Challenges Faced by Early-Career Researchers in the Sciences in Australia and the Consequent Effect of those Challenges on their Careers: a Mixed Methods Project

Published on by Katherine Christian

PhD project for Katherine Christian at Federation University Australia. Early-career researchers in STEMM at universities and research institutes in Australia. Contact: Mixed methods project comprising: Focus group discussion with seven ECRs On-line survey data collected from March to June 2019, n=658 Eight semi-structured in-depth interviews December 2018- May 2019 with women who, at the time, had recently left academic research in STEMM Supervisors: Dr Carolyn Johnstone, Mt Helen; A/Prof Wendy Wright, Gippsland; Jo-ann Larkins, Gippsland Abstract The purpose of the study was to explore the challenges faced by early-career researchers (ECRs) in the sciences in Australia and the consequent effect of those challenges on their careers. Using a realist/postpositivist paradigm, an evaluative approach, and a framework of job satisfaction, this project has explored and compared the views of ECRs to evaluate the factors which shape the ECR experience and contribute to job satisfaction or dissatisfaction and intention to leave, and perhaps define the features which are necessary to keep an ECR in research. Data collection for this mixed methods study entailed a national survey of researchers working in universities and research institutes (n=658), a focus group discussion and eight semi-structured in-depth interviews with women from a variety of disciplines who had recently left academic research workplaces. I focussed particularly on the difficulties consequent to job insecurity: the constant need to attracting funding and a permanent position, lack of work-life balance and associated stress; and evidence of workplace difficulties such as bullying, harassment or inequity and support – or lack of it – offered by the research institutions. I examined the factors which contribute to and barriers which prevent job satisfaction of this population, and the consequent intention (if any) for ECRs to leave research or change their career path. I found an interesting situation whereby the satisfaction derived from a “love of science” was counterbalanced by stress and poor working conditions which are a consequence of lack of job insecurity, typified by poor supervision, bullying or harassment, inequitable hiring practices, a concerning rate of impact from “questionable research practices” (34%-41%) and evidence of very high (80%) intention of ECRs to leave their position. The most significant predictor of intention to leave is time as a postdoctoral scientist: eventually the job insecurity and its associated stresses become too much and the ECRs leave their chosen career for work elsewhere. This decision, too, provides interesting findings as many of the ECRs have difficulty planning what to do next. They feel ill-prepared for an alternate career and suffer from a sense of failure as a result of having to leave academia. While addressing the shortage of funding is outside the scope of this study, in addition to offering my findings I put forward a range of recommendations which could lead to a change of culture and benefit the wellbeing of ECRs in STEMM without incurring significant cost. The Australian Government, higher education institutions and the research community need to improve job security and workplace conditions and take better care of our people in STEMM disciplines or we will not have the scientists we need to deliver the “innovative Australia” planned for 2030 (Department of Industry Innovation and Science, 2018).

Cite items from this project

cite all items


Katherine Christian was supported by an Australian Government Research Training Program (RTP) Fee-Offset Scholarship through Federation University Australia


Federation University Australia

Members (1)

sort by: