How can we reduce the pressure on our early career researchers? Start by creating healthier lab environments

Being an early career researcher is becoming a dangerous job. We must urgently reduce the pressure that young scientists face and do not forget that our laboratories should be places to train scientists, not to destroy people

Go to the profile of Fernando T. Maestre
Oct 10, 2019
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Back in early 2004, I was just starting my postdoctoral stay at Duke University when I applied to obtain one of the prestigious “Ramón y Cajal” five-year contractsthat the Spanish Government offers to researchers working abroad to return to Spain. I can´t exactly remember the number of papers I had at the time, I think it was around 20 (with some of them in top disciplinary journals), but I got the contract the first time I applied. Last year, excellent researchers with a CV much better than that I had at the time (several postdocs abroad, over 50 papers with many of them in top disciplinary journals, MsC students advised, small grants as Principal Investigator [PI]…) did not get it. Sure, not all the countries have suffered the economic crisis as hard as Spain and have not reduced the funding for science and the positions for scientists as much as Spain has done, but this exemplifies a trend that can be found anywhere: if you are an early career researcher (ECR) it is really hard these days, and much harder than it used to be not so long ago, to make a career on science (if you do not believe me please read this Nature editorial).

If excellent postdocs with great research CVs (in many cases better than the CVs of many full professors than I know!) and ready to start their career as independent researchers cannot do so because extreme competition for the few positions available, then you can imagine the message that those starting their PhD are getting nowadays. This adds to the traditional role model that portrays successful scientists as those that have devoted most of their life to work, sacrificing time for family, hobbies and friends, to create the impression that to make a career in science one needs to work endless hours, publish as much as possible (the well-known “publish or perish” culture) and be ready to jump from postdoc to postdoc for years before landing in a permanent position after competing with many other excellent candidates. And to make things worse, ECRs must also confront practices that, such as harassment against women/minorities and unethical behavior by principal investigators (IPs) and/or lab colleagues (raise your hand if you have seen or directly experienced a PI that directly appropriates the work of others without recognizing them or that decides who and in which order co-author scientific papers that others have written), still plague research labs around the world.

Image by Michal Jarmoluk from Pixabay

How to change the current status quo being faced by ECRs require actions by multiple actors, from individual researchers to countries and international agencies. I cannot certainly cover all the actions that would be needed to do so in this brief post, so I would like to focus it on the role of PIs. I firmly believe that we (I am myself a PI) have a critical role to play to reduce the negative effects that strong competition and the “publish or perish” culture exert on our ECRs by: i) creating a healthy working environment and ii) do not pay so much attention to factors such as the journal impact factor (JIF) or the number of publications when recruiting researchers for our labs.

My advice to create healthier (i.e. nurturing, collaborative and people-centered) research environments can be found in the articles “Ten simple rules towards healthier research labs” and “Seven steps towards health and happiness in the lab”. These pieces have generated quite a bit of discussion, as indicated by their Altmetric scores (see here and here), and have fueled conversations about this important topic in labs worldwide (for examples see here and here). This clearly highlights not only the interest on this topic across disciplines, but also the need of having healthier research environments. I firmly believe that the rules/principles presented in these articles can go a long way in improving working conditions for researchers in general, and for ECRs in particular. Thus, I would advise to all PIs that think they are only wishful thinking or that is impossible to have a productive/competitive lab following them to give them a try. If implementing all of them is not possible for whatever reason, then try to implement one at a time (I am sure that you will not regret of doing it!). These rules/principles have substantially contributed to create a safe and healthy working environment within my lab, and adhering to them have not precluded us to achieve high standards in terms of funding, training, societal citizenship and research outputs.

Another important step forward would be to not put so much emphasis on the number of publications and the JIF when recruiting researchers for our labs. Sure, having many papers denotes that that person is dedicated to work and can publish the results of his/her research without many problems. And of course, we all know how difficult is to get published in high impact journals like Science, Nature or PNAS, and that if someone has these publications on his/her CV is likely that the science he/she has done is exciting, novel and/or particularly relevant. But the emphasis given to the JIF and to the rankings of journals based on it, which are heavily used to assess the performance of researchers worldwide, or the number of publications must change to reduce the pressure our ECRs face. Albeit this has been already said many times, it is worth to remind here that the JIF was not designed to evaluate the research outputs of individuals and that is a defective indicator of research quality.

Image by IvanPais from Pixabay

Over the years I am giving more and more importance to factors that often do not correlate with the number of articles or the JIF when recruiting new members for my lab. Does this person have skills I would like to incorporate in my lab? Can he/she collaborate well with colleagues and help others when there is need to do so? Does he/she work in exciting topics that I would like to incorporate into the research portfolio of my lab? Does he/she has interest in outreaching activities? Does she/he has critical thinking and the capacity to work independently? Does he/she show motivation and excitement about the science he/she is doing? Is he/she interested in learning new things? I fully acknowledge that considering these aspects may not be possible in public competitions with dozens/hundreds of candidates. However, we can make a difference by considering them when recruiting people for our labs using our own funds.

Factors beyond our control, such as the scarcity of research funds and positions, will contribute to maintain academia as a highly competitive environment for ECRs in many countries for the years to come. However, our laboratories should be places to train scientists, not to destroy people. We must thus reduce the pressure on our ECRs to publish/work so much as way to: i) improve working conditions in academia now and in the future (if our PhDs and postdocs “grow” in an ambient of extreme pressure then it is more likely that they will reproduce it when they become PIs), ii) reduce anxiety/depression/stress levels, which are very high in research environments and a serious problem that often is not recognized as such, and iii) contribute to train healthier scientists that enjoy what they do and that will become more creative and productive at the long term.

To end this post, please ask yourself these simple questions: Can you enjoy your job and be creative when you are working under pressure or very stressed? Are you a better scientist for having more articles on your CV? Is your research better when published in a journal with JIF of, let’s say, 4.5 vs. when it is published in another with a JIF of 3.7 or 2.5? It is acceptable to suffer from harassment and/or unethical behavior? If the answer to them is no, then join the #healthylab revolution! Discuss these issues with your colleagues and administrators, share your tips and advice with the world, contribute to turn down stereotypes (we can have a plentiful scientific career while maintaining a healthy life-work balance, for examples see here) and be a proactive force for change in academia. The whole scientific endeavour, and particularly ECRs, will thank you for that.

Go to the profile of Fernando T. Maestre

Fernando T. Maestre

Distinguished Researcher, University of Alicante

I lead the Dryland Ecology and Global Change Lab at the University of Alicante (Spain), devoted to understandg how dryland ecosystems work and how they are responding to ongoing global environmental change. Beyond my research interests, I am committed to train the next generation of scientists, to promote open science by providing public access to all my research outputs, to disseminate my research to non-scientific audiences, and to create healthier, people-centred and collaborative research labs.

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