Jonathan Foster 
Jonathan Foster
PhD, Materials Science, University of Cambridge 

Today's post is the prizewinning essay from a recent contest open to UK-based Wiley Advisors.  Advisors were invited to submit an essay on  "The challenges and opportunities facing ECRs in building an international reputation in the 21st Century".  Congratulations to Jonathan Foster who has won an all-expenses-paid trip to Frankfurt to participate on a ECRs panel at The Annual Frankfurt Conference of the International Association of Scientific, Technical & Medical Publishers (STM)!  And stay tuned here for essays from the runners-up! 


apple tree
Source: kviktor01 / Thinkstock

Isaac Newton was 24 when he developed Calculus; Charles Darwin was 22 when he boarded the Beagle; and William Bragg was 25 when he was awarded the Nobel Prize. Many of the greatest scientific breakthroughs have been made by early career researchers (ECRs) and the image of the lone genius remains strong in popular culture. However, the nature of scientific progress is changing and breakthroughs are increasingly made by large, multidisciplinary teams using expensive equipment over many years. The work is still undertaken by ECRs , but often the credit goes to the established academics with the reputations and the resources required to build such teams and to stay in one institution long enough to see the fruits of their labor. Moreover, the framework by which the next generation of academics is selected is still principally based on the publication of first-author papers by ECRs hired on short-term contracts to work on projects directed by others.

If funding bodies want the best researchers to undertake high risk, high reward research, they need to provide a funding regime which allows ECRs, as well as their PI’s, to take risks. A typical post-doc position lasts two years, which is a relatively short period in which to move to a new institution, learn new skills, build collaborations and make a significant contribution to a field. However, the reality is that in order to secure their next position, researchers often have to apply for funding up to a year in advance, which leaves even less time to get papers published. This is particularly problematic when applying for fellowships which have fixed deadlines and often do not recognize papers in preparation or under review. ECRs must ‘publish or perish’ which favors short term, well established projects and can mean settling for lower quality publications by publishing too soon. The importance placed on first-author publications is also highly damaging to collaborations as researchers are discouraged from spending significant amounts of time contributing to ‘other people’s’ papers or leaving work for the next person to build on. Funding longer-term positions and reducing grant and fellowship application times would allow ECRs to focus on producing research for longer before they have to worry about applying for their next position. Journals can also play a role by speeding up publication times and by giving prominence to joint first-author status and author contribution sections in publications to reward collaboration.

Building an international research profile in the 21st century has never been easier thanks to cheap flights, instant communication and the internet. However, the well-trodden academic career path of a previous generation: a PhD followed by a post-doc in the US before being appointed as lecturer, has been replaced with a seemingly endless cycle of moving and temporary contracts. The high number of students graduating with PhDs compared to the small number of permanent academic posts available results in ferocious competition for positions. While healthy competition is essential for ensuring that the best researchers are funded, the process can often feel like natural selection by endurance rather than by ability. The requirement to live on short-term contracts and to be globally mobile into your mid-thirties excludes many otherwise brilliant researchers. The Equality Challenge Unit points to factors such as these to explain the discrepancy between the high numbers of female students graduating with PhDs relative to the proportion of tenured female academics. Funding bodies and institutions need to recognize that expecting researchers to uproot themselves every two years in order to establish a global reputation is as outdated as the image of the lone genius sitting under an apple tree.