Most people have some part of their job that they really like, getting out of bed when the alarm sounds probably depends on it. Inevitably there are also parts that are a bit, well… rubbish. We at the ICECream thought the same might be true for researchers, seeing as most of them are probably people too.
So we contacted two researchers each, at 5 different career stages, and asked them to name; the 5 best bits, and the 5 worst bits about their job. We wondered whether researchers would all see things similarly, or differently, we also wondered if views change over the career path. Each week we’ll put up the lists from two researchers at similar stages of their career.
Last we heard what a couple of students thought about their jobs so far. This week we have a couple of people right on the verge of submitting their PhDs, about to make the jump from student to grown-up. It's a time when excitement (about finishing) is mixed with apprehension (about what is next).
Hopin Lee did his PhD at Neuroscience Research Australia, Sydney, and Marina Pinheiro is polishing her's off at the Faculty of Health Sciences, University of Sydney.
5 best things
Flexibility and freedom. Working towards a PhD is hard work, but it offers flexible working hours and the freedom to explore and study the things that interests you and the wider community.
Opportunities to travel to new places and meet new people. This might be via conference attendance or via collaborative networks with experts around the world. Personally, I’ve been fortunate enough to make a lot of close friendships throughout my PhD.
Transferrable skills. I’m beginning to realise that the skills I have learned throughout my PhD are sought after by government and industry. This opens up a lot of job opportunities outside academia. It’s never a bad thing to have more than one option.
Nice balance between creativity and structure. I tend to enjoy the organisation and structure that comes with science, but I’m starting to learn that there is an artistic requirement for innovation.
You are always surrounded by people who question the status-quo, who are open to be moulded by evidence. They are also pushing the boundaries of current knowledge. This sets up a very stimulating and progressive working environment.
5 worst things
Short contracts and lack of security. Academic tenures or permanent research positions seem to be very scarce, and external funding schemes can be volatile. I think this creates a highly competitive environment that can lead to personal stress, poor teamwork, and detriment to scientific rigour.
Slow paced. The average time to publish a paper (from submission to publication) is around 9 months. I think this rate is improving but this meandering process is really frustrating.
Lack of control. Sometimes your career can be heavily influenced by external factors (eg. government funding schemes) outside of your immediate control.
Politics. At times it can be challenging to uphold scientific rigour when faced with politically or financially driven incentives or restrictions.
Flexibility and freedom comes at a price. You need to constantly adapt to new working environments, and be prepared to relocate across cities, and countries to take up short-term contracts. This can make personal and family life challenging.
5 best things
Possibility to contribute to the community and make a difference in people’s lives with the results from our research.
Travel for conferences and to visit other research groups. This is a great opportunity for meeting different people, to know what other researchers have been working on, but also to visit different places. I always try to combine my research travels with holidays.
Flexibility in schedule and research topic. I have some flexibility to decide my working hours and also if I am going to work from the office or home. I also like the fact that most researchers have flexibility to choose their research area and that this can be changed at any time, although this is a bit more limited while you are a PhD student (my case!).
Highly stimulant and exciting work environment. I really enjoy working with smart and inspiring people who are passionate about what they do.
I am always learning something new!
5 worst things
Funding and grants are extremely competitive! When you see all these awesome research proposals written by excellent and experienced researchers being rejected it makes you wonder if you are ever going to get one.
Pressure to publish in prestigious academic journals and bring in grant money. The success rate of grant applications seems to be getting smaller each year and researchers need to be constantly publishing in order to be competitive for grants and fellowships. This is not very exciting news being an early career researcher.
Dealing with lots of rejections (grants, manuscripts). Acceptance rate in some journals are as low as 7% so it is challenging not to get frustrated and keep motivated with work despite the rejections.
Instability. The research positions are financially unstable, and the renewal of job contracts often depends on your research output. In addition, I have read recently that about half of recent PhD graduates are able to get an academic job. Being a PhD student at the final year, I am finding it stressful to worry about meeting my PhD submission deadline while I also have to consider whether I will be able to get an academic position.
Work-life balance. I guess this is the downside of having flexibility. You never escape from work, and working during weekends and nights are not uncommon.