A Nature special issue last week examined the plight of young scientists. David Payne runs over the details.
Interviewees described the pressure to publish, secure funding and earn permanent positions, leaving little time for actual research.
The cluster of articles, along with a podcast and infographic, do propose some ways forward to improve the situation. For example, four researchers suggest ways of enabling scientists to pursue promising ideas, and three “agents of change” who have left the bench explain how they’re trying to improve junior researchers’ experiences.
A trawl through the Naturejobs archive reveals more perspectives relating to the plight of scientists. In September 2016, recent PhD graduates recounted the anxiety they have experienced during and after their doctoral programme.
A second article looked at how teamwork can help to lift spirits when the research doldrums hit. Lab quizzes, lunch dates, and cake clubs are all described as potential antidotes to “de-pathologize” or “flip the idea of failure in science,” alongside steps to flatten workplace hierarchies, and acknowledge the learning potential of failure and career setbacks during the recruitment process. Cancer researcher Bert Vogelstein told says that if candidates don’t admit to failing at anything it’s a “conversation ender — theyre not being honest with themselves.”
A third article highlights measures to protect against burnout. Warren Holleman and Ellen Gritz argue that stress, long hours and low morale threaten to scar the activities and careers of US life-sciences researchers.
Their interviews with 19 science department chairs at MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, Texas identified common issues.
“Many faculty are deflated, unsettled and depressed. There is a sense of hopelessness; they’ve given up. There is some resentfulness; they’ve spent a long time establishing their careers and now there doesn’t seem to be a way to continue doing what they like to do,” says one interviewee.
Another alluded to the uncertain future of young investigators: “When I was a postdoc, the sense was that if you’re good, you’ll find a job. I can’t say that anymore.”
Why does my mind keep returning to the morale boosting potential of lab quizzes, cake clubs and lunch dates? Well, last week a colleague announced to our bay of desks that it was time for the weekly BBC quiz, a great way to round off the week (we also went to the pub afterwards).
And in January, during my first trip to Nature‘s New York office, myself and two other Nature Careers colleagues will be hitting Broadway. I’m far from burned out, but the shared experience of seeing Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur’s 1928 comedy revival will lift the spirits of this occasionally jaded old hack.
David Payne is Nature’s chief careers editor.