Does a career in science select against those unable to afford frequent relocation, unpaid work and short-term contracts?
That a career in science is demanding is unsurprising. But alongside long hours spent in the lab grappling with abstract concepts, the number of years of education it takes to enter the professional ranks and the increasingly unstable nature of such employment, exists a further demand: money. It’s no secret that science costs money — building the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) and sequencing the human genome cost around €3 billion each — but what is less obvious is that entry to a career in science often requires considerable personal financial sacrifice.
Early-stage scientists are poorly remunerated, particularly at the PhD and postdoc level. Several of the world’s most prestigious and competitive universities and institutions are based in the UK
(UCL, Oxford, Medical Research Council) and operate out of cities where living costs have spiralled over the last decade, yet most UK PhD students receive a salary in the region of £15,000 ($18,200). One estimate of living costs in London puts the annual cost at £15,032, leaving almost no room for error, or indeed saving.
While it is at least feasible to exist on such a stipend, this combination of low salary and high living expenses effectively selects for those prepared to take on more debt, or those with additional financial support or private wealth. In addition to this, pursuing a PhD carries substantial opportunity costs that many young people simply don’t have the luxury of saddling: why flounder in low-paying research for years instead of finding employment elsewhere? It could be argued that a PhD is financially worth it in the end, but there are certainly no guarantees.
A further issue disadvantaging researchers without extra financial support relates to the fixed-term contracts that research scientists work under. Fixed-term or temporary contracts exist all the way down from PIs to postdocs to PhD researchers. One day you’re getting paid to do your job, the next you’re not. While such exploitative contracts are rife in today’s system, a career in scientific research actually requires this, usually for at least six years but often substantially longer.
This can force a serious financial burden on those close to completion, particularly at the PhD level. Crucial extra experiments required for a paper or thesis can add months of unpaid work to the end of a PhD. In addition, while publishing PhD research is not usually a requirement for receiving a PhD, it is absolutely necessary for pursuing an academic career. Therefore, recent PhD graduates can find themselves in a catch-22: unable to snag a postdoc position until they’ve published their work, but unable to afford months of unpaid writing. However, if a career in research is the ultimate goal, such costs have to be swallowed without complaint to ensure that the research is published at the highest level. While it is said that publications are a currency unto their own, I’m yet to meet a landlord who accepts them.
With this in mind, it is not surprising that a recent study puts the number of UK scientists from working-class backgrounds at 15%, despite this group comprising 35% of the population. According the same study, only medicine and law are ahead of science in terms of over-representation of high socioeconomic-status workers. This is troubling: making the financial barriers to a career in science impossible for some to even consider risks not only excluding promising scientists at the early stages of their careers, but also generating further isolation between science and society.
To avoid this situation becoming worse, science as a profession is in need of serious reform. Romantic notions of research aside, pursuing a career in science at present is at best a high-risk career move, and at worst totally unfeasible. I’ve lost count of the number of discussions I’ve had with colleagues about back-up career plans for when the (almost) inevitable happens and they find themselves squeezed out of the academic rat race in their mid-to-late 30s. Almost without exception, these are intelligent, passionate and highly competent professionals, who have sacrificed their time and earning potential to advance the frontiers of knowledge. That many will have to make drastic changes to their career paths, and that even more will be prevented from considering science as a viable career in the first place, is nothing short of scandalous.
A career in science should not depend on personal financial sacrifice as much as it does. PhD students and postdocs need to be properly remunerated for the long hours they put in, and have the opportunity to continue their vocation with some sense of stability (i.e. on permanent contracts). Otherwise, the system will continue to effectively select against those who cannot afford to take such a risk with their career, and the socio-economic diversity of practicing scientists will remain low. This is a disastrous state of affairs that needs to be addressed with urgency, if the UK is to continue producing world-leading science in a time of need greater than ever.
Dr. Nick Riddiford is a postdoctoral research associate working on genome instability in cancer at the Institut Curie in Paris. He is passionate about giving a voice to early career scientists, and advocating for a change in the terms under which PhDs and postdocs work.