Young Australian scientists questioning the status quo. Part 1: The EMCR Forum.

Home of the Australian Academy of Science, the Shine Dome (aka “Martian embassy“). Image: Wikipedia/Bidgee.

I have spent the last couple of days attending “Science Pathways: Getting science on the national agenda”, which was the “inaugural meeting of the Early-Mid Career Researcher Forum”. That’s a bit of a mouthful really, so what does it mean?

“Early-Mid Career Researchers” (EMCRs) are individuals who are within about 15 years of finishing their PhDs or other higher degrees. The Australian Academy of Science, which is made up of ~450 of Australia’s most esteemed scientists, thought it was time to cast their eye to this next generation who will take their place once they retire (and in academia, this translates to “when they die”) to see how they were feeling about their careers in research. The aim was to address two key questions: what are the key issues facing young scientists today, and how can we make their voices heard by the policy makers that fund their future?

Dodgy phone photo #1: Chief Scientist, Prof. Ian Chubb

Along with the 140-odd young scientists that attended from a wide range of research institutions across the country, there were also some heavyweights present to share their experiences and thoughts. Chief Scientist Ian Chubb. Nobel Laureate Brian Schmidt. Former CEO of the ARC, Margaret Sheil. CEO of the CRCs Association, Tony Peacock, and CEO of Science and Technology Australia, Anna-Maria Arrabia, just to name a few.

Now, I’ll start by saying that I was feeling quite good about life as a young researcher before heading up to the Shine Dome in Canberra. I have recently started a position at the University of Melbourne, where l get paid to do what I love and work with intelligent, friendly, and interested people. I optimistically (or naively) had the perception that if you work really hard, tick all of the boxes of what’s expected of you, you can continue to do research. Nuh-uh. One of the most telling pieces of advice I heard from a senior researcher (over drinks) went like this: “If you’re the second-best paediatrician in Australia you’re doing really well. If you’re the second best teacher, that’s great. If you’re the second-best researcher in your field: you’re f****d”

Why? Read on.

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10 Comments

  1. Superb post, Pia! While lack of career prospect was not the main reason why I left Australia (the main reason had to do with family stuff), I always did feel like this was something fundamentally wrong with Australia. I was very sick of the uncertainty in prospect; and I am very happy that I now have a continuing position unless I screw up. Germany is considered difficult with respect to ongoing positions, but from everything I can see it’s fantastic compared to Australia: which may well lead the world in ecology/conservation for lack of career prospects. Indeed, high time something is done about that if Australia wants to avoid a “brain drain” of people seeking their academic futures elsewhere! The irony if this is quite severe: the phd education in Australia is great; meaning Australians are well qualified to get jobs in other countries. I predict this will happen, more and more so, unless Australia manages to fundamentally change things so that there are tenure-track like options, somewhat frequently.

    1. Hi Joern – yes, several people commented that European countries have much better research career structures than Australia. However, it was also noted that in France, it’s easy to get tenure early in your career, so researchers are generally less productive and there is less international collaboration (presumably because the French do not stay up late at night working, for fear of losing their jobs). Slightly lower productivity! Holy smokes Batman! One factor probably preventing a complete exodus of Australians to these tenure havens is that we’re so geographically isolated and linguistically limited. I would personally prefer to stay put for those reasons, though at some point may also have to come to terms with the fact that I have no choice :S

  2. “If I want to keep my job or get the next job, I’m going to end up working the equivalent of full-time hours anyway, sneaking in paper writing while my baby is sleeping.” As a mother of two and a scientist whose now left the field for greener pastures I want to stress that writing papers whilst your baby sleeps is near impossible in most circumstances. Firstly, many babies struggle to learn how to sleep and a significant proportion are still not sleeping through the night at the age of one. Secondly, you are lucky if you get a baby who sleeps for more than a couple of hours during the day, and they may not sleep that 2 hours in one hit. In the time they’re sleeping you are most likely going to be doing something mundane such as showering or trying to eat your lunch. As most scientists know, paper writing requires a stretch of uninterrupted time. I usually needed a 3 hour unbroken stretch to make real productive gains (perhaps I am slow?). Thus, the likelihood of papers being written whilst home caring for a child is slim, and even slimmer if your have multiple children. Let’s not kid ourselves about what we’re really asking people, particularly women, to do. There are very good reasons why so many women drop out of science at the early career stage – they’re not stupid.

    1. Hi Katy – yes, I was wondering where this advice-giver had managed to find magical women that can juggle newborns and full-time (albeit any) work! Apparently they exist. I do not aspire to be one of them.

      1. Thanks Pia. I guess the thing I felt saddest about upon leaving science was all those questions I had that I never got to answer. I’m really glad that some of the issues which prevent women from staying in science are receiving attention and I hope that change will come soon. My hope is that if you’ve got that burning curiosity, if you love the thrill of chasing down an answer, if you feel joy, wonder and excitement in designing an experiment, meticulously conducting it, winnowing down the data and examing its significance, you’ll have the opportunity to do so regardless of your gender or background.

  3. Hi, I can certainly relate to Katy!!! I have 2 little kids, don’t want to hand them over to full-time childcare to do my child raising for me, and therefore I’m finding it very hard worming my way back into academia (if I was ever really ‘in’ there). Writing papers and getting that quality time is nearly impossible.
    And then, conveniently, the ARC has dropped APDI fellows from their Linkage grants (they don’t fund any post-doc sallaries now), and Future Fellowships are finished, and… the list goes on. I’ve seen about 3 tenure track positions here in my life… So, the only thing available is post-docs lasting 2 or 3 years, if you’re super lucky. With a family it’s not as easy to just up and move overseas to where there might be more opportunities.
    Winge winge…
    Great to bing it out in the open, Pia!!! Thanks!

    1. Hi Nicki. The decision to drop APAIs from Linkage grants was perplexing, as was their decision to restrict grants to only 2 or 3 years. However, they thankfully do still fund post-doc salaries as far as I can tell (section 5.2.1d), they just won’t pay any named CIs. The end of the FF, on the other hand, is truly depressing.

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