Fighting Uncertainty: Lessons Learned from Lockdown by Maddy Bleasdale

“You should leave Germany as soon as possible– words I never imagined I’d hear in the final few weeks of my PhD. Yet, I soon found myself packing my life into boxes and boarding a flight to the UK. 

The coronavirus pandemic has caused mass disruption. For me, it brought my PhD journey in Germany to an abrupt end – there was no obligatory thesis “hand-in photo” or celebratory drinks with my colleagues and friends. But while the coronavirus has introduced a high degree of uncertainty into all of our lives, for many academics uncertainty is the norm. 

But what is behind this uncertainty? 

Job Precarity

Earlier this year I was offered a 4-year postdoc position. When the initial shock had subsided I was hit by a tidal wave of emotions. Over the years, bit by bit, I’d been bottling up anxiety about my future and suddenly it all came out. The sense of relief was overwhelming. My non-academic friends were horrified that accepting a “non-permanent” job could reduce me to a snivelling wreck. But the precariousness of postdoc life is something commonly accepted in academia.

Despite leaving mandatory full-time education many years ago, we still find our future divided into defined chunks of time. Our employment rests in the hands of external funding bodies, many of which only offer short (1-2 year) fellowships. I cannot say if I will be able to stay in academia once my next job ends. 

And it seems I am not alone. In a study published last year, the University of Toronto reported that out of ~10,000 PhDs across all disciplines (2000-2015) only 26% were tenure-track professors by 2016. The number of PhDs securing permanent lectureships varies according to research discipline but the harsh reality is that there simply aren’t enough permanent jobs to go around. 

The casualisation of work contracts has pushed researchers in higher education to their limit. In February of this year, thousands of UK university staff went on strike demanding better pay and working conditions. While many remain passionate about their research, continuing financial insecurity coupled with increasing workloads has left many asking whether a career in academia is sustainable. In a recent survey of over 4,000 researchers, the Wellcome Trust reported that 84% of participants felt proud to work in research but only 29% felt secure pursuing a research career. 

 We cannot predict what the next few years will bring for universities, particularly due to the financial impacts of COVID-19, but advocates for better working conditions will not sit idle. We must continue to push for change. If life in lockdown has taught us anything, it’s that nobody can work to their full potential when they are anxious and uncertain about their future.

 We cannot predict what the next few years will bring for universities, particularly due to the financial impacts of COVID-19, but advocates for better working conditions will not sit idle. We must continue to push for change. If life in lockdown has taught us anything, it’s that nobody can work to their full potential when they are anxious and uncertain about their future.

The idea of staying in a job “for life” is increasingly outdated with more young professionals moving jobs every few years. However, such a move is usually a personal decision to seize a new opportunity taken from a place of financial security. In academia, many of us are forced to move because the money has dried up. And even when we do land a new job, we find ourselves, yet again, staring down the clock wondering what will come next. Funding bodies need to truly invest in the people behind the projects and commit to longer-term grants. 

And those doctoral graduates who decide to go a different way from the academic track shouldn’t be forgotten. Those completing PhDs should receive adequate support and training to pursue a career within and outside of academia. Non-academic jobs have been coined “alt-ac” (alternative academic) careers with some pushing the harmful notion that seeking a secure, non-academic job is a “failure” or “betrayal”.  But let’s face the facts: there will always be more PhDs than academic positions. 

We can’t continue to bury our heads in the sand. Rather than ignoring it, universities, funders and research institutes should offer professional development training so that students are equipped for the job market and can make informed choices about their future. And let’s drop any negative judgement while we’re at it. 

Relocation

Since short-term contracts are commonplace in academia, many of us will do whatever it takes to land our next position, even when it means uprooting our entire lives. For some, the mobility that comes with academia is a blessing and an opportunity to work and live in new places. But for many, the emotional cost currently outweighs the benefits. 

Moving back to the UK was my first taste of the relocation cycle. Despite my ultimate wish to return here, I still found leaving Germany difficult. As my colleagues collected equipment from their offices to work from home, I was packing my things to leave the country. It was surreal and when a colleague waved goodbye with a “Stay safe and I’ll see you when this is all over!” I couldn’t bring myself to explain that I was leaving for good. 

Due to the pandemic, most of us are unable to work in our normal office environment. We are missing the collegiate feeling of working directly with others – the coffee breaks, sharing ideas, and dare I say it, even some of the meetings. The in-person, human-side of collaborative work will never 100% translate to a virtual setting. 

In this respect, lockdown has shown everyone, across all sectors, that being separated from our colleagues, friends and family can have a detrimental impact on our mental health. Jobs in academia are stressful and intensive, and while we may only be in one place for a couple of years we quickly forge deep connections with our colleagues. For me, living in a small town and not speaking much German, my colleagues quickly became my support network. Despite having family and friends in the UK, it’s taken many months to adjust and I miss my PhD cohort very much. 

Whether you move as a family, a couple, or on your own, establishing your life in a new corner of the world is stressful. Even in this digital age, you inevitably lose touch with people and your support network may radically change as a result. It may take years for the academic job market to change and while fixed-term contracts exist, so will the need to relocate. But in the meantime, employers should do all they can to support staff and ease the transition into a new job, and help ease the uncertainty this brings, especially if it has brought them thousands of miles from home.   

Poor work-life balance 

Due to the global pandemic, my postdoc start date has been postponed and I currently find myself in limbo. I’m still working, albeit remotely, with colleagues and friends in Germany. My PhD contract is over but I still need to defend so I’m left treading water – a not-quite Dr. with a pending postdoc. 

This experience is not unique. Many of us have experienced the difficult adjustment period between degrees. But why do we feel so lost? It’s not uncommon for researchers to feel their identity is bound to their work. Many people in higher education work evenings and weekends without financial compensation. And when we falter and begin to burn out we’re told “it’s just how it is” and that our “passion” for research should get us through. 

The uncertainty of securing a job in academia often pushes us to work more than necessary. If we want to land a permanent position then we must distinguish ourselves from the rest. It means we often feel obliged to take every opportunity that comes our way. We must work longer and harder to avoid being left behind. And there are still those that maintain the toxic belief that you must “suffer” as part of our PhD – that you must be pushed to your very limit in order to show your worth.

The present system glorifies overwork, and change is well overdue. It’s time for employers to step up and take action to develop a healthier work culture.

In some cases, small steps can be taken to establish boundaries, such as encouraging academics not to respond to emails at the weekends and respecting everyone’s right to digitally disconnect during a holiday. The pandemic has also shown we can accommodate remote working on a mass-scale so we must continue to provide flexible working for those who need it.

Fighting against deeply entrenched attitudes will take time so we turn to those in positions of power: managers, PIs and supervisors, to spearhead these changes. Do not simply maintain the status quo – just because you worked all-hours as a PhD student doesn’t mean it has to continue. Let’s build a research culture that values people as individuals and not just their research outputs.

“Publish or perish” work culture

There is a huge pressure to publish in academia. Early career researchers are told they need to establish a name for themselves and senior academics require top-ranking papers to secure funding. A huge amount of time is invested in crafting a paper, hundreds of unseen hours in the lab and analysing data, not to mention the painstaking time reformatting tables, figures and text. But even when you finally submit there’s no guarantee it will be accepted. 

For doctoral students doing their PhD by publication there is even more pressure – I had to submit three first-author papers within 3.5 years. I’ve been very fortunate to work on some large, collaborative projects but it’s not been without its challenges – machine malfunctions, lab experiment failures, sampling delays and, in the final few weeks, a global pandemic – all of which derailed my perfectly crafted writing schedule. No matter how hard we prepare, life always throws us a few curve balls. Even for those like myself, who pride ourselves on being organised, we cannot control every outcome. Luck always plays a role in research and things will go wrong. We can never guarantee something will succeed and our supervisors need to accept that too.

Nevertheless, having multiple fallback projects can also become problematic. During my PhD I had a tendency to say “yes” to everything because I was petrified I wouldn’t have enough publishable data to finish. There were times when it was completely overwhelming. I felt like I was being pulled in a hundred different directions – how can I be a lab researcher, writer, project coordinator, do science outreach and learn to code at the same time? Fortunately, I have some amazing friends and colleagues and they helped me stay on track. And, slowly, over time I came to realise that you don’t have to say yes to every work demand. It’s okay to ask for help if you feel overwhelmed.

Our current situation has slowed the publication system down. It’s the first time I have ever seen journals explicitly state that they can be flexible with deadlines and make allowances for disruption caused by the pandemic. Let’s hope when things return to normal we can hold onto some of this empathy. 

So, what next?

The challenges of academia are not new and many are deeply ingrained, but some aspects have been pulled into sharp focus during the course of this pandemic. COVID-19 has shown us all that uncertainty and insecurity can have a huge impact on our mental health and wellbeing. We have the chance to reflect on what we want to change in academia and the actions we can take to reduce some of the uncertainty in our lives. Funding bodies should offer longer grants, employers should provide professional development training and we should all strive for a more open, less competitive research culture. We can’t change everything but as we slowly ease our way back into “normal” working life we have an opportunity to shake things up. We must work together to change academia for the better.

Maddy Bleasdale

Maddy Bleasdale is an archaeological scientist. She did her undergraduate in archaeology, during which she decided to pursue a career that blended her two research passions (science and archaeology) and went on to do a masters in bioarchaeology. She studied for her PhD at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Jena, Germany. She is now a postdoctoral research associate at the University of York investigating population mobility and inter-regional connectivity in Iron Age Europe. Maddy became an advocate for mental health during her PhD and continues to raise awareness of mental health in academia.

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