood poverty and abuse there isn't anything else I feel that I am qualified to do. I am really good at my job yet overqualified and not healthy enough to do anything else. I am stuck here.
7I also cannot imagine working in another environment, I actually don't know what other options are available and whether these would be fulfilling.
8I constantly think about leaving academia/research (from necessity not choice) but don't know how and am not qualified for any other jobs.

Data availability

The data set for this paper has been uploaded to Federation University Figshare, which is an open access data base. DOI 10.25955/5f98c272a6ef5. These data has been purged of institution name, country of birth and identifying statements made in open text responses. Most of the remaining survey data is likewise be available. Some project data is subject to embargo to protect the anonymity of participants however it may be shared subject to the approval of the Federation University of Australia Human Research Ethics Committee. See https://federation.figshare.com/projects/Challenges_Faced_by_Early-Career_Researchers_in_the_Sciences_in_Australia_and_the_Consequent_Effect_of_those_Challenges_on_their_Careers_a_Mixed_Methods_Project/90317.

The following data sets were generated
  1. 1
    Figshare
    1. K Christian
    (2020)
    Challenges for ECRs in STEMM - data supporting eLife manuscript "A survey of early-career researchers in Australia".
    https://doi.org/10.25955/5f98c272a6ef5

Additional files

Download links

A two-part list of links to download the article, or parts of the article, in various formats.

Downloads (link to download the article as PDF)

Download citations (links to download the citations from this article in formats compatible with various reference manager tools)

Open citations (links to open the citations from this article in various online reference manager services)