Dissatisfaction at the University

Image: Suzy Hazelwood


A wave of dropouts, many of them by mid-career scientists, draws attention to the situation at Universities

On March 4, Christopher Jackson tweeted that he was leaving the University of Manchester, UK, to work for Jacobs, a science consulting firm based in Dallas, Texas. Jackson, a prominent geoscientist, is part of a growing wave of researchers using the hashtag #leavingacademia when announcing their higher education dropouts. Like many, their discontent has been compounded in part by rising education demands and pressure for funding amid the level of empty promises of support during the Covid-19 pandemic.

He is one of many academics who say the pandemic has triggered a widespread reassessment of scientists' careers and lifestyles. “Universities, running full steam ahead, expected the same and even more” from struggling employees, he says, who are now reassessing where their values ​​lie. The requirements add to long-standing discontent among early career researchers, who have to work harder and harder to successfully compete for a dwindling number of stable or permanent university posts. And Jackson had another reason.

He received what, in his opinion, was a racially insensitive email that constituted harassment and alluded to using the media to police employee opinion, which, he says, was the last straw. Jackson lodged a formal complaint and the University of Manchester responded: “The investigation is now complete. We made Professor Jackson aware of the findings, as well as the recommendations and actions we will be taking as an institution.”

The level of unhappiness among academics was reflected in the annual career poll of Nature in 2021. Mid-career researchers were consistently more dissatisfied than early- or late-career academics (see “mid-career malcontent”). In the UK, pension cuts aggravated the ongoing university strikes. Now researchers in stable, long-term posts are dropping out. “For mid-career individuals, it's much more meaningful if they have a mortgage, a car, and kids – and they're still leaving,” adds Jackson.

Mid-career discontent

A 2021 salary and satisfaction survey da Nature offered a picture of the working conditions and quality of life of researchers around the world. The survey drew responses from more than 1.200 researchers identified as mid-career, a stage in scientific life that comes with particular challenges and uncertainties. Taken together, the results help to explain why many mid-career researchers are rethinking their paths.

Thirty-seven percent of mid-career researchers were dissatisfied with their current position, a degree of dissatisfaction that set them apart from both early-career researchers (32%) and late-career researchers (32%).

For mid-career scientists, uncertainty about the future is greatest: nearly a quarter (24%) said they were extremely dissatisfied with their career advancement opportunities. In comparison, 17% of early-career researchers and 19% of late-career researchers had this level of doubt.

Mid-career researchers often face obligations and administrative tasks that go beyond the laboratory. In the poll, 34% of mid-career researchers said they were dissatisfied with the time they have for research. Twenty-one percent of early-career researchers and 28% of late-career researchers echoed this complaint.

Forty-one percent of mid-career researchers – compared to 32% of early-career scientists – reported that organizational politics or bureaucracy often or always thwarted their efforts to do good work. – Research by Chris Woolston.

Karen Kelsky has observed that conditions in academia have deteriorated in the 12 years since the cultural anthropologist left her post at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign to become coach of career. Complaints include lack of support, increased workloads, micromanagement, growing right-wing hostility toward academics and salaries that haven't kept up with the cost of living, says Kelsky, who is based in Eugene, Ore., and wrote the academic career guide. of 2015, The Professor is In. The pandemic has set the stage for a mass exodus. “Covid-19 was the last straw,” she says.

In early 2021, Kelsky, seeing a dramatic shift in discontent, began The Professor is Out, a private Facebook group for higher education professionals to share advice and support for those leaving academia. It has grown to over 20.000 members in the past year. “What's wild is how many of them are kept,” she says. "The scary narrative is that people are happier when they leave the gym."

Higher education did not escape the “great layoff” – the international wave of worker layoffs that began in 2021, including a record 47 million US residents and 2 million UK adults, largely due to the fallout from the pandemic. of Covid-19 and wage stagnation. Nature spoke to more than a dozen scientists who have left academia, who describe the toxic work environments, the bullying and the lack of consideration for their safety and well-being as reasons for their decisions. A 2018 study predicted that higher education would lose half to two-thirds of its academic workforce to retirement, career burnout, or job dissatisfaction within five years (T. Heffernan & A. Heffernan Prof. Dev. Education 45, 102-113; 2018). Established researchers may be privileged to leave voluntarily, but many are unsure of how their skills will translate to other sectors. Others who face systemic racism and sexism are forced to leave, in part because of structural biases. Their departures threaten progress on diversity, equity and inclusiveness in the academic workforce.


reasons to leave

On March 31, Caspar Addyman, a developmental psychologist who studies infant emotions at Goldsmiths, University of London, announced his resignation, effective in June, on Twitter. His resignation letter cites, in his opinion, the professors' frustration with the mismanagement of the university, which culminated in a "massive vote of lack of confidence [in senior administrators], numerous appeals and individual testimonies, and unprecedented local strikes." But it was the 38% cut in his pension that finally caused him to leave.

“I could imagine spending the rest of my life figuring out why babies were happy, but after seven years, it became pretty hard to imagine this routine forever,” he says, referring to growing managerial responsibilities and what he describes as an increasingly regimented approach to teaching. Although being an academic is part of his identity, Addyman has not considered moving to a different institution. “Why stay in this world if it's just going to be a slightly different version?” he asks.

Faced with a hostile funding environment and rising costs, Goldsmiths has so far announced 20 layoffs. A spokesperson for Goldsmiths states: “We recognize how deeply disturbing and painful this period of change has been, and continues to be, for our community as we make some difficult decisions to ensure that Goldsmiths has a sustainable future. We will continue to support and guide all affected people with comprehensive career support.”

Similar workforce reductions have occurred in Australia, a country hit hard by the loss of fee income for overseas students, who have been unable to enter the country due to Covid-19 restrictions. As of May 2021, one in five academic jobs in Australia has been cut. “Now we see a lot of people looking for work elsewhere, or retiring if they can afford it,” says Lara McKenzie, an anthropologist who studies academic workforce trends at the University of Western Australia in Perth. Those who remain lose trusted colleagues and are unwilling to take on the massive workloads they are left behind, she adds.

Naomi Tyrrell, a social research consultant from Barnstaple, UK, created a Facebook support group called AltAc Careers UK in 2020 to help people transition out of academia. Before Covid-19, she says, the most visible exoduses were from biosciences, informatics and medical sciences – disciplines with obvious research opportunities in the private sector. “That is changing a little bit. [Being overworked] is a key factor right now” for those in all disciplines planning to leave, she says. The move to the UK's for-profit university management model has also frustrated people. As student enrollments increase, so do precarious contract-based positions – as well as staff complaints about being taken for granted. “I hear things like, 'No one said thank you or asked if I was okay or how the university could support me,'” she says.

Jess Leveto, a sociologist at Kent State University in Ohio, hears similar complaints – particularly from academic mothers – in the United States. “For a long time, people invested in the ideal worker mentality of 'I'm going to produce as much as I can and show them I'm a good employee, but the care wasn't reciprocated,'” she says.

Leveto has conducted a survey of nearly 1.000 US university professors over the past two years to monitor how the pandemic affects their careers, but has not yet published the results. In 2021, she says, participants were angry and frustrated because they felt universities were too eager to get them back into classrooms, amid pandemic security concerns.

Leveto started a Facebook group called PhD Mamas in 2015 as a support system for academic mothers. Had less than 1.500 members for years. Now it has around 12.000 – and a dedicated subgroup of over 300 moms exploring how to leave the gym. To the moms at the gym had a stressful time: Burdened with childcare demands during the pandemic, many women's careers have suffered far more than men's (MI Cardell et al. Ann. Am. Am. Thorac. Soc. 17, 1366-1370; 2020).

Stacy, a psychology researcher at a West Coast university who requested anonymity for interviewing for jobs in industry, weeps as she explains how she knew she wouldn't make an effective teacher: "My productivity went down trying to care for a toddler. a year during the initial phases of the pandemic and quarantine, without significant structural supports to offset the challenges”. She requested – but did not receive – a reduction in pedagogical load, reduced time on university committees, pedagogical assistance, and research support in the form of tuition breaks for undergraduate students.

In January 2022, she started submitting applications for industry jobs that pay double her current salary. In some fields, such as yours, undergraduate and graduate students often do not receive any stipend. “My research happens because of free work,” says Stacy, and she no longer wants to allow these conditions for the next generation of researchers.

Not preventing inequalities in academic training is contributing to the layoffs of researchers in mid-career, says Meredith Gibson, interim director of the Association of Women in Science, an advocacy organization based in Washington DC. She and Kelsky anticipate that the wave of layoffs will continue. “There are people who will take about 18 months to lay the groundwork for change,” says Gibson. "I don't think it's over yet."


Cast out by systemic biases

The black women interviewed by Nature, in particular, describe how systemic inequality makes them struggle to achieve job security. Mary, a cancer biologist at a top private university in the northeastern United States, has been concerned for months about her pending fellowship application at the US National Cancer Institute (NCI). If she doesn't get a major scholarship this year, she will have to step down.

Mary, who requested anonymity to protect her job prospects, blames structural bias and a lack of resources to support her research. In November 2008, she was hired for a chemical engineering position at a public university in the southern United States; the role was created with funding available specifically to a qualified candidate from an underrepresented background. But she was hired at the last minute, and started alongside five others in the department, and felt she was given inadequate lab space and no access to the equipment and guidance she needed to secure funding and permanence at NCI.

Though she didn't get the job security or pay raise that comes with staying, her record as a researcher was good enough to land her at her current, more prestigious institution - although she was stuck at the same pay rate for more than a year. of ten years.

It is difficult for Mary to accept that her academic career may soon be over. “This is a sad conclusion for someone like me. My mother has no formal education, my father died in a homeless shelter,” she says. "I've won so many unusual things, but I can't win this one."

Nazzy Pakpour, a biologist who is an Iranian-American queer mother, resigned from her position at California State University, East Bay (CSUEB) in Hayward, after being offered a permanent post — but not a promotion — last October. . The commission verified that her portfolio of accomplishments met the criteria for obtaining the post, but denied her promotion to associate professor and a salary increase due to lack of research productivity. “It all felt very arbitrary and personal,” says Pakpour, who studies parasitic infections. “If you hire someone, invest so much time and energy, then why be punitive? If someone is a poor performer, clearly communicate that in the previous five reviews,” she says, referring to the lack of feedback before applying for the promotion.

She says her university had written guidelines for tenure and promotion evaluations, but her department had not. Departments without explicit written criteria leave the door open to implicit biases against women and people of color in terms of increasing their chances of promotion, she says. CSUEB Biology Department Chair Brian Perry confirms that Pakpour received a written "faculty development plan" outlining expectations when she was hired in 2015 — but noted that the department does not have its own written guidelines for promotion.

Since February, Pakpour has been a senior scientist at a biotechnology company in Davis, California. Her salary is higher, she works 40 hours a week instead of 80, and she feels supported. “Knowing your worth is really important,” she says.


post-exodus workforce

Will staff cuts and widespread layoffs hamper teacher recruitment efforts? Some institutions are working hard to prevent this from happening. In 2018, Barbara Boyan, Dean of the College of Engineering at Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) in Richmond, and Susan Kornstein, Executive Director of the VCU Institute for Women's Health, won a US National Science Foundation ADVANCE Fellowship to Increase Recruitment, Retention, and promotion of several faculty members who are women. VCU Engenharia has not lost any female faculty members due to the pandemic, says Boyan, who credits the grant – worth $3 million over five years – with preventing the loss of women.

In 2021, two out of three black women achieved the title of tenured professor at the engineering school – in part due to a push from Boyan. “Someone has to tell them, 'You're ready,'” she says. Kornstein adds that having so few teachers from minority ethnic groups to guide through promotion is "the reason recruitment and retention initiatives are so important."

McKenzie, who studies the Australian workforce, wonders how these dynamics will shape academia for early career researchers. Will institutions bring in more young people and replace long-term contracts with shorter contracts, she asks, thus increasing instability?

Sarah Tashjian — a postdoctoral neuroscience researcher at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena who is the first in her family to attend the university — is watching current events in the media. She thinks last year's tenure denials will change the academy by accelerating the loss of early career talent. Gibson anticipates that the academic job market is at a rough patch — in part because the current wave of academics leaving is happening in the midst of a larger cultural shift, she says. “It's [now] surprising to think that you would get into a stable position and be somewhere for your entire career,” says Gibson.

Tashjian laments the way career rank goals keep changing. “When I started in 2015, ten works as a first author would grant you entry anywhere,” she says. “I have 29 publications and 16 of them are first author”. But she's not sure it's enough to secure a stable position. She's giving herself three years in the academic job market before switching gears and looking for jobs in industry. “[My team] studies motivation and irrational decision making,” she notes. "At a certain point, it doesn't make sense to continue what we call 'expensive persistence'."

*Virginia Gewin is a journalist.

Translation: Fernando Lima das Neves.

Originally published in the magazine Nature 606.

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