My opinion pieces on here now appear to mainly consist of taking the prevailing zeitgeist, summing it up for you and sprinkling on some pop psychology. I bring you problems people, I do not bring you solutions, they do not pay me the big bucks. So today we’re going to talk about the great academic resignation which seems to be occurring. We’ll try and figure out why and where it’s happening and think about things that might be important to change going forward. Warning: I’m going to overuse the word toxic.
Whilst I’ve entitled this the great resignation, technically it’s the great resignation and the great not-hanging-around-any-more. Professors with permanent positions are leaving because of toxic work culture, excessive academic bureaucracy and poor work-life balance. But further down the scale mid-career researchers are simply not staying in academia, instead choosing to switch fields entirely to things like writing or consultancy or moving to industrial jobs.
According to research, professors in tenured positions are happier than mid-career academics but, as we’ll see later, this is setting the bar a little low by regular happiness standards. The toxic work environment of many major academic institutions was brought into stark relief by the pandemic, advocating for us to be aware of the plight of the students but with little care as to whether we were coping well after having entirely restructured our teaching approach on the fly.
In an article on the crisis in Science, management consultant Christine Spadafor points out the problem with having a toxic culture. She says that; “when you have that kind of healthy, welcoming culture, when things get a little bumpy, people don’t run for the exits. They sign up to help solve the problem”. Given that people are currently running for the exits left, right and centre I somewhat suspect we cannot describe our culture as ‘healthy and welcoming’.
And this is increasingly reflected in the choices of more junior members of staff. I have two friends lucky enough to now have small groups with young post-docs. Both have said their post-docs are either leaving academia at the end of their contracts or have indicated no particular desire to stay and pursue the same careers as their mentors. One reportedly saying they’ve seen how hard it is and are having no part in that thank you very much. Especially not when they have friends who have left, worked their way rapidly up to six figures in industry and are living the life of riley.
Dr Karen Kelsky runs an academic and non-academic job website called The Professor Is In. In 2020, Kelsky created a support group on Facebook called The Professor Is Out – a private group for academics moving out and moving on which now boasts over twenty-three thousand members. As part of this, Kelsky has also been crowdsourcing information on why people leave academia and there are emerging themes. Burnout, bullying and toxicity being the most prevalent. The document is actually worth a read if you’re feeling nihilistic. The most recent reason for leaving was simply ‘I refuse to inflict and perpetuate this toxic process upon any other human being’. Spectacular.
My reasons for thinking about leaving are simple. The job I want to do, doesn’t really exist as a job any more. I want to be excited about science, discover some things in the lab and share that passion for critical thinking and exploration with students and other scientists. This requires a combination of a permanent position and funding. The latter we’ve already established in previous posts is essentially a lottery, with funding rates at around 1:30 in the UK right now. And the former is not a thing where I currently work. In fact the wonderfully cold University website specifically states that working here is a ‘career boosting opportunity’ and that the low turnover of permanent roles means my next step is ‘likely to be in another university or research organization or possibly in another sector’. It then goes on to tell me I need to ‘actively engage’ in my own career development.
Let me get this straight….you’d like me to contribute to your excellence by providing you with my (supposedly) top quality research brain and at the same time you’d like me to actively better myself in preparation for leaving because you have no interest in keeping me? Wonderful.
And the pop psychology bit that applies to all of this is actually relatively simple. It’s all about motivation.
The majority of work cultures have specific goals and aims. Quarterly discussions of targets and deadlines but in academia we don’t really have that. Papers can go on and on, get bigger and bigger with no defined end. Mostly our job seems to be desperately trying to remain employed, running the gauntlet of the funding lottery in an increasingly precarious market. And research has shown that’s incredibly demotivating. This same research has shown that people tend to be more sloppy in the middle of a task and it’s fairly easy to see why. At the beginning you’ve not done anything yet and you’re full of excitement for the unknown ahead. At the end you can see the conclusion of what may have been an incredibly arduous task and you’re determined to do it well. In the middle you actually have no idea how long things will go on. According to PhD Comics the first circle of academic hell is Limbo.
So how do we motivate academic researchers? Well jobs and money would help but in the absence of those let’s start with some institutional changes.
First, academic institutions need to realise that their PhD training programs are training people to be researchers and critical thinkers and those are skills which are in demand in a vast number of sectors. But the majority of University careers services and researcher development programmes are not currently set up to help researchers transition. An example of this is a recent ‘careers week’ newsletter I received which outlined talks and workshops in the upcoming six months which were, without exception, all about academic careers. ‘How to become a PI’ and ‘How to develop resilience’ etc etc.
But not all institutions think the same way. I recently attended a researcher development talk at another University which seemed to be doing a spectacular job. Regular post-doc lunches to discuss all sorts of careers, with former academics coming in from many different sectors – industry, government, publishing – to demonstrate that there are other options. And workshops to help the academics be the best versions of themselves, whatever their career choices may be. If they want to leave, they’ll be helped with CV alterations and interview training. If they want to stay, there are grant writing workshops. Here, I was told by senior administration that if I didn’t succeed in my next grant application the department couldn’t offer me any support and I should be prepared to leave.
In the States they have their own set of issues with post-doc funding, but some institutions seem to be approaching the problem differently. Ohio State University, for example, has specifically said it will try and hire from within the faculty as well as externally, to help increase diversity. This kind of permanency is becoming increasingly rare in research institutions in the UK, where staff are often ‘research only’ relying on grants and perpetually on the verge of unemployment, or ‘teaching’ where they might try and squeeze some research in around marking. And this isn’t good for the research itself, with one UK professor remarking recently that she was tired of spending three to five years getting her group established, only to run out of money and have to start the whole process over again. The lack of continuity results in poor translation, poor reproducibility and much reinventing of the wheel.
The website Inside Higher Ed summed it up nicely, saying that ‘Despite all these signs, it’s unclear whether academe as a whole will pay attention’. It follows it up by saying that the academic job market is favourable to institutions, but not to scholars and that this situation has been exacerbated by the pandemic perhaps, but that the problems are not necessarily new ‘meaning that institutions have ignored them for many years already’.
And given that thousands of people read the eloquent Sustainable Professor post by Elizabeth Haswell in eLife and nothing changed, I can’t imagine the couple of hundred people who might happen upon this will make a dent either sadly.
Dr Yvonne Couch is an Alzheimer’s Research UK Fellow at the University of Oxford. Yvonne studies the role of extracellular vesicles and their role in changing the function of the vasculature after stroke, aiming to discover why the prevalence of dementia after stroke is three times higher than the average. It is her passion for problem solving and love of science that drives her, in advancing our knowledge of disease. Yvonne has joined the team of staff bloggers at Dementia Researcher, and will be writing about her work and life as she takes a new road into independent research.