Photos by Janko Ferlic and Pawel Janiak on Unsplash

In June 2021 Young NeurolabNL conducted a survey amongst its members and the wider research community of young researchers in the field of Brain, Cognition and Behaviour. This research field is unique in its interdisciplinary breadth, spanning fundamental to applied research and the exact sciences to the social sciences. This provides a unique set of working conditions, career perspectives and potential to contribute to society.

In this newsletter, we share a summary of the results of the topics that respondents rated as most important (see also Figure 1):

  • Work life balance
  • Satisfaction & Career perspectives
  • Collaborations and funding

Figure 1. Experienced challenges. Top 3 of academic aspects ranked to be most challenging by postdoctoral researchers (left) and assistant professors (right).

A total of 77 participants completed the survey (74% female, aged between 25-44 years old). We divided the respondents into four groups: early-stage PhD students (26% [N = 20]; expected graduation date in 2023 or later), late-stage PhD students (23% [N = 18]; expected graduation date before 2023), postdoctoral researchers (30% [N = 23]) and assistant professors (21% [N=16]; Figure 2).

Figure 2. Survey respondents. Division of respondents in four groups, defined by career stage.

Work-life balance

Since the Covid-19 pandemic was ongoing at the time of the survey, work-life balance questions were asked twice: once with regard to the current period, and once with regard to the period before the pandemic.

Approximately 65% of all respondents reported suffering stress because of work at least half of the time during the pandemic, which was most prevalent in late PhD-students and postdoctoral researchers (See Figure 3, top row, right panel). An additional finding of concern is that working overtime was very common, with approximately 60% of the assistant professors and postdoctoral researchers, and 75% of the PhD-students reporting working overtime at least half of the time (Figure 3, middle row, right panel). Of note is that our findings on PhD students are slightly higher ( approximately 10%) than those reported in a recently published report from the “Promovendi Network Nederland”. This report reveals that approximately 63% of PhDs (across all fields) work overtime and that the vast majority of these students suffers from it. Our survey suggests that workload may be even higher for PhD students in the field of Brain, Cognition and Behaviour. Interestingly, before Covid-19, the percentages in our sample were even higher among assistant professors (95%), while they were lower among early and late PhD-students (55% and 65%, respectively) and remained the same for postdoctoral researchers (60%). Moreover, we observed dissatisfaction with working hours and how they fit into private life, especially among late PhD students (Figure 3, bottom row). For example, approximately 55% of late PhD students reported feeling dissatisfied with their work/life balance at least half of the time. Surprisingly, despite the long working-hours and work-related stress, assistant professors were relatively satisfied with their working hours (40% reported feeling dissatisfied at least half of the time in the current period, and 25% before the Covid-19 pandemic).

Figure 3. Work-life balance. Respondents indicated the extent to which they suffered stress because of work (top row), worked overtime (middle row), and felt dissatisfied with working hours and how they fit into their private life (bottom row). Respondents were asked to retrospectively judge these aspects both before the Covid-19 pandemic (left column) and judge them during the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic (right column).

The results of the survey suggest that working in academia can generally be stressful and     at times results in long working hours in all career stages, at least in the area of brain, cognition and behaviour. The numbers are worrisome and suggest that a large proportion of young researchers is working under high levels of pressure. These conditions in turn might affect mental and physical health as well as family life and social participation.

Work-life balance is an essential topic among the Young NeurolabNL community, and we will include this among our strategic priorities to support young researchers.

Satisfaction & Career perspectives

The findings suggest that respondents are mostly satisfied with their decision to pursue an academic career. More than 65% reported being either somewhat satisfied or extremely satisfied. Satisfaction was generally higher among assistant professors and lower among postdoctoral researchers. In addition, salary satisfaction was particularly high among assistant professors and postdoctoral researchers (~75%) in comparison to PhD students (~45%). Most respondents reported being at least somewhat satisfied about their opportunities to follow individual research interests, however satisfaction was lower among late-stage PhD students, with 40% reporting being somewhat or extremely satisfied. Moreover, there were significant differences between the groups in how satisfied they were with the recognition they receive for their work. Just 1 in 5 late PhD students were satisfied with this, while this was approximately 75% of the assistant professors.

Some findings about career perspectives were a cause for concern (also see Figure 4). We found that more than 80% of postdoctoral researchers and late PhD-students worry about the uncertainty of their contract (i.e.  a great deal or a moderate amount), and over 60% of these respondents considered leaving academia due to this uncertainty. Notably, shortly after our data were collected, the new collective labour agreement (CAO) for Dutch universities was published. This new CAO provides increased employment certainty for assistant professors (e.g., a permanent contract after a maximum period of 18 months). We welcome this development as it provides better employment perspectives for an academic career. However, the agreement does not apply to those experiencing the most employment uncertainty: late-PhD students and postdoctoral researchers, and not for young researchers at University Medical Centers (that are under a different CAO). Employment uncertainty is therefore still an area with a lot of room for improvement. Finally, almost 80% of all respondents reported that they would appreciate a diversity of career paths at their institute, while just 35% reported that this diversity was currently present at their institute.

Figure 4. Satisfaction and career perspectives. Respondents judged the extent to which they worried about employment uncertainty, considered leaving academia due to this uncertainty, and would appreciate the existence of more diverse career paths at their institute.

Before moving on to collaborations and funding, we would like to highlight three main take home messages from this section: These findings result in three main take-home messages. Firstly, it shows that there are differences in terms of satisfaction and career perspectives among the different groups of young researchers (PhD, post-doc, assistant professor). Generally, levels of satisfaction were higher among assistant professors and lower among postdoctoral researchers and late-PhD students. While it may suggest that assistant professors have more job security and therefore feel more satisfied, it may also signal to a growing level of dissatisfaction among early career researchers. This requires further evaluation. Secondly,  it is  crucial to put a spotlight on the pressures put on young academics during and after PhD, which is fueled by long working hours, relatively low satisfaction with work and high career uncertainty. Thirdly, young researchers strongly appreciate having more variety in their opportunities to pursue a career in academia, suggesting the urgency of introducing new possibilities of career paths for young researchers.

We will incorporate these findings into the vision and agenda of Young NeurolabNL.

Collaborations and funding

Brain, Cognition and Behaviour is a highly interdisciplinary field with many translational collaborations (fundamental to applied clinical sciences) and combinations of different methods and approaches (e.g., neuroimaging, neurostimulation, or Virtual Reality technology). Respondents were overall satisfied with their collaborations although satisfaction dropped with ‘distance’ to collaborators. It was highest for collaborations at the institute level (~75% indicated to be at least somewhat satisfied) and lowest with for industrial collaborations (<15% indicated to be at least somewhat satisfied). In addition, despite the potential to have high academic and societal impact (see Brain Cognition Behaviour Vision Paper or Hoofdzaken manifest), interdisciplinary collaborations between different fields of expertise seem to be particularly challenging (See Figure 5). Among the top rated challenges in setting-up new collaborations were a lack of time and opportunities, and uncertainty on how to best approach it. In line with this finding, the majority of respondents would appreciate Young NeurolabNL to facilitate networking and collaboration opportunities. Furthermore, assistant professors and postdoctoral researchers face difficulties in procuring funding to set up such new collaborations (~75%), mainly due to a lack of such funding opportunities (See Figure 6). Correspondingly, respondents also noted that there is a lack of team science grants for younger researchers. Unfortunately, despite the recent recognition of the importance of team science and collaborations (in the new Recognition & Reward program) individual excellence is still valued more highly, as seen by the emphasis on individual ‘top talent’ research grants (e.g. Veni, Vidi).  As one of the respondents put it: [There is a] “… lack of funding for interdisciplinary research, or even disciplinary research done in smaller groups. All the money is for very big consortia that are headed by the big chiefs. [There is] … too much focus on personalized grants for young scientist”.

Figure –5. Satisfaction with interdisciplinary collaborators

Figure 6. Funding opportunities as challenge for new collaborations

In line with the findings of this survey, we conclude that there are two key aspects needed to stimulate sustainable interdisciplinary research: a) interdisciplinary, collaborative team-science grants specifically for young researchers, and b) an evaluation structure that rewards collaboration and teamwork within and across institutes. NWO and ZonMW have already stated that they will place greater emphasis on team science and cross-disciplinary collaborations. We welcome this development.

Based on the results of this survey, Young NeurolabNL will strive to lobby for calls for interdisciplinary collaborations targeted at young researchers. Panels or focus groups with our members may help to define the criteria for such calls.

Conclusion

Within the community of young researchers in the field of Brain, Cognition and Behaviour, long working hours and stress seem to be the norm. The level of dissatisfaction with work-life balance seems to become less as career develops (to a permanent position). Interestingly, most respondents were satisfied with working in academia, with relatively high satisfaction with salary as researchers advance towards assistant professors. In addition, higher levels of career development corresponded with high levels of satisfaction with recognition of work (e.g, among assistant professors). Unfortunately, employment uncertainty is alarmingly high in PhD students and postdoctoral researchers. These worries may lead to many talented researchers leaving academia.

Young researchers would particularly appreciate facilitation of networking and collaboration, as well as grants that focus on interdisciplinary team science for younger researchers. Young NeurolabNL will use these answers to create a vision statement that reflects the needs and wishes of young researchers in the field of Brain, Cognition and Behaviour. Lastly, Young NeurolabNL plans  to work with a focus on the identified challenges,  for instance, publishing survey results in a position paper and engaging with policymakers, stakeholders and relevant national organizations (e.g., funding bodies). Additionally, Young NeurolabNL envisions regular events on topics including career path diversity, opportunities outside academia, and setting up collaborations. In this manner, we aim to cater to the needs of young researchers in our field.