Since the 19th century, universities’ raison d’être has been to achieve societal impact through high-quality education and research . In this globalised world, with its ever increasing human population and pressure on ecosystems, our societies become more and more dependent on new and reliable knowledge and on a highly educated workforce . In academia, the workforce is represented, in good proportion, by postdocs and other not permanent staff . Postdocs participate in a system evolved many decades ago, in which they receive mentoring intended to prepare them for independent and permanent academic research positions, in exchange for providing labour, producing data, writing manuscripts, and preparing grant applications. However, postdocs are faced simultaneously with a number of different challenges that can significantly impact not only their quality of life but, ultimately, the quality of research itself . This article tells my personal experience as an early career female scientist with the aim of contributing to the discussion around the challenges that our academic system present to young scientists.
I am a 34 years old Italian woman which could be called, depending on the context and on the day, a “postdoctoral researcher”, a “researcher”, a “non-permanent scientific collaborator”, a “voluntary scientific collaborator” or, more simply, a “currently unemployed expat”. The funny aspect is that all these epithets are simultaneously true; the sad aspect is that my personal struggles are probably not very different from those of other thousands of young researchers across Europe.
When I enrolled for the first time at the University of Trieste (Italy), for a Bachelor in Biology, I did not dreamt of becoming an academic. I dreamt of continuing my studies with a Master in Marine Biology in order to become, one day, an underwater documentarist or an educational guide in sustainable tourism, no desire for achieving a PhD in Aquatic Science or for attempting a career in the academic world back then. My first Ethology class was a very strong intellectual and emotional experience, which I still remember more than 13 years later. Simply put, I became a researcher in life science not because of a strategic career plan but simply because I am completely fascinated by my research field. Since that Ethology class, the enthusiasm and curiosity for observing and studying animal behaviour have been the true engine behind my academic career.
Although every person approaches scientific research from different intellectual, economical, social and motivational backgrounds and for different reasons and scopes, I think that, behind every scientists, there is a vocation for research or, at least, a deep-rooted passion for the chosen research topic. Behind every grant applications there is a dreamer (or a team of dreamers); a researcher is a person who wants to put to use her or his intellectual abilities for contributing to the advancement of human knowledge in the chosen research field of interest and wishes to make of this her or his profession.
The researcher job is completely different from any other job I have undertaken. From certain points of views, being a researcher is an amazing career, which allows you to develop an incredible array of scientific competences and of soft skills. You get to tackle questions, to use logical and independent thinking, you learn to put meticulous attention to details while working on the big picture, you develop teamwork and interpersonal skills, you meet other like-minded people and you often get to travel in amazing places (us Marine Biologists are extremely lucky in this department).
Of course, there are other sides of the coin. For example, a researcher always work more than 40 hours per week; we think to our research questions even when we are at home, we often resort to night-time and weekend hours for writing our papers and grant proposals or for reviewing our peers’ manuscripts (unpaid by the major scientific publishing companies), we often use our holidays to visit colleagues in foreign countries or to collect some “I can’t live without” data. We are always eager to tackle our research questions but our overwork is never paid (nor truly recognised).
In my research experience, I have never met one single researcher, from the PhD student to the Professor’s level, who does work “only” 40 hours per week or that gets paid more for her or his overwork. For young scientists, this level of commitment in the academic career can be sustained only if a sincere passion motivates them; without a vocation, one simply would not have the motivation to keep going. For those lucky enough to obtain a temporary or permanent position in academia, unpaid overwork seems an accepted, almost unspoken and immutable reality, and honestly the only way for hoping to maintain a level of scientific productivity which is enough competitive in the current job market. The extreme side of this spectrum is represented by those researchers that, after many postdoc positions and too many not funded grant applications, continue to produce, publish and review high-quality scientific research while they are employed in completely different sectors for sustain themselves and their families. I personally know more than one scientists in this position; all of them are amazing reservoir of scientific knowledge, competences and passion. These researchers continue to contribute to high-quality scientific knowledge in their spare time, unpaid for their contribution to the advancement of knowledge. This fate can be permanent or temporary, if the researcher keeps improving his academic curriculum while maintaining the motivation for applying to permanent academic positions or other postdoctoral grants AND, especially, if one of this attempt is successful.
The pressure on early career scientists is constantly increasing, at least this is the feeling I have by living in this reality. The only way for early career scientists to become competitive enough for at least hoping to obtain, one day, a bit of job stability in the academic sector, is to publish as many more manuscripts as possible, better if in high rank journals, to develop scientific independence, to be successful in grant applications and to undertake mobility. This constant pressure in publishing in high-rank journals is extremely stressing and, in my opinion, it can affect science itself, as we are often more worried about our publication strategy than about taking the time needed to conduct “well-rounded” studies.
I arrived in Belgium in 2016 after obtaining a Marie-Curie COFUND postdoctoral fellow at the University of Liege; this call was open only to not Belgian citizen who had never worked in Belgium before, aka mobility was a fundamental requirement. At least in Europe, mobility is often one of the mandatory requirement of many postdoctoral calls. My personal situation has involved mobility from a very early stage, where from my Master to date I have always moved from country to country in different laboratories. My passport is Italian, my identity card is Belgian, my driving permit is Irish and I’ve paid taxes in 3 different European countries so far. Although mobility has undoubtedly contributed to my professional and personal profile, I believe that the elaboration of new theories, as well as the advancement and standardisation of methodological tools, is favoured also by prolonged collaborations with laboratories and people with complementary expertise, with whom collaboration has already proven to be efficient, proactive and enjoyable. It is hard to start all over again, every X years, especially when you integrate yourself well in your working environment, when you feel you finally belong to something. Each time you move, you will find a new laboratory, new colleagues, a new city, a new language, a new sociality to adapt to. All this moving would be exciting if we would not feel as we are forced to undertake it.
For women, things are even harder. During the postdoc phase, the ‘female leaky pipeline’ effect (when women drop out of the academic career) is clearly apparent or, as some argue, women are instead retained at lower career stage; what is sure is that during the postdoc phase the proportion of women decreases . As a woman in science, in my work environment, I never felt gender discriminated. However, it is true that in all the laboratory I have worked in, the proportion of female scientists drops as much the rank increases.
In the academic world, permanent positions are a limited resource. Over recent decades, the number of postdocs has increased, and the supply of permanent positions has become much lower than the demand . Although many candidates embarking on a Ph.D. aspire to an academic career, only a small proportion can actually expect to make one . Global figures are hard to come by, but only three or four in every hundred Ph.D. students in the United Kingdom will land a permanent staff position at a University (and it is only a little bit better in the USA) . This results in an ever-increasing competition and in extremely unsure career perspectives.
Between others, I have recently applied to the Marie Skłodowska-Curie Individual fellowships (MSCA-IF; i.e. one of the most renowned postdoctoral scholarship in Europe which requires mobility), and to another fellowship aimed to hire six young and talented female scientists for a tenure-track position in the Faculty of Science of a renowned European University. I was unsuccessful in both attempts. I remember that, the day after I submitted my Marie Curie application in 2018, I saw a post on the official MSCA Facebook page which informed us that 2018 was the record year in terms of the number of received applications.
Almost 10.000 applicants, for a success rate of between 10 and 20%, depending on the specific scheme. My hopes of seeing my project funded dropped. I had already applied to the MSCA the year before, in 2017; at the time, we obtained a certificate of excellence for our project, but no funding. Although this and other rejections have contributed to almost 7 months of unemployment, since the first rejection of my MSCA application, we’ve obtained and analysed further preliminary data thanks to efforts shared at an international level and by a cross-sectoral research team. I submitted a new, improved application in 2018 but almost 10000 is a huge pool to compete with. The day in which I received the communication of the (second) rejection of my MSCA application, I felt deeply desolated not for my personal situation but because of the awareness that at least other 8000 motivated young scientists, willing to emigrate in their late ’20s or ’30s (with all the consequences that mobility might have on personal and familiar level), with timing and innovative research projects sustained by at least as many talented professors and scientists, were facing my same email of rejection and my same uncertainty for their future, as researchers and as citizen. And what about the call for a fellowship aimed to hire six young and talented female scientists for a tenure-track position in a renowned European University? Well, the day in which candidates should have received communication about the outcome of the first round of selection, we received an email stating that:
“Our call was answered by more than 400 applicants, more than half of whom wrote to us near the application closing date. Unfortunately, due to the high level of interest and the thoroughness of the selection process, we will not be able to fulfill our promise of responding to every applicant by X. Instead, we will do our best to get back to you by XX at the latest”
I have decided to bring these two examples of my recent funding applications for making a point about how clogged the system truly is.
The most disturbing feeling I have to deal with as an early career scientist is the feeling of helplessness, which generates anger and depression, depending on the day. I would never claim that my curriculum is impressive, or my talent is exceptional, but I surely can claim that I could have done nothing more than what I have done to pursue an academic career. All my efforts are never enough, and this is true not only for me but also for all the other talented early-career scientists I know. It is extremely frustrating. I feel helpless because there is anything more I can do to improve my employability perspective in the academic sector; we are simply too many, the system is completely clogged, so it does not (only) matter anymore “how good you are as a scientist” but how lucky you are.
This situation not only affects early career scientists but also our Professors and students. Professors put a huge amount of time and effort in our training and formation, they spend their nights correcting our papers and in writing applications for hiring us; unfortunately, they are victim of the same clogged system and they often have to see their “beloved” lab members leaving for the next place in which funding is available or for another, more stable job position. Master students are often co-supervised by postdocs; any Master student with a bit of common sense, who assists to the struggles of the postdocs in their Lab, will think more than twice before pursuing a Ph.D., regardless of their motivation and talent.
I am sorry if this article sounds alarmist; I simply think that the first step for addressing a problem is to recognize we have one. And, at least from my personal point of view, the modern academic world has a big one, which needs to be addressed. I am nobody to suggest the best solutions, but my personal experience gives me some insights about measures which could improve the life of early career scientists. At an international management level, it would be important to create an international social security scheme for researchers providing at least retirements and unemployment protection to international researchers. At a funding management level, complementary short fellowships could be put in place in order to sustain researchers in continuing their research between grants. At the university management levels, we could potentiate the university investment in effective career development, as well as potentiate psychological support for researchers and support services for internationals. As scientists, in our daily life, we can recognise the personal struggles behind each of our research, by speaking openly and by sharing our experiences, suggestions and coping strategies in order to build, all together, a more reasonable working environment. As citizen, we can demand our governments to recognise scientific research as the pillar of our modern society, to increase the public funding flow in fundamental and public research and to implement forms of effective social protection for “invisible workers” such as academic researchers.
 van den Akker, W., & Spaapen, J. (2017). Productive interactions: Societal impact of academic research in the knowledge society. LERU position Pap.
 Science Europe Working Group on Research Careers (2016). Postdoctoral Funding Schemes in Europe’: doi/2016/13.324/9
 Many junior scientists need to take a hard look at their job prospects Nature 550, 429 doi:10.1038/550429a