Living in a Bubble of Work

(November 4th, 2014) What’s wrong with the life scientist profession? Science sociologist, Ruth Müller, studies professional culture in a highly competitive environment.

With more and more people finishing a PhD and comparably few senior positions, postdocs find themselves at the narrowest bottleneck of current academic careers. Many scientists are working for increasing periods as postdocs, hoping to achieve more stable academic employment.

In several studies, science sociologist Ruth Müller from Lund University and the University of Vienna investigated the professional culture in the life sciences in Austria. In this highly competitive field, excellent publications, especially first author publications, constitute a key factor for career progress. “Junior scientists need to publish more, at a younger age and in more prestigious journals than their seniors needed to. This is creating a climate of constant rush and fear of lagging behind, as outcomes of research process are hardly calculable from the beginning,” the science sociologist observed.

She found that mid-career researchers tend to avoid collaborations within their own group in order to secure first authorships, avoid authorship conflicts and keep the number of co-authors low. Moreover, the necessity to publish restricts the scope of student education. Time invested in supervision work needs to be turned into a career asset rather quickly, enforcing efficiency and productivity. The balancing act between competition as a lone fighter and collaboration as a team member might have negative effects on social cohesion, collective problem-solving and innovative thought in research labs. “Through limited contracts and reoccurring mobility in the postdoc period, postdocs’ current location and collective engagements mostly become momentary stopping points along an internationalised, uncertain and highly competitive career trajectory,” the science sociologist wrote. International mobility and the high work pace in science can mean that researchers “exist in a bubble of work and more work” and may not be integrated into the academic system and society at large in their respective country of residence.

Despite the slim chances of following a permanent academic career, postdocs seem to be fixated on it. “It seems that the longer scientists stay on the academic track, the more entrenched the idea becomes that only an academic career is a worthwhile and a possible career,” Müller wrote.

Considering the practical and financial difficulties of starting a new career in middle age, this seems hardly surprising, although researchers might have too pessimistic a view of their prospects outside academia. Many consider their professional opportunities beyond academia dull and unattractive, some even fear that they may end up in long-term unemployment if they have to leave academia.

Indeed, academic skills are not always particularly well-regarded in industry with its distinct culture. It is also a questionable practice that experienced researchers are rejected because of their age by sometimes even older employers. At a Naturejobs conference a British scientist remarked pointedly: “The worst decision I ever made was to become a postdoc.” Ruth Müller, a postdoctoral researcher herself welcomes the tenure track model as an important step in the right direction, although it might not be a solution to all the problems of academic careers. She recommended, “PhD training should prepare doctoral graduates more explicitly for a broader range of professional trajectories.”

Bettina Dupont

Photo: Hodan, Johanna Rauch (Ruth Müller portrait)

Last Changes: 12.11.2014