Young investigators are fed-up!

It is not easy being a successful young scientist. The numbers do not lie: there is more competition for fewer tenure track positions and grant funding success rates have reached an all-time low. If you have a tenure track position and hold a grant, consider yourself lucky!

In October last year, Nature published an article entitled Young, talented and fed-up. The article focuses on three young scientists and the challenges they face trying to succeed in a competitive environment. The long hours and undefined, unachievable targets are driving some away from science, while others are burning the candle at both ends trying to spend time with their young families, attract graduate students, start-up their own labs, teach and submit as many grant applications as possible. As pointed out by one of the interviewed scientists, this leaves little time to think and be creative.

Suffering in science: Nature asked young scientists to tell them their concerns.

Desperate pursuit of grants leaves no time for science

“I spent almost all of my time fundraising, and the time spent on executing research was less than 5%.”

Extreme competition drives many scientists to cut corners

“There’s work that is clearly beautifully done, but there’s also work that is done sloppily, overhyped, even fabricated. Current pressures and incentives mean that being first but wrong pays off better than being second and right.”

Dependence on senior scientists to advance

“If you’re not lucky, if your [senior] professor isn’t good at getting research funding or doesn’t have much weight or is not supportive of you in any way, then you are completely screwed.”

Administrative overload with no help

“If I asked for an administrative assistant, it would probably double my research time …
and my department would probably have a good laugh.”

Long hours

“The kind of culture we have is that you can’t be a successful academic on 40 hours a week. I struggle with how I really don’t want to open my laptop again at 9 p.m. when I sit down on the couch. But I want that Nature paper, I want that big grant.”

While this article may seem to be a lament by young scientists, the author cites various sources that confirm today’s scientific upstarts are facing unprecedented levels of competition and expectations.

There is no simple solution to this problem, and it is important for senior scientists, institutions, funding agencies and policy makers to be aware of it. Good people are burning themselves out trying to achieve unachievable goals, while others are simply leaving science.

Furthermore, a highly competitive research environment will lead to a two-tier system where successful researchers will be increasingly successful and unsuccessful researchers will find it increasingly difficult to secure grants and promotions.

As a final though, consider the type of science that is being done to achieve these unachievable goals. The current system values and rewards the number of papers published, not the quality of the science. Until this changes, the problems of poor research reproducibility and questionable research practices have little hope of going away.


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