Research 101

The Paradox of Job Insecurity in Academia: Why the Most Impactful Research is Carried Out by Vulnerable Scholars?

How Job Insecurity Affects the Lives of Researchers and the Future of Science

In the world of academia, a startling paradox has emerged: those responsible for the most impactful research are often the very scholars experiencing job insecurity. Despite PhD holders boasting the highest employment rates in OECD countries at a shocking 92% (OECD, 2021), recent graduates and early career researchers face an uncertain future. In this blog post, we will explore the reasons behind this paradox and the consequences it has on the lives of those affected, supported by some relevant figures provided by the OECD and the National Science Foundation in the U.S.

Roberto Rodríguez R.
Roberto Rodríguez R.
CAO @ SofiaGo

The Funding Dilemma

One of the primary drivers of job insecurity in academia is the source and allocation of funding. With the majority of university funding coming from governments in OECD countries (70%), competitive grants for fixed-term projects are often the only option for academic researchers. In the U.S., government funding accounts for 60% of university funding, 66% in the U.K., and over 75% in EU countries (NSF, 2020; OECD, 2023). This reliance on grants puts pressure on permanent faculty members to secure funding, and results in young researchers being hired on fixed-term contracts for the duration of these projects.

The Grant System's Perverse Effects

The grant system not only affects job security, but also the quality of work produced. According to the OECD, 60% of researchers publishing high-impact scientific research experience some time of job insecurity, with 40% working under fixed contracts. In the U.S., this number is even higher at almost 70% and 50% working under fixed contracts (Bello & Galindo-Rueda, 2020). Researchers working in these conditions are forced to focus on short-term projects, usually lasting 1-3 years. This can lead to a "uberisation" of scientific work, as researchers scramble to secure their next project and funding source (Carvalho et al., 2021).

The Imbalance Between PhDs and Available Positions

A closer look at the general trends in the U.S. and western European countries reveals a growing imbalance between the number of PhD graduates and available faculty positions. If we take a look at the below graph showing the general trends of PhD graduates vs. the number of annual faculty positions available in the U.S., it is clear that the only option available for most of the academic workforce is to enroll in short-term contracts.

Source: Schillebeeckx et al (2013)

Consequences of Job Insecurity

The paradox of job insecurity in academia may lead to significant consequences for those affected:

  • Financial instability: Fixed-term contracts make it difficult for researchers to plan for the future, leading to financial stress and insecurity.
  • Reduced creativity and innovation: The focus on short-term projects can limit the scope of research and discourage researchers from pursuing groundbreaking ideas.
  • Increased stress and mental health issues: The constant uncertainty surrounding job security can take a toll on researchers' mental health and overall well-being.
  • Brain drain: Talented researchers may opt to leave academia in search of more stable employment opportunities, depriving the academic community of valuable expertise and insight.

Conclusion

The paradox of job insecurity in academia is a complex issue with far-reaching consequences. As the most impactful research continues to be produced by vulnerable scholars, it is essential for policymakers, funding agencies, and universities to address this issue and work towards a more sustainable and secure future for academic researchers. With the numbers highlighting the extent of the problem, the time for action is now.

References

Maximiliaan Schillebeeckx, Brett Maricque & Cory Lewis (2013), The missing piece to changing the university culture, Nature Biotechnology, Vol. 31, No. 10, pp. 938-941

Michela Bello & Fernando Galindo-Rueda (2020), OECD Science, Technology and Industry Working Papers 2020/04: The 2018 OECD International Survey of Scientific Authors, OECD, Paris

National Science Board, National Science Foundation (2020), Academic Research and Development. Science and Engineering Indicators 2020, Alexandria, VA. Available at https://ncses.nsf.gov/pubs/nsb20202/.

OECD (2021), Reducing the Precarity of Academic Research Careers, OECD SCIENCE, TECHNOLOGY AND INDUSTRY POLICY PAPERS. May 2021, No. 113, OECD, Paris

OECD (2023), Dataset: R-D expenditure by sector of performance and type of R-D

Teresa Carvalho, Sara Diogo & Bruno Vilhena (2022) Invisible researchers in the knowledge society – the Uberisation of scientific work in Portugal, European Journal of Higher Education, Vol. 12, No. 4, 393-414