Opportunities with Obstacles

By Leonie Achtnich - Illustrations: Julia Krusch

Young researchers are more mobile and better trained than ever before. Never was there a generation that enjoyed such opportunities – and was subject to similar pressure. An international appraisal. 

“The academic landscape used to be a rather sleepier place than it is now,” says Dierk Raabe. Used to be – that was 25 years ago when the metal physicist embarked on his career as a scientist. Today, he is the Director of the Max-Planck-Institut für Eisenforschung (MPIE) in Düsseldorf. The institute is a microcosm of science that demonstrates how the job profile of the scientist has changed over the years: researchers nowadays come from all over the world and go all over the world, and half the doctoral candidates are women. Internationalisation, globalisation, flexibility – these are all terms that encapsulate the new academic landscape.

This is both a blessing and a curse. A blessing because, in the words of the Malaysian mathematician Anitha Thillaisundaram, “everything is accessible and online, you can get everywhere and become anything” and a curse because there is much more competition, much greater pressure to achieve and much higher expectations of young researchers. “For every one European researcher there are now 20 Asian researchers who are just as good,” Raabe explains. In his capacity as a member of one of the Humboldt Foundation’s selection committees he has already reviewed the careers of many junior researchers from around the globe. The neuroscientist Jan Siemens, 42, also a professor, has observed that pressure on the careers of the younger generation has increased. “They are expected to be more flexible,” he says. Twenty years of research divide the careers of Dierk Raabe and Anitha Thillaisundaram. Jan Siemens falls in-between. Three researchers, three disciplines, three career stages: how has their job profile changed?

It’s just a stone’s throw from Malaysia to Magdeburg

Anitha Thillaisundaram currently holds a Humboldt Research Fellowship in the Algebra and Number Theory Group at Heinrich Heine University Düsseldorf. The 30-year-old’s CV demonstrates what it means to be mobile: born in Malaysia, university and doctorate in Cambridge, England, research work in India and Magdeburg, Germany. And Düsseldorf will not be the end of the line. “If you want to get on in science, you have to be prepared to travel in order to get to good places,” she says, “and that is not just fun, that’s the way the system wants it to work.” To go wherever you find the research interesting – today, that is taken for granted to a far greater extent than it was in previous generations.

This was one of the findings of “The Global State of Young Scientists” study which was published by the Global Young Academy in Berlin in 2014 (see right column). It revealed that many things are much easier for young researchers than they were for past generations: they are better trained and more mobile than their predecessors. In return, however, a great deal more is expected of them: mobility does not simply mean going where you want to go, but sometimes going because you have to. Uncertainty with regard to job prospects can turn into an existential issue. The problem of not being able to “plan for the future” is shared “by all the survey participants worldwide, if for different reasons,” emphasises Irene Friesenhahn, one of the two authors of the study. In Germany, in particular, this has a negative impact on satisfaction and creativity: 83 per cent of those surveyed described the job insecurity as an obstacle – because the German system is singular: according to the “Bundesbericht Wissenschaftlicher Nachwuchs 2013” (Federal Report on Junior Researchers, 2013), almost 90 per cent of scientific staff in Germany have fixed-term contracts – in the USA the figure is just 14 per cent. The German government wants to improve the prospects for German junior researchers and is currently reforming the “Wissenschaftszeitvertragsgesetz”, the law regulating the length of scientific employment contracts in Germany.

As the study by the Global Young Academy shows, however, in many places the problems are not restricted to the lack or uncertainty of opportunities for advancement. For example, many of the activities which academic mid-level faculty postdocs carry out, such as teaching and organisational matters, are not recognised. Advancement depends on publications. Time is short; the pressure is on, as Dierk Raabe notes. “I frequently see young people drowning in work: attending conferences, pushing through applications, teaching, tutoring students, perhaps doing their Habilitation, publishing – and all this without knowing whether it will lead anywhere.” Everyone would like more time. That is clear from the Global Young Academy’s survey. But not in order to work less than the average 54.7 hours per week currently clocked up. People want to be able to spend more time not only attending to their own careers but also to their students. “But being short of time is probably a problem shared by everyone,” Thillaisundaram comments, “not just by us researchers.”

Against this backdrop, junior researchers’ private lives, like finding a partner and possibly starting a family, are also a major challenge. Of course, this is not only true of academia, but here the lack of career certainty in the third decade of life is particularly problematic. When you have children professional uncertainty and time pressure are a much greater burden. “Things used to be easier,” says Thillaisundaram. “The wife often stayed at home. Today, perhaps both partners are very good, ambitious researchers or professionals who are pursuing their careers and have to be flexible.” This not only has an impact on the life of the researcher but also on the structure of partnerships.

Work-life balance instead of the lab

“Role models are being re-defined,” says Raabe. “Nowadays, more men also ask about the research-family balance.” Unfortunately, the solution tends to disadvantage women. “We lose a lot of good women after their PhDs. They often choose a career in industry because it apparently allows them to plan better,” says Raabe. But the problem is easier to solve on paper than in reality. If you ask Anitha Thillaisundaram, you will understand why. “Science is a bit like learning to snowboard,” she says. “At the beginning you have to concentrate on it completely. Later, when you improve, you can do other things at the same time. But women can’t wait so long to have children.”

Innovations like flexible working models and a better balance between work and life undermine the classic image of the researcher. The idea of a scientist who only focuses on research and nothing else is unrealistic and naive, according to Raabe. “Luckily, creativity cannot be measured in terms of the time one invests,” he says. Jan Siemens thinks the people he works with are less willing to spend endless hours in the lab. “I try not to make value judgements,” he continues. “Not everything that is done at three in the morning after 24 hours in the lab is necessarily brilliant.” Siemens returned to Germany from the USA six years ago with one of the Humboldt Foundation’s Sofja Kovalevskaja Awards. Initially, he went to Berlin and is now doing research in Heidelberg. He is particularly satisfied with the funding opportunities in Germany. “That is a major locational advantage.” But he is critical of Germany’s promotion of junior researchers. “The systems here are often very rigid and hierarchical – big departments and huge tenured working groups. There is often no space for junior researchers.” Those who are in a department run like “a hierarchically structured kingdom” are unlikely to experience much in the way of freedom of research. They are both thematically and financially dependent, according to Siemens. What the neuroscientist would like to see would be smaller, more flexible research groups instead of big, rigid departments, and a kind of basic income for researchers to work with. “Then junior researchers with good topics would have a chance and be able to get on faster. It would also allow them to start again if something didn’t go so well,” Siemens suggests.

Under pressure from hot topics

But what are good topics that young researchers can count on? Are they free to choose them? The study by the Global Young Academy reveals that research is increasingly expected to be of particular relevance to society. This contradicts the ideal of the free, independent researcher who, if necessary, “has to have the courage to throw two years’ work in the wastepaper basket,” as Raabe formulates it. He, too, has observed greater expectations with regard to topics. “I often feel that the public pressure on researchers that is exerted by funding organisations and even the government compromises the sustainability of research. Suddenly there is hype about something and everybody goes for it – take climate warming, for instance. But that on its own does not make for good research.” Not to be too one-sided – that is what the older researcher hopes the younger ones will manage to achieve – neither with regard to topics nor in the way they plan their lives and conceive of happiness. “In addition to the hard graft there should be lightness,” says Raabe. “Work should be fun and it’s important to make sure that one doesn’t become fixated on one particular thing, such as a specific career in science in a specific location.”

Seeking role models

Anitha Thillaisundaram hopes, above all, to benefit from the experience of older researchers. “After all, hierarchies also show us where the people with more experience are to be found,” she says. Jan Siemens appreciates this, too. “There are strong role models in the generation before mine. I don’t always ask them for their advice but I do often ask myself how they would have reacted in certain situations.” Mentors, the Global Young Academy’s survey reveals, are not only important for one’s work – not having them is a genuine obstacle on the path to success. And mentors, in the opinion of the survey participants, are not only tutors but also older colleagues, family and friends. As the study emphasises, the main thing is that they believe in you. 

Despite all the challenges, not just for junior researchers, a study in Nature three years ago revealed that 66 per cent of researchers worldwide were actually satisfied with their job – although not always with the conditions. Perhaps this has to do with a common motivation that is shared by young and old as well as by people from different disciplines. “Learning new things” is how Anitha Thillaisurandam describes it. A “sleuth’s nose, a digging and searching that keeps growing as the years go by,” says Dierk Raabe. And for Jan Siemens it is the curiosity and joy of “understanding again and again why something functions exactly as it does and not differently.”

published in Humboldt Kosmos 105/2016

Leonie Achtnich is a freelance journalist living in Berlin. A junior researcher herself, on the staff of the Peter Szondi Institute of Comparative Literature at FU Berlin, she is personally affected by the topic.

"The Global State of Young Scientists" Study

The graphics in this article are based on “The Global State of Young Scientists”, a study conducted by the Global Young Academy in 2014. Seven hundred young researchers between the ages of 30 and 40 who had acquired their doctorates in the previous ten years were surveyed. They came from Brazil, Canada, Egypt, Germany, Japan, Nigeria, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, South Africa, Thailand, Tunisia and the USA. The Global Young Academy was founded in Berlin in 2010 and provides a forum for junior researchers from all over the world. It has a membership of some 200 in 58 countries.

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