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Australian researchers held back in struggle for jobs, funding

There’s a lot of bitterness, anger and frustration out there in the world of Australian research. A new survey has shown that researchers like their work, but not the system in which they work. It’s the…

Australian researchers are frustrated with a funding system that makes job prospects unreliable and often ties them to short term contracts. AAP

There’s a lot of bitterness, anger and frustration out there in the world of Australian research.

A new survey has shown that researchers like their work, but not the system in which they work. It’s the lack of certainty of employment; the overly-competitive race for grants, fellowships and jobs; and (for more senior people) the onerous burden of teaching and administration.

Of the 1200 researchers who completed the survey, nearly 80% said they found a career in research as “very” or “reasonably” attractive. The best features were working on interesting and important issues, and working in a stimulating environment.

Working on challenging problems, finding solutions, and making a difference and helping people are all attractive features of a research career.

The Australian Council of Learned Academies (ACOLA) was commissioned to conduct the survey and eight focus groups by the Commonwealth Department of Innovation. The aim was to identify the pressure points in the research career pathway and identify possible solutions.

Respondents were asked to identify the best and the worst of the Australian research system. On the good side, they nominated the PhD stipend that allows graduate students to make a start.

But they were four times more likely to identify bad aspects of the system, where uncertain job prospects tops the list. Over 80 per cent of respondents say there is too much reliance on short-term contracts.

As one respondent puts it:

“Job uncertainty is appalling, we are the most educated people in the country and we can barely provide for our family and have at most three to four years job stability. This is extremely stressful.”

Another said she had chased three contract jobs across three different states in two years. This is not unusual, and family life has to fit somewhere. Experiences like this are forcing researchers to consider better-paying but less imaginative pursuits.

Workload is another issue: teaching loads are heavy, and administrative tasks are being shuffled onto academic staff as universities scramble to manage tightening budgets. Increasing demands for accountability add to the load.

To the young researcher, it all looks clear at the beginning: honours degree, PhD, post-doc positions, then a steady progression up the research ladder.

The actual experiences can be quite different, as young graduates encounter a sharply narrowing opportunity funnel. They finish their PhD and discover positions and opportunities are limited. Why did no-one tell them about the real employment situation before they started? There is a sense of being cheated, of being lured into a career of backwaters and dead ends.

Publications and citations are the measures of progress, but there is little time for young researchers to develop a publications record. Other activities such as interactions with industry are largely disregarded. Such constricted metrics encourage perverted behaviours: respondents with international experience described their relief at not having to churn out a lot of little articles and being allowed to concentrate on more meaningful work.

For many post-docs life becomes a series of short-term contracts with senior researchers, leaving them little opportunity to write up their own work or establish themselves as independent researchers. Career path – what career path?

The competition for grants and scholarships is intense. The chance of an early career researcher winning a DECRA Award in 2011 was remote: 2159 applications for 277 awards. Applications can take months to prepare: an ANU study reportedly showed the cost of preparing a Discovery grant application is $50,000.

Respondents were also asked to suggest improvements. What can government programs and the systems of universities and research institutions do?

It is clear the fundamental problem is lack of funds: not enough positions, overly-competitive grant schemes, heavy workloads because of lack of staff, not enough time for new graduates to write up their research.

But there are low-cost changes that would help systems become more responsive, such as encouraging and rewarding researchers for working more closely with industry. This would require a sharp shift in university culture and reward systems, as well as changes to practical matters such as superannuation.

Young researchers want help to develop their careers, through mentoring and career advice. Small grants systems to attend conferences, publication subsidies and training in generic research skills would boost their competitiveness.

Researchers of all ages want a new flexibility and responsiveness in national funding programs. Several funding cycles over the year, and feedback on unsuccessful applications would help. International schemes have other desirable features: longer time frames, grants that covered research costs as well as salaries.

The costs of preparing applications is considerable – does the Productivity Commission have a role in suggesting changes to ARC and NHMRC applications?

Australia can look at other changes, to the teaching-research nexus, setting out a clear research career pathway, balance in workloads and low salaries.

But behind all this is the basic question of supply and demand: if Australia needs more highly educated citizens, why do researchers have to scramble so fiercely to win positions and grants? Or should the resources be diverted to meeting Australia’s real needs, for instance for plumbers?

Co-author Toss Gascoigne is a consultant who receives funding from government departments at state and federal level, research organisations in Australia and overseas, CSIRO and other clients.

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20 Comments sorted by

  1. William Bennett

    Lecturer in Environmental Chemistry at Griffith University

    Great article Jenni!

    As someone who has just graduated with a PhD, I strongly agree with everything you've said. The beginning of a PhD is a very exciting time. You finally get the chance to knuckle down and do some independent research. This slightly fades as the PhD progresses and the stress increases. But, nonetheless, it is extremely rewarding when you finish and are rewarded with a PhD.

    Then reality sets in when you try and find a job. As you said, DECRA success rates are very low, averaging…

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  2. Sean Lamb

    Science Denier

    Probably limiting the number of PhD scholarships on offer should be thought of if there aren't enough research and industry positions out there. Phd students are great for academics, cheap and hard-working, I think in some fields it is easy for it be a very bad option.

    Incidentally if The Conversation wants a hot news tip, there is something going on at QUT Or rather there should be something going on, but knowing academics and the extent to which they will engage in cover-ups it wouldn't be surprising if there wasn't
    A whistle-blower PhD student has exposed someone who looks like they have indulged in systematic falsification of results and as a response QUT is attempting to retaliate by making it difficult or impossible for the PhD student to complete his thesis.

    1. Roger Davidson

      not really a Student

      In reply to Sean Lamb

      If you go against a favoured son or daughter in academe, watch out!

  3. Catherine Pohlman


    The problem is money. We need more of it. Anything else is window dressing.

    Here's another suggestion: instead of making us spend three months+ writing applications which have a 90% chance of failure, why don't we allocate a small amount of research funding to everybody to use as they see fit (subject only to the normal non-embezzlement rules). Maybe the amount could increase over time as people earned more senior academic positions. Competitive funding could then be restricted to only those larger…

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    1. Craig Savage

      Professor of Theoretical Physics at Australian National University

      In reply to Catherine Pohlman

      What an outstandingly sensible suggestion!

      Unfortunately, working in a university gives me the impression that efficiency and cost-effectiveness of teaching and research simply aren't on the agenda.

    2. Colleen Elso

      Postdoctoral Fellow

      In reply to Catherine Pohlman

      Isn't this the block funding scheme for medical research institutes that NHMRC phased out several years back? It worked for years....

    3. Pera Lozac

      Heat management assistant

      In reply to Catherine Pohlman

      No - what Australian universities have to do is to start seriously considering boycotting ARC completely. Being part of the corrupt process is giving it legitimacy. Just don't do it!

    4. William Bennett

      Lecturer in Environmental Chemistry at Griffith University

      In reply to Pera Lozac

      Unfortunately, this would only make life more difficult in the short term. For many researchers, the ARC is the only funding option they have. Boycotting would be shooting yourself in the foot.

      The solution is complicated. I think there needs to be a serious review of how the ARC is run and how it can be improved. It is a very important system but, at the moment, a very flawed one.

    5. Pera Lozac

      Heat management assistant

      In reply to William Bennett

      Could not agree more with the second paragraph. I think that the very first and the most important step is to exclude "Australian national interest" clause from all ARC applications. Science cannot be a slave to nation states - scientific research must be in service to the whole of the humanity - not to political interests of the party in power, disguised as "national interests". The real national interest of any nation state should be contribution to the good of humanity and to the extension of its knowledge base.

  4. Alistair Rowe

    Associate Professor in Condensed Matter Physics at Ecole Polytechnique, CNRS

    As an Australian academic who has spent all of his career from the Ph.D. onwards outside of Australia, I can testify that the absence of a clear cut career path makes a return to Australia extremely risky and unattractive.From over here it looks like the equivalent of a tenured position simply doesn’t exist.

    In the US when one obtains an assistant professorship there is a clear cut agreement that after several years your performance will be evaluated. In France where I work, tenure is given very…

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  5. Julie Leslie

    GIS Coordinator

    PhD candidates don't get jobs? How is this news? This has been obvious for a very long time. PhD's are very educated: but in some ways they are not smart. The people with doctorates who complain certainly didn't to their study in economics.

    An education generally increases your ability to earn money - but you can over invest in education. I think a masters degree is where you can maximise the education to income relationship. Everything after is over investing. You can spend 1-2 in the honours…

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    1. Lucy

      logged in via Twitter

      In reply to Julie Leslie

      I think sometimes people can get addicted to their field of study/research and are so strongly motivated by their desire for knowledge that they no longer think about their own interests as much as others expect. Like any addiction, it can be hard to give up until you can't continue with it any longer.

      I thought it might be worth noting that in Victoria at least, it's no longer for graduates to retrain by doing a TAFE diploma for ~$2000. It's more like $10,000 per year because of the changes to the TAFE system that were brought in a few years ago. Thankfully there are many free online courses available nowadays, which can be used to retrain.

    2. William Bennett

      Lecturer in Environmental Chemistry at Griffith University

      In reply to Julie Leslie

      A PhD is not an over-investment if you desire a career in research - it is a necessity!

      There is no other option for those who are passionate about research and want to pursue it as a career. Not all people see a job as solely a means of income - many see it as a vocation, as an activity that brings purpose and enjoyment to their daily life. As a scientist, I actually look forward to going to work and doing research. I don't start on Monday and count down the days until the weekend.

      It's a hard road to travel, especially with the current grant funding system, but I'm going to give it a shot because it's what I love to do. At least if I fail and end up in some repetitive job in industry, I know that I will have at least tried...

    3. Craig Savage

      Professor of Theoretical Physics at Australian National University

      In reply to William Bennett

      It is my observation that universities are exploiting the admirable passion that you, and so many others, express. Why is it that our universities have become so effective at wearing down such deep passion and commitment?

      The fact that some of us cope anyway does not excuse such institutional behaviour. Shouldn't our goal as academics be to make things better, rather than to stoically suffer?

    4. Julie Leslie

      GIS Coordinator

      In reply to William Bennett

      Substitute "career in research" with "career in music" or "career in dancing" or "career in arts/design". Sounds similar? All these industries have many people wanting to persue the career and not a lot of positions going. The demand to supply in jobs is just not in your favour.

      I get that you are all doing something you love. Amazingly I also enjoy my work (it happens to people sometimes). I also get paid well and have good conditions. I have also done research - it was small scale (nano really). It was fun.

      You could draw some parallels between this situation and abused spouses. A lot of you seem wedded to an idea/process that really does not help you and actually seems like it can cause some harm through stress!

      My point is: what could you do differently to get what you want? Asking politely does not seem to be working.

  6. Antonio Dottore

    logged in via Twitter

    Hmm, perhaps it is worth introducing into the research training some form of education on university-industry interaction as a matter of course.

    The Commercialisation Training Scheme had some merit.

    This is an area of direct interest for me, so you might say I am biased, but from the experiences of so many researchers that I have met over the years, I do think that - even as researchers - they would be more effective with some concept of commercialisation, or market processes. It can offer direction for their research programs, as well as alternative career paths.

  7. Mark Davis

    Lecturer in Publishing and Communications, University of Melbourne at University of Melbourne

    As a mid-career researcher this sounds spot on to me though I could have done without the snobby-sounding aside against plumbers at the end. Opportunity costs are a huge factor with our onerous, poor risk/return grants systems; the temptation is to publish instead and at least guarantee a point or two goes towards the annual quota. Publishing quotas are another thing driving quality down since they tend to foster low-risk research with short horizons. A prolifration of short term contracts can have…

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    1. Bruce Tabor

      Research Scientist at CSIRO

      In reply to Mark Davis

      "Publishing quotas are another thing driving quality down since they tend to foster low-risk research with short horizons. A prolifration of short term contracts can have similar effects."

      Wise words Mark. I would also strongly argue it creates perverse incentives, including favouring style over substance and hugely increasing the temptation for research fraud.

      Remember the survivors of this process are not going to be the high quality, meticulous and careful researchers, who play the long game. The winners will tend to be those best able to generate the appearance of success to those not expert in their fields. Ultimately this will hollow-out the entire research industry.

  8. Pera Lozac

    Heat management assistant

    It is a great article and covers a lot of issues that researchers are facing. Even better that is mentioning the last DECRA grant results. What I would wish is that someone in Australia's scientific society pulls his head out of sand and seriously review the whole of ARC processes and procedures, especially focusing on fraud, bribery and mismanagement. I personally heard of several examples where people getting the grants do not possess any of the required competencies listed in the ARC guidelines…

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  9. Bruce Tabor

    Research Scientist at CSIRO

    "A PhD student is someone who forgoes current income in order to forgo future income".

    This is a paraphrase of a quote I found while reading on this topic. We ARE producing too many PhDs. We need to halve the number NOW and improve the career structure (& support) of researchers from post-doc level upwards to senior researcher.