Facts & Tools

4 ideas for overcoming inertia in the academic system

If we want an academic system fit for the future, we have to support a more diverse group of academics today, so that they become the progressive leaders tomorrow. It is hard to make systemic changes as an individual, but there are small things each of us can put into action. By Anne Schreiter

We know that there is a problem 

It’s no news that the situation of postdocs in academia is far from ideal. There are numerous studies, countless articles, and a mountain of anecdotal evidence. What is often lacking, however, is institutional action to drive towards solutions. The tragedy is that the majority of postdocs are suffering from problems that are solvable – there is no shortage of concrete ideas.

Establishing tenure track as the standard (not the exception), bridging between short-term contracts, recognizing project leadership and intellectual contributions, rewarding efforts in teaching and mentorship, infrastructure for supporting multinational/multilingual scientists – these are only a few.

But the inertia of the system is paralyzing and frustrating.

Often overlooked is that the problem is not only about creating better conditions for postdocs, it is about supporting research excellence and progress. Postdocs are the main drivers of research and innovation. They fulfill this task behind the scenes with passion that often burns them out. Not all of those who want to make it academia – and in Germany this pretty much still only means professorship – reach their goal. It is often not because there were others more competent, smart, or creative. Sometimes highly talented, productive researchers become frustrated by unjust sacrifices, lacking the right network, or missed opportunity.

Nurturing a more diverse pool of future leaders in academia 

This is especially true for underrepresented groups in academic leadership: researchers with an international background, with less stable financial or social support systems, women, those with less linear CVs, among others.

Homogeneous leadership is part of the inertia problem. Innovation will stagnate if we do not build up a more diverse group of future leaders today.

»The lack of adaptation in the academic system to promote international young group leaders (lack of tenure track positions, lack of hiring early stage international researchers for group leader positions)…in general, the academic system here needs to modernize its structure, it is highly monarchical, a more horizontal system of science leadership would bring Germany in the 21st century.« Humboldt-Fellow, male, USA

What are the concrete pressure points? We looked at the MIND study and additionally asked 114 researchers with an internationals background and those who just recently returned to Germany (numbers in %).

54
I sometimes feel overwhelmed and/or anxious because of my professional situation
52
Bureaucracy is a problem
69
Lack of understanding the research system in Germany
59
Building Networks in Germany is hard
68
German language (admin, teaching)

Starting with one step at a time

But there is hope. The German research landscape is in fact, full of merit and potential. In the last year, bottom-up initiatives such as postdoctoral associations gained traction and influence. Postdocs have become more outspoken about the obstacles they are encountering, and some further up in the hierarchy are willing to listen.

So what can be done? 

In our survey we then asked the participants to finish the following sentence:

I could change the academic system for the better, if…

  • …we would talk more about the problems we are facing.
  • …I get proper guidance from experienced researchers.
  • …I could help more young researchers find their feet.
  • …the teams and environment were more diverse.
  • …science communication and teaching would be more appreciated.
  • …I had the time to invest in it without sacrificing my time in the lab doing my research.
  • …as an international scientist, I had more of a voice in the institutions which take decisions for the financing and employment law in academic science. Most of these institutions are led by Germans and in German.

 

Using this feedback we came up with four ideas for what you can do specifically and what you can do now.

 

1) Team up & find mentors

You are not alone with your frustration, your insecurity, or even your joy for research and science. Check if there are already postdoctoral associations at your institution and join them. Build peer groups with trusted colleagues, maybe from different departments and fields (you can also find them through associations, alumni networks, etc.). Talk about the imperfections you are struggling with and maybe do some career coaching exercises together. Follow up on each others’ goals. Talk to people outside of your bubble. Ask for advice and claim feedback – from your PI, from former bosses, from the young research group leaders in your department.

 

2) Plan strategically and make your own choices

Academia will statistically always be the alternative career for people with a PhD. If you want to go down the academic road, do this based on an informed decision rather than being passively led. Make sure you have an idea about options in other sectors. Talk to researchers who transitioned to other job fields. It might be helpful to invest in a professional career coach. Be the captain of your life: figure out what is important to you and make your own decisions.

 

3) Support colleagues even if you yourself are not a science communicator or teacher

A lot is expected from researchers. Not everybody is good at everything or interested in the same things. Teaching, science communication, and activities that do not directly contribute to the hard currency of publications are not (yet) incentivized – however, they are important. So shout out to the colleague who has a science youtube channel or who does great online classes. Academia is more than just research, and needs this diversity to attract differently skilled academics.

 

4) Be the role model you wish you had

You are a newly appointed professor? You got that ERC grant? If you had good mentors along the way, pay it forward. If not, make sure your PhD students and postdocs will remember you as someone who made a positive difference in their careers and lives. Give them credit for the work they do. Take time for regular career talks with your staff to outline their goals and plans. Participate in leadership trainings, maybe invest in a personal coach or find a mentor yourself. Talk to peers at the same level and share advice or ask for support. Become an advocate – in university meetings, among academic leaders – for the postdoc you once were.

 

Your experiences and advice? 

What do you think? Do you have other ideas or strategies that have helped you? Let us know!