Challenges faced by early career researchers

Most researchers have a passion for their topic, and a deep level of curiosity. Carrying out the intellectually stimulating tasks that are part of a research career can indeed be one of the most enjoyable and meaningful aspects of one’s life. In a qualitative study of early career researchers [1], interviewees reported being drawn to academic careers because of a belief this career will afford them opportunities to read broadly, write often, engage in intellectual discussion, and join a learning community to create social change.

However, young academics, such as PhD candidates and early career researchers (ECRs), report a wide range of challenges in their work. The first few years post ‘graduation’ can be characterized by loneliness and isolation, especially for academics from underrepresented and minority groups [2]. Australian academics also feel higher levels of stress in their work relative to other occupations [3], especially for those in Level B (Lecturer/Research Fellow) and Level C (Senior Lecturer/Senior Research Fellow) positions. Many experience physical manifestations of this stress, such as sleeping difficulties, headaches, and viral or cold infections [3].

ECRs in Level B continuing roles should, in theory, be set for a fulfilling and rewarding tenure-track career. However, qualitative interviews [1show that some ECRs feel overwhelmed by workloads and a pressure to constantly be doing more. Some ECRs also report feeling that most of their time at work is spent on tasks that are peripheral to the reasons they originally pursued an academic career. Too much focus on ‘runs on the board’ – quantity of publications over relative quality, little recognition of good research and teaching, and “pointless administration” were some of the issues raised. As a result – and sadly – some interviewees would not recommend an academic career to others.

Some of these issues stem from broader changes that have occurred in Australian universities (and many other universities world-wide), such as the casualization of the workforce and much greater emphasis on controlling academic practices [4]. We do not focus on these bigger picture issues here as they are usually not something that you as a mentor or supervisor can change. Rather, we focus here on how you as a mentor or supervisor can help your staff and students cope with these challenges.

SUPERVISING AND MENTORING EARLY CAREER SCHOLARS

We try to have conversations about possible directions for research, publish joint edited volumes, inspire them to give talks outside of Australia. It's about putting them in the world.

What are some unique challenges faced by female academics?

Women in academia experience the same challenges as reported by ECRs, but with additional hurdles to clear:

  • Research has shown that female academics are four times as likely as male academics to report informal networks that are exclusionary on the basis of gender [6]. Informal networks are critically important for ECRs, as they provide them with access to career advancement opportunities, such as applying for grants, promotions, and training.  Female academics are more likely to feel socially and intellectually isolated, and to report informal networks which are exclusionary on the basis of gender [7].

  • Women academics often face career gaps that are more frequent and longer in duration than male academics. This may result in poorer research output [8][9], or regression to lower positions in the university [10][11]. Women, compared to men, still engage in more housework and childcare each week, even if they are engaged in a similar – or greater – number of paid working hours than their partners [12]. The time, energy and concentration required for these unpaid tasks restricts women’s hours on campus and reduce their overall rate of publications [7]. This poorer research track record leads to fewer grant successes and a slower rate of advancement.

 

Because of these additional challenges experienced by many female PhD students and early career researchers, the role of mentoring is especially important.

The importance of mentoring

Research shows that early career academics with a greater number of mentoring relationships achieve higher academic rankings, on average, compared to those with more distant mentors, or no mentors at all [13]. Having a broader range of mentors also predicts lower feelings of isolation and improved job satisfaction in graduate students. Graduate students are rarely taught skills that are necessary to help them navigate their early career workload, such as managing the blend of teaching, research, and service activities expected of them [14]; supervisors therefore play an important role in building that skill set.

On the flip side, academic mentors have also reported benefits from engaging in a mentoring relationship, such as improved job satisfaction and organisational commitment [15], which is especially the case for female academics reporting leadership aspirations [16]. Academic mentoring, therefore, benefits both the mentor and mentee.

A full third of early career academics report having no mentoring relationships [13], suggesting there is scope to enhance the mentoring provided in research institutions.

What sort of supervisor are you? 

There are different types of relationships that a supervisor can form with their students. Each type of relationship has a different goal or aim.

Knowing what type of relationship is needed to help your ECR with their career is crucial for ensuring that you maximize your potential support for your student. Below are four different types of supervisory relationships [17]:

An academic, typically one with a doctoral degree, who helps their students navigate through their advanced degree to the completion of their thesis/dissertation.  Academic supervisors primarily assist with the development of the thesis and with consistent guidance and feedback throughout the degree. However, supervision may also encompass a range of additional skills and expertise:

  1.  Supervisors can offer knowledge and guidance with regard to career matters, such as providing learning opportunities, giving exposure and visibility, and preparing the ECR for advancement [13].

  2. Supervisors can also provide psychosocial support, through role modelling and counselling, providing acceptance, and improving the ECR’s sense of identity and competence [13].

  3. Other specific activities, including advocating for the student; helping the student navigate the educational system; monitoring the student’s activities; helping the student plan for their future; helping the student to develop networks.

Supervisors and managers of staff, such as post-doctoral researchers, also often help support their staff in the ways listed above.

SUPERVISOR

Mentors are trusted counselors and guides for subordinates. They have a responsibility for guiding, directing, and developing other people. Mentors must possess a wide range of knowledge of the organisation in order for their advice to be valid and useful.

MENTOR

“In coaching, a boss helps a subordinate meet specific growth needs”.

 

The coach guides an employee by setting challenging tasks, informing subordinates of expectations and progress towards goals, counselling subordinate through projects, providing regular appraisals, using positive feedback, having subordinates fill in during own absence, and developing subordinates for promotion.

COACH

Sponsors discover and foster individuals for enhanced placement in other parts of the organisation. Sponsors care both about the individual and the entire organisation. They get people’s names on promotion lists, help them join impactful task forces/committees, mention people with potential for special or existing openings, apply subtle pressure to get proteges considered or placed, say good things about their proteges, and actively seek promotion opportunities for their proteges. Sponsors typically do not end up having their proteges working under them, but get them promoted to other divisions, which is good for both the protégé and for the organisation to have talent shared around.

SPONSOR

Strategies for successfully mentoring ECRs

The American Psychological Association provides a range of mentoring resources, including the Introduction to Mentoring guide, which provides a comprehensive explanation of what mentoring is, types of mentoring, and the ethics of mentoring, as well as Becoming a Great Mentor, which includes 11 tips for success. Below we summarize some of their key points [18][19]:

Be clear about the relationship

Know what sort of relationship you want with your mentee. Start by spelling out the goals, expectations, roles and responsibilities for yourself and your mentee. Treat this like an informal contract of sorts – consider issues such as frequency and lengths of meetings with your mentee, ways in which you are prepared to help them with their career, how often you will review their work, and so on. Be sensitive about your mentee’s feelings and availability, and model professional behaviour.

Further resources

​For ECR supervisors:

  • The Center for Health Leadership & Practice have developed a substantial mentoring guide, including skills and best practice guidelines. You can download the pdf guide here

For ECRs looking for a mentor:​

  • The article 'How to find a mentor to unlock your potential' contains a wealth of great information, including what qualities you should look for in a mentor. The guidelines are written for business entrepreneurs, so are especially useful for ECRs considering industry partnerships or non-academic career pathways. 

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