Europe’s early career researchers gloomy over prospects

Long hours, job insecurity and need for mentoring noted in global survey of young scientists

January 30, 2014

An international survey has found that scholars in Europe are the least confident of finding a permanent research or teaching position.

The report, The Global State of Young Scientists, offers a snapshot of early career researchers working in 12 countries around the world and found similar stories of long hours, job insecurity and lack of resources.

Published by the Global Young Academy, which represents young scientists across the world, the study surveyed early career scientists who obtained a PhD up to 10 years ago.

At least 650 completed an online questionnaire about their work and a further 45 took part in semi-structured interviews. Areas covered included career development, job conditions and motivations.

Most interviewees did not hold a permanent position in academia. This insecurity drove them to work long hours and at weekends in the hope that they would stand out, said authors Irene Friesenhahn, project officer at the GYA, and Catherine Beaudry, associate professor in the department of mathematical and industrial engineering at the École Polytechnique de Montréal.

The report found that early career researchers work for an average of nearly 55 hours a week in term time and just over 56 hours a week outside term.

Analysis of responses showed interviewees facing common problems around the world, such as having to build a laboratory from scratch, uncertainty over funding necessary to secure future positions, and a lack of resources and research staff.

But despite widespread job insecurity, two-thirds of respondents said that they felt “hopeful or somewhat hopeful about their career prospects”, Ms Friesenhahn and Dr Beaudry say in the report.

Only in Europe, where the authors note that fixed-term positions are the norm for early career researchers, was job insecurity a key concern, cited by more than 83 per cent of European respondents.

Researchers’ confidence in finding a permanent research position varied worldwide. Respondents in sub-Saharan Africa thought their chances were 68 per cent, followed by the Americas (66 per cent), Asia (59 per cent) and the Middle East and North Africa (56 per cent). Respondents based in Europe put their chances at just 35 per cent.

A similar pattern was revealed with respect to confidence in finding a permanent teaching position. Respondents in sub-Saharan Africa believed their chances were 71 per cent, compared with just 39 per cent in Europe.

Across the world, scholars said that more support and mentoring during the early stages of their career was required, particularly at transition points such as starting a family.

“In Europe in particular, the lack of mentoring was perceived as a barrier, leaving young scholars to their own devices in a fairly unstable higher education labour market, with only limited chances for job security,” say the authors.

The report offers six recommendations to improve the working conditions for early career researchers worldwide. These include developing a “nurturing culture” to provide better and more appropriate mentoring and supervision for up to 10 years after a PhD.

It also concludes that research organisations “need to adapt to the realities of women and family issues”.

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