Podcasts

Podcast – Listening to Early Career Researchers – ECR Survey

Hosted by Adam Smith

Reading Time: 38 minutes

Last year ISTAART and UCL undertook an ECR Survey to investigate researchers’ experiences of their workplaces, fields, careers and support.

In this podcast the study lead Adam Smith hosts a discussion with three of his ISTAART collaborators Dr Beth Shaaban, from University of Pittsburgh, Dr Lindsay Welikovitch from Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital and Wagner Brum from University of Gothenburg and Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul.

Behind every discovery are researchers, with the majority falling into the category of being at the early career stage. Early Career Researchers (ECRs) significantly contribute to the field, but from within, there are concerns about how supported individuals feel to thrive and remain within research. There are also questions around what actions research institutions, funders and policy makers are taking to address research careers issues.

This report provides the results of the survey conducted between the 1st September to 31st October 2021.

Further details and the full data can be freely accessed at

Review the Full Survey Results

 

You will find more information on ISTAART and how to get involved in the PIA to Elevate Early Career Researchers on our website.


Click here to read a full transcript of this podcast in English

Voice Over:

Welcome to the NIHR Dementia Researcher podcast brought to you by dementiaresearcher.nihr.ac.uk in association with Alzheimer’s Research UK and Alzheimer’s Society supporting early career dementia researchers across the world.

Adam Smith:

Hello, and thank you for tuning in to the Dementia Researcher podcast. The show that brings together researchers to share their work and career tips and brings you news of some of the latest developments in the field. I’m Adam Smith, I’m the program director for dementia researcher at UCL. And for those that don’t know, I also have the honor of chairing the ISTAART PIA to elevate early career researchers or PEERs for short. And it’s the work of our PIA that myself and my fantastic guests today are going to be talking about. For those with long memories, you’ll recall the podcast we shared back in September last year, when we launched the worldwide survey to explore the thoughts and experiences of early career researchers. And today we’re delighted to be able to share the results of that survey. To discuss what we found. I’m joined by Dr. Beth Shaaban from the University of Pittsburgh, who is deputy chair of PEERs. Hello Beth.

Dr Beth Shaaban:

Hi everybody.

Adam Smith:

I’ve also joined by Wagner Brum from the University of Gothenburg and PEERs as continent lead for South America. Hi, Wagner.

Wagner Brum:

Hey everyone.

Adam Smith:

And finally, we have Lindsay Welikovitch from Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital, who is currently the outgoing continent lead for north America. Hello Lindsay.

Dr Lindsay Welikovitch:

Hi there.

Adam Smith:

Brilliant. It’s great to have you all here. So let’s quickly hear a little bit more about our guests. Beth, could you go first?

Dr Beth Shaaban:

Absolutely. I am a new assistant professor of epidemiology at the University of Pittsburgh. And as Adam mentioned, the vice chair of the PEERs professional interest area. And I’m also a scholar at the University of Pittsburgh Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center. I’m a population neuroscientist, which means I combine my training in epidemiology, neuroscience and social and behavioral determinants of health to do my research. And I have a new career development grant from the US National Institutes of Health, applying a population neuroscience framework to understand gender and sex differences in the pathway from cerebral small vessel disease to Alzheimer’s disease.

Adam Smith:

That’s exciting. Congratulations.

Dr Beth Shaaban:

Thank you so much.

Adam Smith:

… promotion and the grant of course. Wagner.

Wagner Brum:

So I’m a PhD student. I started my PhD in the Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul in Southern Brazil. And now I’m doing a visiting period of my PhD here at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden. And I’m mostly working with blood biomarkers for Alzheimer’s disease and addressing the challenges that we have to implementing them into clinical practice.

Adam Smith:

So hot topic right now. And I see for our listeners of course don’t have the benefit of video, but I see you’ve got a quite a new Scandinavian addition to your face.

Wagner Brum:

Yeah, yeah. It was time for a change and why not a mustache, right?

Adam Smith:

It absolutely suits you. It’s perfect with Sweden. Lindsay, can you come next?

Dr Lindsay Welikovitch:

I’m a postdoc fellow in Bradley Hyman Lab, MGH as you mentioned. I conduct primarily basic research using transgenic mouse models. And I study the interaction between classical neuropathological lesions and Alzheimer’s disease and their related immune processes, which is a lot of fun. And I relocated from Canada within the last year where I completed my PhD in McGill. So I can definitely relate with a lot of our survey participants and the precarious, but exciting experience of working in academia. So I’m super thrilled to be here to talk about it.

Adam Smith:

Wonderful. Thank you ever so much everybody for taking time up. We’re recording this in the evening. So of course we’re all in different parts of the world, so it’s great that you all managed to find time to join us. So let me start by giving a little bit of background and setting the scene. PEERs really got started in late 2020, early 2021. And its aims are to encourage people to think about dementia research as their preferred career or research area and to support and inspire people to remain within the field focused on providing a supportive community that shares advice, tips, and resources to help people and to form collaborations. However, we really wanted to have a firm foundation and have a real understanding of what everybody’s challenges were at all stages. And recognizing that people in different countries may have different challenges. And what better way to get a baseline and to work out what we really needed to do than with a big old survey.

Adam Smith:

So myself, Beth, Wagner, Lindsey, and two people who can’t be with us today, Dr. Sara Bartels from the Netherlands and Royhaaan Folarin from Nigeria, who all got together with support from ISTAART and Dr. Claire Sexton to work out what we might include in a survey. The survey was open during September and October, 2021 for any early career researchers or someone who’d left the field within the last two years. We received 584 responses from 42 different countries, working across all areas of research. From clinical work to qualitative and fundamental science across all levels. From undergrads to assistant and associate professors, our definition of an ECR, being anyone who hasn’t yet managed to achieve tenure.

Adam Smith:

Today, we’ve published the results of the survey, which you can find at dementiaresearcher.nihr.ac.uk/survey. And there’ll be a link with the show notes. The survey had over 160 questions. So clearly we’re not going to go through every question in detail. Today, so instead we’re going to go through each of the sections and I’m going to ask Lindsay, Beth and Wagner to highlight some of the key takeaways. So Beth, what more can you tell us about the people who completed the survey and their thoughts on their careers?

Dr Beth Shaaban:

Absolutely. Bear with me a little bit. This will set the stage for all the rest of the data to come. But some highlights of who our survey respondents were about 80% were graduate students, postdocs, and early career pre-tenure faculty. They fell across the full range of dementia research from basic science to neuropsychology, clinical care, public health, technology, and dementia, and many more. About 80% fell in the 25 to 44 years of age range. And 66% identified as women. 78% of our respondents identified as heterosexual, 6% as gay or lesbian and 9% as bisexual. 18% identify as a racial minority or a person of color where they are working. And 38% were in the first generation in their family to go to college or university. Nearly half had moved internationally at some point for work or school. And some of the primary challenges that our respondents identified with moving internationally, are the financial costs of moving and being away from family members.

Dr Beth Shaaban:

Many of our respondents have contracts of three years or less. And about 87% of respondents are worried about short term contracts as a barrier to them staying and making progress in dementia research. The respondents are fluent in social media as Adam mentioned earlier. It’s a social media world and they use it to communicate about science, both ways, both sharing their own research and staying up to date in their areas. They also use it to look for jobs. And funding, financial security and job opportunities and security are identified as the greatest challenges for dementia early career researchers to stay in dementia research and to make progress in their careers. About 80% are at least slightly happy in their current role. But worryingly, about 50% are thinking about leaving dementia research. And that’s something I hope we get to talk about a little bit more today.

Adam Smith:

I guess there are a few things that surprised me in there. Was there anything that particularly surprised you? I mean, some things in there you expect. Every time we do some of these things, I mean, anybody who listens to the podcast will know that we have more women who are contributors. So I’m not surprised that more… I guess the fact that we had more women complete the survey than men, doesn’t necessarily mean there are more women researchers. It’s just that they’re better at taking up the call to action perhaps. But was there anything in there that surprised you particularly?

Dr Beth Shaaban:

Well, I think really that last point that I mentioned that about 50% are thinking about leaving dementia research. I’m not really sure what I thought it would be, but I thought it would be less. And I think it just really sticks with me because it’s so concerning. I think if we’re really going to make progress on dementia treatment care and prevention, got to have the best and brightest minds staying in the field. So the idea that 50% are thinking about leaving, is really worrying to me. And I think we need to do things to find how to make it better and retain people and keep them happy.

Adam Smith:

That’s a conversation we’ve been having right now about it’s not just about slightly longer contracts, but maybe about creating a more structured framework perhaps where, when you take up a PhD perhaps, there’s a guaranteed job at the end of it for a year, for example. So you could have a PhD with a year’s placement attached to it. These are things that would be relatively inexpensive, but would potentially help retain people. Because it’s those bottlenecks that we see where people drop out post PhD or within a couple of years of finishing their first postdoc. The other stat you mentioned there that I thought was quite a lot is just how many people move country that’s-

Dr Beth Shaaban:

Yes, it’s a lot. I mean, I think it does really point out the global nature of the responses to our survey, which I’m really happy with because we really did want a worldwide sense of what’s going on with dementia research. So much work has focused on the United States and Canada and Europe. And it’s really important to get a sense of what’s going on elsewhere. So I think it’s very common from what I’ve heard from you all as my colleagues around the world and from some research on this topic, that moving is very important in Europe. And it’s somewhat easy to do when I think about it from a US centric perspective. Because it’s a little bit like moving across a state line in the United States in terms of distance. But it really is a lot of people who are moving countries and that’s pretty surprising because it can be very, very stressful and burdensome to people, as they mentioned both financially and being so far removed from the important supports of their family members.

Adam Smith:

And of course the data’s available. So we’re going to do some further analysis on this to understand exactly where those movements are happening to and from I guess. I know from talking to Royhaan who obviously isn’t with us today, that there are certain countries where clearly, if you’re interested in neuroscience or dementia research, there isn’t a lot going on in certain countries and you kind of have to move to the US for example, or the UK is seen as something you have to do to retain. But I think also if you look to the survey, there was a lot of movement between the US and UK. I think we jumped backwards and forwards. Overall, in that section, is there anything that you would pick out as cultural changes that we need to make?

Dr Beth Shaaban:

Well, I think a focus on potentially longer term contracts. I know from some of my own training of new PhD students and postdocs that I do that interest in longer term contracts does make people feel far more stable and supported. And so that’s an important thing that we can do. And I’m hopeful that in one of the… I think it might in fact be the next section about some questions relating to the isms, ageism, racism, sexism, that those are areas where we can really intervene to make people feel more welcome and supported and they really want to stay because it’s not a toxic environment. Yeah. I think we really need to hone in on who are these people who are thinking about leaving and what is it that we can do for them to make them change their minds. And that’s some of the work that we’ll do in the future on some of the papers with additional data analysis where we’ll try to understand that group of people better.

Adam Smith:

Absolutely. And that’s something we’re going to talk about a little bit later on as to what comes next, because as I said at the start, the survey was really the first step to have a baseline and understand. And now that we know that there are so many people thinking of leaving, we can follow up with further surveys or work or focus groups to really ask some tough questions as to what are the causes behind that? Thank you very much Beth. Lindsay, now that we’ve heard who completed the survey and learned about their challenges and some of their motivations, could you maybe talk to the experiences section and some of the more personal aspects of the information we captured?

Dr Lindsay Welikovitch:

Yeah. I was really surprised to find that most of us experience imposter syndrome. Sort of feels kind of backwards. How reassuring would it be to know that all these people who you think are so talented, confident, skilled, and bright that they experience the exact same insecurities? And we often experience them in silence. I think that really speaks to the fact that the academic experience can still feel really isolating even today. And it feels this massive insurmountable hill to climb where only the best and the brightest make it to the top and there’s no way we’re going to get there. And I think we really should be emphasizing the fact that science is very much a team sport, especially nowadays, and we all have something valuable to contribute and we can do a lot more when we draw on each other’s talents.

Dr Lindsay Welikovitch:

I think the second thing that Beth mentioned, so I was shocked that 50% of respondents with disabilities, including those with learning difficulties, still experience ableism and equally shocked that 64% of those who identify as gay or lesbian or bisexual or other experience homophobia. And that’s really heartbreaking. It’s heartbreaking to know that there are these completely unnecessary theory and unacceptable barriers that so many of our colleagues still deal with. And there’s a lot more for us to do to remove those barriers. And I think equally important, what a tragic loss it would be to the field if we were to lose all those valuable contributions that those colleagues could potentially make if they felt more welcomed and more valued. And I think that’s something we should really be focusing on because those numbers are really shocking even now.

Adam Smith:

I completely agree. And that’s not something that we’ve had in our program before as well. We’ve got support networks for minoritized scientists, which we’ve talked about on the podcast before as well. But clearly there’s so much work still to be done to address the experience as the ECLS are telling us. And the survey goes on to talk about just how that impacts you as well. Doesn’t it? And the survey goes on to ask about how that practically impacts people and we hear how it affects how they interact with coworkers. They feel it’s delayed their career progression. How they choose collaborators as well as something that’s affected and confidence levels. Which of course, when we go back to Beth point earlier about dropouts, if you are experiencing some of these forms of prejudice in the workplace, you’re not going to stay, are you? I mean, it’s as simple as that.

Dr Lindsay Welikovitch:

Yeah. And the most interesting thing among all of these all loose sections with respect to mental health and imposter syndrome, ableism, homophobia, the number one effect is that it affects people’s confidence and motivation. And I think if someone doesn’t want to show up to work every day, just because they’re experiencing some sort of discrimination or they feel unwelcome or unvalued, that’s a tremendous loss for everybody, including those people who are affected. So I totally echo what you say that there’s a lot more that should be done and that maybe we should be focusing on. I think sometimes as academics, especially in certain areas of the world, that we can feel very progressive and we’re solving these issues and we’re already doing a lot, but there’s clearly more that needs to be done.

Dr Beth Shaaban:

Do you mind if I just briefly add another dimension to that? Because I realized that when I started talking about it, I did focus in on making people feel welcome. And I think that’s only part of what’s going on here. And I just wanted to call attention to the fact that it’s really through structural changes that we can actually impact a lot of these problems. So for example, I’m thinking specifically of racism in the United States at academic institutions and the proportional representation as compared to the US population in among faculty, among postdocs, among PhD students is very, very poor.

Dr Beth Shaaban:

It’s not representative of our population at all. And so one interesting proposal that I’ve come across recently that I think is a great structural intervention potentially is the idea that you might build in a program… Adam, similar to what you were talking about earlier, where somebody completes their PhD program or they complete a postdoc, but then the intention is to retain them at that institution to enhance equity and justice in terms of who is a faculty member. And so you might have a black or African American postdoc who then is part of this program and stays on with an offer of a faculty position at the end of that program. So that’s the type of… I just want to make sure that we include this structural thinking because it’s not simply about making people feel welcome. It’s also about changing our institutions.

Adam Smith:

So listeners can’t see, but we’re all nodding our heads here. Yeah, absolutely. I think having more people in senior positions will make a significant difference. I think there’s a couple of things I’ll pick out from the survey in the sections you mentioned there Lindsay, which is we also asked on the racism question, we asked how people experience this. Whether this was as an individual systematic or institutional. And it was in as an individual that came out the highest at just under 70, some percent. About 50% said it was systematic. And it was about, I think about 45, sorry, it’s a graph and it’s not exact, but I think it’s about 45% said it was institutional, which does it at least suggest some of the institutions were improving, but obviously individuals were still experiencing individual forms of racism that were directly targeted at them.

Adam Smith:

And I thought the other thing that was very disappointing was when we asked how helpful where people, their institutions and employers had been in this, 0% said their employers had been extremely helpful. 16% said very or somewhat helpful. And 40% said not helpful at all, which shows that clearly there’s a lot more work to be done in universities and with employers. So thank you, Lindsay. I obviously gave you one of the hardest sections to talk to. I asked this question before, but what does this tell us about the overall culture and what changes are needed?

Dr Lindsay Welikovitch:

Yeah, I think Beth highlighted some really important changes not just at the individual level where we can make sort of these small changes in our day to day interactions, but also at the institutional level. And that means making people feel welcome and inviting them to the table in positions and in situations that can be consequential for the people who experienced this type of discrimination.

Adam Smith:

Thanks Lindsay. And we should say that whole section is huge. We also talk about financial problems. We talk about mental health. I think there was some strongly concerning data on mental health as well, which suggested that nearly 60% of all the people who completed the survey had experienced some form of mental health difficulty, particularly anxiety disorders and depression, which also was affecting people’s work, their confidence, motivations, how they worked with coworkers, personal ambition, and nearly a third of the people who’d experienced mental health issues had talked about leaving their institution as a result of that as well.

Adam Smith:

So I’m really pleased that we managed to bring this out of the survey and it’s given us some really important areas that we need to focus on. Wagner, okay, it’s your turn. We ask researchers about some aspects of life as an ECR, particularly about things like conferences, publishing, how the pandemic impacted them. We talked a little bit before, already as well about moving countries. As somebody who was impacted by these things personally, you move countries during the pandemic. Tell us, what did the survey find in these areas?

Wagner Brum:

Yeah. Okay. Moving on to these areas. I mean, I think that as early career researchers, we’re always involved with our projects and I mean, it always comes a time that we have to present it in conferences. We have to publish it. And it’s really interesting to see what people responded to these in these sections. So for instance, for conferences, considering most of the respondents are in earlier stages of the career from what we took a look from the demographics of course, we have the whole academic span in the survey, but we have lots of later PhD students later in their degree and also lots of postdocs. So it was interesting to see that most of the people attend on average two to three conferences a year. And now even with the pandemic, we know that it’s possible that a couple of these have been aligned or during the harshest pandemic years, all of them were aligned.

Wagner Brum:

So I think that this is interesting because I mean, we have our daily research activities, developing our projects, and sometimes the ECR, depending on how much we engage into conferences, sometimes this can be really time consuming for us to prepare posters and presentations. So I think that’s two to three conferences per year by far, the largest number of people were attending between that. I think it’s interesting to see that it’s falling across that range. But another interesting thing, it’s the cost related to go into a conference for instance. Around 85% of people thought that the cost of conference registration or of travel, air tickets and hotels et cetera, kept them from attending more conferences. So we clearly see that the cost is a burden for ECR. And I also think it was really interesting to take a look at what people think they take as the benefit from the conference.

Wagner Brum:

But before looking at the benefit, it is interesting to see what is the ECRs main motivation to go to a conference? And by far the number one was scientific updates. But then actually when you go to see the benefits, like what we have in top one is explaining your network, gaining recognition for your work, and forming new collaboration. So I think that this is something that we all sort of start to experience at some point in our career that sometimes we end up getting the scientific updates from home and the conference is really about that more networking and talking to people about the science, almost more than getting to know more science. But of course you need the update. So I mean, it’s just interesting to see that people actually really take a benefit from networking with people and talking to people in conference. And moving quickly to talk a little bit about publishing, which is also something that I mean, it’s always the elephants in the ECR my room or something like that.

Wagner Brum:

I mean, we’re always worried about what we’re going to do with our work. And 90% of the respondent responded that they felt pressured or very pressured to publish their results, which, I mean, of course we need some degree as human beings. We need some degree of pressure to motivate us to keep going, but it’s hard to see that lots of people are actually feeling very pressured in from the mental health section, we also know that these leads up to a lot of anxiety and burden for it to carrying our research activities. So I think one of the challenges is for people to get proper advice, to understand that they don’t need to put any more pressure than the natural pressure that involves publishing your work.

Wagner Brum:

And in terms of barriers for getting their work published, the top three items that were pointed to was no time for writing, I guess, that this is something that everyone can relate to. I mean, we’re always involved with doing our experiments or doing more, I don’t know, lab related activities or conducting our projects. And we end up not being capable of fitting some time in our routine to write. So that was by far the number one and a couple of two other ones that are a bit more troublesome and are not so much within the lab life of the student or of the ECR is that publication fees are a big challenge for lots of people, for them to get their work published. And I mean, we know that this can be a special problem for researchers outside countries that work with dollars and euros or pounds, for instance, and then everything gets more expensive because they’re not making your national grant in the currency that you have to pay them.

Wagner Brum:

And one thing that is especially burdensome that people pointed out also quite frequently, was regarding the formatting for journals. I mean, this is clearly a place where journals and editors can act. We still have a very poor and nonunified system of management submission. And it’s just really, really just a pain that every time you get a rejection or you have to resubmit to somewhere else. Also quite burdensome that you have to adapt these often strange requirements of journals. And also just to finish the publishing section, lots of ECRs are always very, I mean, I talked to a lot of people when they got their first peer review invitation to review a paper for journal. And I mean, everyone is always so happy when the first invitation comes et cetera, but then people just realize that they are getting an invitation, but they have no training whatsoever to conduct that review.

Wagner Brum:

And also lots of people pointed that. I mean, 80% had already engaged in peer review somehow, but little of them, a few of them only had received training. So this is also something that’s pretty easy for us to make it better is just to get more training on peer review. And regarding the effects of the pandemic, I’m not going to go too much detail on that because we have also been working on a separate report [inaudible 00:29:07] this which are [inaudible 00:29:09], has led a project. She has led and will soon be sharing these results. But I mean, no surprises. The pandemic affected everyone. It delayed everyone’s project. For many people, it also generated lots of issues with their contracts. So they had to renew their positions or trying to find another way to extend their contracts. And I mean, clearly the pandemic has affected everyone a lot and we will be seeing more of that in our separate reports too.

Wagner Brum:

Okay. Yeah. Now moving on to the moving countries section, of course, we talked a little bit about that earlier. And for me, it’s a very important topic. I mean, I’m just now completing one year here in Sweden after leaving Brazil for this visiting PhD period here. And I think it’s really interesting to see what people consider their… For those who have moved countries so far, what were their main reasons? And I really see that the reason for you to move countries for part of your research career, really depends a lot on your starting point on the place you’re starting your career. Because I mean, for instance, the top two reasons that people listed as their main reasons for moving countries was one that they yielded as essential for their career progress, and two that they wanted to seek new experiences.

Wagner Brum:

And I mean, of course talking just generally about my take on this is just that if you are already in a country or in a region or in a research center with sufficient funding, I totally see how for instance, getting new experiences might also be a motivated factor for you to move countries. But for instance, like Adam mentioned from Royhaan perspective, our continent representative for Africa, and I can also talk about from people in South America, is that many times moving countries is one of the only alternatives that you must conduct some of your projects. Because I mean, I already mentioned that one big problem that we have for instance in Latin America is the currency. Most of the countries work with different currencies. And when you convert that to euros and dollars, that becomes nothing instantly.

Wagner Brum:

And that’s what you have to pay for your research product, because they all come from the US and Europe mostly. So, I mean, this is just an example. And of course, in lots of these low and middle income countries, we have lots of issues with governments and economical crisis. So the research budgets are not stable. For instance in Brazil now, we have been experiencing major cuts in the past few years. So for a lot of people in that position, moving countries is really just a great alternative for you to try to move on and do some of the things you want and that you think that you need for your project elsewhere. And then of course, brain drain happens and oftentimes these people don’t come back to their original countries, which is also something that everyone needs to work on so these countries can retain their scientists. So, I mean, I think that this was my general overview of these for our big section.

Adam Smith:

Sorry, Wagner, I gave you some hefty topics to cover there. I think it was great to see that so many people were happy to be back at in-person conferences, particularly and how many be attended. It was quite insightful to also ask how much people thought they should pay. And I was quite surprised. I thought some of… I would agree with what everybody said on the price. So they felt that they should pay about 200 and some dollars for an in-person conference. So, 54 for online and webinars could be charged at $20. We could be charging $20 for our webinars where I didn’t realize we could do that. We’ve been doing them for free all this time.

Wagner Brum:

No, yeah. Webinars should be free.

Adam Smith:

But you’re right. I think when you talk about the contradictions, there are a few contradictions in there and Beth talked at it the start. I’m sure we’ll come to it again in when we talked about people being happy in their jobs, but thinking about leaving. The survey’s full of interesting little bits of data in there. There’s so much information. As I said at the start, there’s 169 questions in here, and that doesn’t even address the open-end questions that we have, which is where there’s so much rich information. And when we ask people, so what do you think would do that changed in giving people these big open boxes, which usually I know when you do that in a survey, that’s a killer for a survey. Nobody will go near it, but they did.

Adam Smith:

Some of these sections had over 150, 200 comments in there on a how to address some of these challenges or what their own subjective experiences were of some of these things, or what they thought would make conferences better. And this is all data we’re going to be working with over the next few months to produce some papers, to inform of our work as well. So be Beth, I’m going to come back to you for the penultimate section around leaving academia. Something I’m sure you’ve never considered yourself, but what did this tell us in those last few pages, pages 51 to 52 for anybody who’s got the downloaded the report already?

Dr Beth Shaaban:

Well, just full disclosure. I identify very strongly with many of the things in this report. And I have thought of leaving academia plenty of times, which may be an interesting conversation for another day.

Adam Smith:

That’s another podcast. We’ll get you back on there to talk about.

Dr Beth Shaaban:

Right. Or a blog or something. But a bit more than 10% of our respondents. 61 out of the 584 had left dementia in the past two years. And so we’re eligible to answer these questions. I’d just like to point out since I am an epidemiologist. I think this is fantastic because this gets around this problem that epidemiologist calls survival bias, where when you have the people responding, who make it by staying in dementia research, right? The PhD students, the postdocs who survive to make it to be faculty members, you can get a biased and incorrect perspective of what’s really going on here. It’s critically important to talk to the people who have left. So about 10% of these respondents were eligible to answer these questions and many left because they couldn’t find a job. They needed more stability, or they had no funding that could support them continuing in this career.

Dr Beth Shaaban:

Since we’re so driven by grant funding, many are now working in a non dementia academic research setting or a nonprofit. And one thing that I think was really fascinating that we asked was, “What would bring you back? If you left, what is something that could be done that could bring you back?” And 72% said they would consider returning under certain circumstances. And so the themes that really emerged about that were improved stability and permanent positions. Opportunities to work part-time. This is a very fascinating option, which I had never, ever hear discussed in the academic research setting. The third was increased funding. Fourth was more jobs, particularly at a senior level, and then finally improved geography, meaning that they would want positions that were closer to home for them, not reliant on them having to travel to major cities to be taking part in dementia research. And so I think these are really important things for us to consider as we move forward and make suggestions about what could be done that would keep people from leaving and bring people back into the space.

Adam Smith:

And I realized in those questions, of course, there were also questions that weren’t necessarily you wouldn’t negatively associate. Because I mean, obviously people don’t necessarily not remain in dementia research because it’s something that they couldn’t do. It could be that a better thing or their PhD was just part of as a training for the thing that they really wanted to go on to do. But I was interested to see that 58% of people were still somehow their next job they’ve moved into if they had, was still connected to dementia. And I wonder whether this is people going on to scicomms and doing over the different things.

Dr Beth Shaaban:

Yeah. Or even someone getting into a position like you where you are working with this organization that is purposefully reaching out to early career researchers like that would be in the psycoms vein, but sort of also in supporting people staying in the field. So there are a number of careers that people could go into that would still be dementia relevant, dementia adjacent.

Adam Smith:

Nearly everybody we work with at the… I know I work with at Alzheimer’s Society, Alzheimer’s Research UK, and Alzheimer’s Association, they’ve all done PhDs previously and often dementia related. And those experiences have set them up for those jobs. Thank you, Beth. So I’ve kept the last part for myself, which is around what people told us about what support they need. The rest of the survey gives us a profound sense of what culture really needs to change and where we need to draw attention from partners. But in this section, these are things that we can really do something about to help. We gave an extensive list of all areas you typically see covered for what people might want support in. And the top 10 in priority order were, grant and fellowship writing. Anybody surprised by that? No, no nodding shaking heads.

Adam Smith:

The next top area that people felt they needed support with was building collaborations. And I think, I wonder whether that’s related to the pandemic as well, that we’ve only really had the opportunity to network more on social media and with our immediate colleagues. So getting a little… Going back to in person events and learning how to be sociable again and how to talk when you’re standing in front of a poster or find collaborators is an interesting one. But that came out number two. Then we had creating and managing budgets. Something that might not be the most exciting topic, but it’s all something we have to do when we are writing those grant applications. And Matt, particularly when you’re managing a team for the first time, or you take on running your first lab or your first big project. General career development, followed by research methods, implementing research findings, implementation a top one that we know the survey showed that there was some frustration there about. I know Wagner talked earlier about people feeling pressured, of course, to publish their results.

Adam Smith:

And for qualitative researchers and those working clinically, there was that extra pressure because you don’t just want to publish your results. You also want to then see that bring about practical change, which there are increasing number of grants that you can apply to do that. But that was an extra pressure that I think qualitative researchers and particularly clinical researchers experienced. Publishing came lower down the list than I thought when science, communications and reviewing were the last two. So anybody who’s running a conference right now, if you’re going to run another session on how to use Twitter, I would suggest maybe skipping that and doing something on how to manage a budget instead. That’s the big takeaway from me. So from an ISTAART perspective, we are going to get to work and make this happen. And of course, one of the ways we’re going to get to do this is through the ISTAART popup academy at this year’s AAIC.

Adam Smith:

I don’t think details on that have been fully released yet, but if you’re attending the AAIC this year in person, in San Diego, in July, we’re going to have this popup academy during the lunchtime sessions. And we’ll have, I think it’s 16 different sessions over the three days, most of which would fall in that top 10 category. So be sure to keep an eye out for those and get your place book for the AAIC. We’re also going to work through our continent working groups, to deliver webinars and support people locally. Recognizing that collaboration workshops may need to be different if you work in Europe compared to if you work in south America or that some of the support you might want in North America, we’ve great finding out that people want grant and fellowship support, but that’s of course globally.

Adam Smith:

When we zero that down in on everybody who responded in the UK or in Australia, we might find actually what came out as number one in Australia, didn’t come out as number one in the US, through our continent, working groups and through leads like Wagner and Lindsay, we want to target our support to the places where it’s needed, if that all makes sense.

Adam Smith:

And if you want to get involved in those continent working groups, you’ll find details on how in the show notes. We also heard from people about how they wanted to receive the support, our survey, respondents, highlighted mentoring, and one-to-one and small group support has been the top areas that they wanted it. And so we are going to try and focus on giving those areas a priority, set up small working groups to work together on some of these difficulties, instead of just another webinar or another blog is to try to actually bring people together to collaborate.

Adam Smith:

Honestly, there’s so much more we could say. And today we’ve only scratched the surface of what the survey covers. I would strongly recommend you go away and have a look at the data for yourself. We’re going to make the data available for you as well. So you can really get into that. You can apply through us to access that, to do your own analysis. We’ve also got a big long list of lots of pieces of analysis and further papers that we’re working on using this data. And you’ll find all of that information, including the reports, which is also in an accessible format as well for anybody who has visual impairments. All of that is on our website at dementiaresearcher.nihr.ac.uk/survey. So next steps, Lindsay, we’re working on a number of papers and analysis. Could you give us an example of some of those things that we’re looking at?

Dr Lindsay Welikovitch:

I think the short term objective for sure is to finish up the analyzing the survey results and to work towards publishing the findings and open access journals. And I think when we first endeavored to put the survey together, we thought that we would make some super interesting, cool paper with all the results into one, but we actually found that there’s much more nuanced, interesting information if we sort of parcel it up and focus on individual issues.

Dr Lindsay Welikovitch:

So for example, one of the papers we’re formulating at the moment is focused on the impact of COVID on ECRs and dementia research and how institutions can best respond. So that’s just an example of a more focus honed in topic that we’re putting more effort into. We’re also focusing on formulating initiatives to support priority areas that were identified by respondents. And I think with a unique focus on regional and geographical needs that some of the more… Excuse me, zoomed in information that we were able to extract from the survey. And I think one thing that became clear from sifting through all this interesting information, was that there’s actually a lot more interesting information that we’re hoping to further extract from respondent. So we’re preparing further survey work to continue monitoring and exploring some of the topical issues from the survey that we’ve already conducted, including at the continent level.

Adam Smith:

It’s breaking that down. Isn’t it? I thought that too. I mean, I just wanted to take the whole survey and then split it down the middle and then also see right. What was the difference between what the male perspective on so many of the issues were or the female perspective or the US perspective on compared to the European one? And I would’ve been fascinated to do that across all these questions. But again, we’ve only got so many hours in the day, right? And this is something very we only do as volunteers.

Dr Lindsay Welikovitch:

It was a really short term volume. We had so many questions for people and they provided us so many good answers and they were like, “But what if so many more questions now?” So I think that’s what the future surveys will help us dive into.

Adam Smith:

Thank you, Lindsay. Yeah. Wagner, what do you hope people will do with these results? We’ve given this information? What do we want them to do with this information?

Wagner Brum:

Well, I mean, just today in this brief scratching the surface talk, we already covered so many topics. And I mean, there is so much room for action. I mean, there’s so many things to do in an individual level to tackle these more social and human related issues of what these challenges that people face every day that they shouldn’t need to face. There’s so much that can be done in other aspects as well. For the publishing part, there’s so much that journals could do to make researchers lives easier. I mean, they’re already exploited and they make our lives harder. So I mean, this is something that’s needs looking at.

Adam Smith:

Absolutely. And if nothing else, I think people can go away and look at some of these results and feel that they’re not alone. If you think you’re the only one who’s having financial difficulties or thinks the peer review system or is not great, because they’re waiting ages for their collaborators to respond and they’re struggling with anxiety and things like this, this survey should hopefully demonstrate that people aren’t alone, but also it brings out what we need. So I don’t want to end on a negative points and we’re going to Beth. I’m going to come to you lastly. Give me some big takeaways and tell me something that the survey found that was positive. Because there are all… I feel like we’re slightly focusing on the negatives, but there are lots of positive things in here as well. People do clearly leave their jobs, but let’s hear it from you.

Dr Beth Shaaban:

Yeah, absolutely. So just to return to one of the things that I highlighted earlier, I think it’s about 80% or even a little higher of the respondents who are at least slightly happy with their jobs. And I think that’s fantastic. I think they’re excited about sharing their own science. So they commented on this on being on social media and using it purposefully to communicate their science. I think that gets a larger swath of the general public and not just communicating to other researchers, but communicating to the public who ultimately could benefit from our research. I think also an interesting thing that we didn’t get to talk about is how did people come to their positions? What made them interested in doing the type of work that they’re doing? And several people were just curious by nature, just inherently curious and wanting to do research.

Dr Beth Shaaban:

A number of people were fascinated specifically with research. So not just a general curiosity, but something about research really pulled them in. And then another large group of people had experience directly with people living with dementia. And I think that’s very common. So if you ask people working in our field whether they’ve had a grandparent or a family friend or aunt or uncle, parent who has experienced dementia and they’ve interacted with them directly, oftentimes you’ll find that is the case. And that’s been a huge motivation for people to be involved. I know for myself, that’s the case that I’ve had a grandparent who had dementia and who at points interacting with me when I was a little girl thought that I was my mother and was asking about me being a nurse because my mom was a nurse.

Dr Beth Shaaban:

And working to prevent that happening to someone else and working to provide her better care than she had when she was still living is something that motivates me very much. And I think all of that’s very exciting to know that people are curious, they want to learn more and they want to help people and that’s what’s pulled them in. So hopefully that can help us to end on a higher note and can help us also to focus on something positive, some positive things that we can do to pull people in to the dementia research space and to keep them here. It’s not just preventing the negative, it’s also harnessing these positive things that attract people into the field and keep them with us.

Adam Smith:

Thank you, Beth. You did a wonderfully well in describing that I completely concur with your position. You clearly have an early career researcher community who are passionate about their jobs. They like what they do. There’s this contrast because everybody said that they like their job, but they’re also thinking about leaving. And I think they don’t want to leave. Nobody wants to leave. I think it’s sometimes, they’re just looking for that little bit of stability, the longer contract, some small cultural changes that could make a huge difference. And I think by and analyzing the data further, we can have a look if that’s in particular countries or if that’s across the board as well. And I think there were some good results in there as well. People felt quite supported during the pandemic, particularly as well.

Adam Smith:

And when you looked at some of the discrimination issues, individual supervisors in institutions were often very supportive and had been very helpful, particularly in addressing some of the things around disabilities as well. And I think when we looked at the discrimination, we didn’t talk about this much before, but there was a perception that things weren’t getting worse. They weren’t getting better across the board. I think it was only sexes and marginally that came out as getting slightly better by like 1% was the perception anyway. But nothing was getting worse. It just wasn’t getting better either, which of course is something we need to do. We need to get better. Thank you so much.

Adam Smith:

Honestly, again, just have a look at the results for yourself. It’s to close up today’s podcast. I want to thank Beth, Wagner, and Lindsay. And of course the others. So many others that have contributed towards this report Dr. Sara Bartles and Dr. Royhaaan Folarin, the rest of the PEERs, the executive committee who helped so much with the promotion of the survey, the ISTAART team, who of course helped us brought us all together in the first place and everyone of you, all the listeners that took part and took time to complete the survey and provide us with those comments.

Adam Smith:

Again, I’m sure you don’t need to be reminded of this, but you can find a link to the actual report and the survey results in the show notes below. And finally, if you aren’t aware, ISTAART recently changed its pricing structure, and it’s now free for all students worldwide and all researchers of all grades in lower middle income and upper middle income countries. So please do consider joining it. I really can’t see any reason for you to not do when it’s free. You get tons of opportunities, you get support, access to webinars, journals, reduction and on the ISTAART, AAIC ticket price and some specific conference like AAIC Neuroscience Next there’s always been free in the past to members. So you can find out details on how to become a member of ISTAART at als.org/istaart. And of course, when you join, you then get to tick the boxes of the PIAs you like to join, and you should join the PIA for early career researchers so that we can provide you with the support you need.

Adam Smith:

Thank you very much, everybody for listening. Any questions, any issues? Or if you want to talk about the survey you can tweet using the #ECRPIA. And we’re going to be tweeting all day today with some little highlights of the stats using that hashtag. So do take a look and give us all a follow on Twitter as well. Thank you.

Voice Over:

Brought to you by dementiaresearcher.nihr.ac.uk, in association with Alzheimer’s Research UK and Alzheimer’s Society supporting early career dementia researchers across the world.

END


ECR Survey

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