Early and middle career researchers are anxious & fearful for their future

Early and middle career researchers are anxious & fearful for their future employment


Early and middle career researchers in STEM have been severely affected by the COVID-19 pandemic in Australia, with a new survey showing greater levels of anxiety and less productivity among much of the workforce.

In the survey, conducted by the Australian Academy of Science’s Early and Mid-Career Researcher (EMCR) Forum, researchers from across the country reported increased anxiety due to the uncertainty about their employment situation and the need to manage competing priorities while working remotely.

Female early and middle career researchers with caring responsibilities are among the most severely impacted by the pandemic, with 90 per cent of women reporting they had experienced disruptions to their work due to COVID-19.

Balancing competing priorities, the absence of undisturbed work time, home schooling responsibilities, potential health impacts from working extended hours to “catch up” and increased anxiety about older dependents, were all factors that impacted the women researchers surveyed.

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“Working from home with two young children, while being responsible for their education, has been very challenging. It has hugely affected my productivity and sometimes my mental health,” one survey respondent said.

As the university sector continues to be deeply affected by the pandemic, thousands of research jobs are at risk. Early and middle career researchers on contracts reported that the continued uncertainty regarding their current employment has led to increased anxiety and mental health strain.

There is also increasing uncertainty and a lack of clarity around future employment prospects for researchers. It’s a big concern for those employed on a part-time or casual basis, whose jobs are most at risk.

Twenty five per cent of female early and middle career researchers surveyed were employed part-time or on a casual basis compared to 6 per cent of men.

“[There is] ongoing uncertainty around future career prospects … Many organisations have reduced hiring and I am concerned that the job market will be even more competitive and more difficult once restrictions ease,” one survey respondent said.

There are also many challenges around the logistics of conducting research, with restricted lab and field access making data collection harder or impossible. This disruption has the potential to lessen future grant opportunities that many researchers rely on.

According to the survey, researchers reported increased stress from losing team members and having no ability to hire new staff due to budget cuts. Also, the lack of access to research participants for non-COVID related medical studies is an issue.

Survey respondents reported research activities being replaced with more teaching and administrative tasks.

The EMCR Forum is calling for employers, goverments and funding bodies to take urgent action to support the researchers who will become Australia’s future STEM leaders.

Among the recommendations made to government by the EMCR Forum is extending JobKeeper to the university sector and other STEM employers currently ineligible.

More than half of all surveyed researchers are funded by external funding bodies, so it has also been recommended that guidelines be established for assessors of research funding applications, so the impact of COVID-19 can be properly considered.

“The COVID-19 pandemic will have significant and long-lasting effects on early- and mid-career researchers now, and into the future,” said Associate Professor Vanessa Wong, Co-Deputy Chair of the EMCR Forum.

“Without rapid and continued support by government, employers and funding bodies, there will be mass exodus from STEM sectors leading to a substantial brain drain and lost future capacity and capability to provide solutions to future challenges, such as the next pandemic.”

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