How early career researchers suffer when senior scholars burn out

Deirdre Watchorn (left) and Dr Esther Heckendorf (right)Deirdre Watchorn and Dr Esther Heckendorf lead the insights team at De Gruyter, an international, independent publisher. Deirdre is an insights professional with over 20 years’ experience consulting for multinational brands and marketing teams globally. Since finishing her PhD, Esther worked to promote free online learning opportunities to refugees and underserved communities worldwide before moving to the De Gruyter’s Insights team.

The focus of the Insights team is to understand what matters to scholarly authors and explore the problems and challenges academics face in their daily work. This is to ensure that, as a publisher, De Gruyter continues to put researchers and authors at the heart of what it does and develop products and services that meet researchers’ needs.


A crane moving a yacht onto a pier, where there are many other boats that have been wrecked in a hurricane.
ESF-10 Hurricane Maria Response crews transition storm-impacted vessels in Port of Ponce, by Coast Guard News, on Flickr.

There was a poem published by Damian Barr in the midst of the pandemic that contained a line that resonated with many:

We are not all in the same boat. We are in the same storm.

Our research suggests this is true for academia, too. Over the past six months the De Gruyter insights team has been examining the impact of the pandemic on the research practices of academic authors. We wanted to understand the obstacles they were facing and the pressures they were under, personally and professionally. We found that while everyone at every level of academia has been impacted in some way, some have been impacted more than others. Some are able to weather the COVID storm while others can’t. Some will experience a short-term disruption to their work while others face a long-term impact on their careers.

Consisting of two surveys, our research took place over May and October 2020 and gathered a total of 4,300 responses from academics in 100+ countries. In our first study, we found that many academics were having to adjust to a ‘new normal’ with many restrictions to their work. We also found that these problems weren’t experienced equally – career stage, life stage and gender plays an important role. Sadly, six months on, our research found these problems and inequalities only growing and widening.

Opportunities decline

Our latest research exposes a particular set of challenges experienced by those at an early, fragile point of their careers. Academic authors with 1-5 years’ academic experience post-PhD have the most acute concerns around career and professional development. While academics at a later stage might be affected, many are better protected because they’ve had more years to build their track-record. Established reputations, tenured positions, long-standing networks and communities nurtured over decades help a lot. Many less experienced scholars don’t have these advantages and are already being disproportionally affected with job opportunities drying up, reduced budgets, and dwindling grant funding opportunities – all at a critical point in their career:

  • 43% say they are now locked out of the international job market.
  • 34% say budget cuts are now ‘severely hampering’ their work.
  • 30% can no longer find new roles.
  • 30% can’t access new funding opportunities.
  • 31% say their job security is under direct threat.

Worryingly, these career pressures have wider consequences. Nearly a third of scholars at an early stage of their career now say that their mental health and wellbeing is ‘severely impacted’ because of the mix of pressures they face. [Elsewhere on this blog, see Sabrina Islam’s post on coping with a (COVID-induced) mental health crisis.] Just one in five late-career scholars (academics with 16+ years’ experience post PhD) say the same.

However, to be able to address these early-career pressures we need to know where they are coming from. To do that, we must look elsewhere and particularly to their mid-career colleagues – many of whom are struggling, too:

“As an early-career researcher, I do not have access to career development support because everyone else is too busy to deal with their own careers let alone others.”

 

Mid-career burnout

When we launched our first survey in May 2020, nearly half of the authors we surveyed said they were busier than before the pandemic began and lockdown restrictions started to bite. At the time, we thought that the challenges might ease over time. We were wrong.

Our later study reveals that academics are becoming more busy, not less. They are experiencing more limitations to their work, not fewer: 48% of those who do primary research have produced less than they would do in a typical year. 66% of scholars now say they can only continue their research with ‘significant restrictions’. The biggest of these restrictions is online teaching, which is highly problematic for some:

“Online teaching is a disaster for both students and lecturers, it is the downfall of the university.”

The shift to online teaching and student supervision from home has been disaster for many. This shift is causing burn-out particularly among those scholars who must also juggle work and caring responsibilities:

“More time devoted to online teaching = less time for research = more work in the weekend = less leisure time = more fatigue and stress.”

Academics with 5-16 years’ experience post-PhD, who we define as mid-career scholars (and particularly women), carry a heavy burden in this regard. This is because they are more likely to have young children at home and are more likely to be the primary carer:

“Childcare has been a nightmare. It has definitely impacted my ability to do my job, be a mom, and be a teacher for my school-aged children.”

Indeed, 86% of mid-career authors say that online teaching and student supervision is taking up more time than expected. 74% of mid-career scholars say it is the main obstacle limiting their research.

Flow-on effects

Unfortunately, the pressures mid-career scholars now face are having an impact on their junior colleagues. The fact that mid-career – and to a lesser extent late-career – scholars are busier than ever means that they’re unable (although not unwilling) to give more junior colleagues the formal and informal career support they need. Early-career scholars risk becoming the collateral damage of mid-career burn-out because they lack the security of those more established in their careers.

One finding in particular proves this point. 33% of mid-career academics say that the pressures on their time mean that they are now unable to build teams of collaborators as diverse as they once were. This figure rises to nearly 40% for mid-career women:

“Nobody is talking about this, but the burnout-rate has increased during the crisis. I experienced a huge paralysis for some time myself… it’s absolutely clear that female researchers with families are the losers of the pandemic.”

In addition, a third of mid-career academics also say their ability to find new research collaborators and co-authors has been ‘severely curtailed’ over the past six months. Around a third also say that their ability to stay in contact with scholarly networks has also been significantly impacted because of the pandemic:

“Finding a job position abroad such as a Postdoctoral position has become impossible, I receive no answer from the European countries. I’m losing my time and motivation.”

 

Wake-up call

These are shocking figures. They suggest that new academic voices are not be being nurtured and encouraged in the way they once were by senior colleagues – not through choice but due to work overload and fatigue. These pressures, caused primarily by home-based online teaching and student supervision, are stifling the mentoring of junior colleagues.

Our research shows that at a time when academics should be blossoming, many early-stage careers are withering. Junior scholars are nervous about the future, poorly supported by over-busy, stressed-out senior academics and managers, locked out of research teams, passed over for jobs and struggling to get funding opportunities:

“My academic career has become even more precarious. The consequences of COVID will hit us heavily.”

“I can’t get access to my supervisor and all official academic activities are at standstill. To continue with my research work has become impossible.”

These findings should be a wake-up call. The pandemic impacts everyone but if early career researchers can’t find the collaborators they need to get to their first step on the career ladder their publishing output will be affected. This is bad for them and has serious implications for the whole scholarly community.

The full research report is publicly available here: Watchorn, Deirdre, and Esther Heckendorf. “Locked Down, Burned Out.” [240 Kb PDF] Berlin, Germany: De Gruyter, December 15, 2020.

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