Great Science Begins with Nurturing Early-Career Researchers
Graduate students and postdocs endure long hours, low pay, uncertain employment, and inequitable conditions. To foster future innovation, we must build an environment where they thrive in all aspects, including mental health.
I grew up in an academic family, hanging around research labs and even attending scientific symposiums. As a child I would sometimes sit in my European grandparents’ laboratory perusing research dissertations from their students. I knew that my grandparents valued the next generation of scientists tremendously because they often worked long hours to provide students with meaningful training opportunities. My grandparents instilled in me a curiosity for science and the desire to have a positive impact on the world.
With this in mind I pursued a PhD in biochemistry, cell, and developmental biology at a US university. It became clear during graduate school and then postdoctoral training that the more I progressed in my training, and the more pressure there was to produce results, the less time I had to focus on my own well-being and mental health. While conducting research in the laboratory as a graduate student and then as a postdoctoral fellow, I struggled to meet all the demands placed on my time and ultimately my mental health suffered; what’s more, I knew it would take many years for my research to even see the light of day. My fellow PhDs and I were all overachievers, and the competition was palpable both within and outside of the laboratory. I knew that in the long term it would be a battle to stay afloat in this environment, and my instincts were supported by a 2014 study that found there was only one tenure-track job for every 6.3 biomedical PhD graduates.
Although I remained interested in the discoveries I could make as a young scientist, I reverted to what my grandparents had taught me about scientific research and the training of students. I started exploring how the scientific enterprise could be centered around creating an environment where early-career researchers can thrive. As a former trainee, I have worked to address the power dynamics in universities from the bottom-up, but now I have shifted toward a top-down approach by appealing to federal agencies and influencing legislation at the national level to support graduate students and postdoctoral researchers in the university system.
The large number of science graduate students and postdocs in the United States are a result of Vannevar Bush’s foundational vision that he outlined as presidential science adviser. In 1945, Bush suggested using scholarships and fellowships to educate promising students and connect science to society while developing the nation’s knowledge base. That model has thrived in the United States and has been used as a template in other countries.
But today the focus on early-career researchers feels diminished. With federal funding, graduate students and postdoctoral researchers make up a significant part of the academic science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) workforce, particularly in the field of biomedicine. Yet their needs—a basic standard of living, workplace protections, the training and mentoring necessary to find employment in academia and industry—are not adequately addressed by policymakers, funders, and universities themselves.
To put early-career researchers at the center of the scientific training experience, several interlocking steps are necessary. Reforms are needed to the way that graduate students and postdocs are paid, trained, mentored, and prepared for employment so that their needs are met and they are equipped to contribute to society. In addition, the issue of mental health among early-career researchers needs to be addressed—both studies and anecdotal evidence suggest this is a significant and urgent problem.
Even before the disruptions of the pandemic, multiple studies suggested that the mental health and well-being of the country’s early-career researchers are at risk. In 2018, an often-cited study published in Nature Biotechnology found that graduate students and postdocs had six times the rate of mental health problems compared with the general population. This study included nearly 2,300 doctoral and master’s degree students from 26 countries and found that 40% of those surveyed reported moderate to severe anxiety, and nearly 40% had moderate to severe depression. A 2014 University of California, Berkeley, study evaluated 43% to 46% of graduate students in the biosciences as depressed based on their responses to a survey.
In 2019, Nature surveyed over 6,000 PhD students worldwide from a variety of scientific fields and found that 36% of them had sought help for mental health issues. These mental health issues are “driven, in part, by the immense pressure on academic scientists to win funding, publish, and land jobs in a brutally competitive market,” Katia Levecque, then a postdoc and now an assistant professor at Ghent University in Belgium, told Nature.
The COVID-19 pandemic appears to have further exacerbated the stresses experienced by research trainees. A 2020 study funded by the National Science Foundation surveyed 3,500 graduate students at 12 US public research universities in the summer of 2020 and found that, of those surveyed, 32% had symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, 33% had moderate or higher levels of anxiety, 34% had moderate or higher levels of depression, and 67% experienced low well-being. More than one quarter of these students also indicated some level of food or housing insecurity, or both.
It is clear that more data are needed to fully assess the severity of students’ mental health-related issues, how these issues vary among research disciplines, and how they impact other aspects of life and work for early-career researchers. Aside from these urgent mental health issues, early-career researchers also experience significant challenges arising from the academic system itself and their relatively powerless position within it.
Because there are many more trainees than available academic positions, hypercompetition is a symptom of the system—a system that is in “perpetual disequilibrium,” wrote Bruce Alberts, Marc W. Kirschner, Shirley Tilghman, and Harold Varmus in an article on the subject in 2014. This pressure-cooker atmosphere has multiple negative effects on trainees, who report working very long hours, being anxious about publication, and feeling that their job prospects are limited if they do not contribute to work published in high-impact journals.
Anecdotally, this stress adds up. “Maybe being told day in, day out that the work you spend 10+ hrs a day, 6–7 days a week on isn’t good enough,” wrote one young researcher to Nature in a post on Twitter, is part of the problem. Another complained of “indentured servitude with no hope of a career at the end,” particularly when it comes to finding a job in academia.
Whether or not the stress of this hypercompetition precipitates a mental health issue in an individual, the need to find a career outside of academia can be extremely difficult for some researchers. A study that interviewed 97 postdocs from across STEM fields at 5 major US research institutions found that 20% faced an “existential” crisis as they came to realize that they would not be able to get academic jobs. First-generation students, students from underrepresented groups, and foreign-born students often face additional physical, emotional, and psychological challenges and stress in this transition to non-academic jobs.
Additionally, many postdocs face low pay. Postdoc salaries vary widely, with an annual median pay of $47,500—though some make minimum wage. A 2019 study found that women tended to make less than men in some parts of the country. Such relatively low pay, and its inequitable distribution, can discourage anyone from a disadvantaged background—as well as those with families to support—from pursuing advanced research opportunities. This self-exclusion leads to a further weakening of diversity in science, which handicaps the STEM workforce.
Another hurdle for early-career researchers is the informal “mini-me” aspect of current postdoc training. Today, faculty members mentor trainees to follow in their footsteps into academia, but there are rarely any formal resources available to help trainees transition into nonacademic (e.g., industry) positions, which are more available. This lack of structure is further complicated by the increasingly long periods of time that individuals spend in postdoctoral training.
A 2021 study of STEM graduates from 1950 to 2013 found that during the study period, the time required to get a STEM PhD has increased from 5.8 years to 8 years. A postdoc position, on average, adds another 2.7 years to this training time—and this extended period of academic limbo ultimately reduces average lifetime earnings.
Finally, the power dynamics of the current training model put early-career researchers at a disadvantage, sometimes leading to sexual harassment and bullying, particularly for women in science. This issue is described in the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine’s 2018 report on sexual harassment in academia, which concludes that the organizational climate is the single most important factor in determining whether sexual harassment is likely to occur. Although some efforts have been made to increase transparency around laboratory environments, this is another instance where cases are often underreported, and more data are needed to illustrate the full extent of the situation. Change regarding sexual harassment and bullying in academia will require a policy of zero tolerance and accountability not only at the university level but also in the wider ecosystem of science and research.
At multiple levels we are failing to support the next generation of scientists. Not only is this deficiency hurting early-career researchers, but it is also diminishing the pool of individuals who have been trained to innovate and solve the problems of society. We need to invest now in scientific talent and shift the culture of science to one centered on graduate students and postdocs. They are the future of the scientific enterprise. Supporting the needs, including mental health, of trainees requires policy changes to shift the environment in which they work.
The training system itself needs reform, which will require policymakers, funders, universities, and individual researchers to act together. With other colleagues, and under the auspices of the Future of Research (a nonprofit focused on early-career researchers), I have previously outlined several important steps. These include:
- establishing transparent salaries and benefits;
- creating clear guidelines and timelines for PhD and postdoctoral training;
- offering career and professional development resources;
- requiring that academic mentors are trained in their responsibilities;
- facilitating peer support; and
- creating a system where early-career researchers have multiple mentors.
Beyond these baseline changes, however, there is a need to take action to create a more positive and welcoming environment for trainees so that they thrive, rather than merely survive.
Funding agencies should reward universities that demonstrate positive environments as a result of studies showing their early-career researchers are thriving. Evidence of attention to these researchers’ mental health and well-being should be conditions for principal investigator (PI) grant funding. In this manner, demonstrated attention to mental health and well-being will result in professional rewards for both early-career researchers and faculty members. In addition, legislators should direct federal agencies to fund programs that reward mental health support for graduate students and postdocs via their PIs’ grants, or provide professional development funding supplements as outlined in this recent STEM pipeline amendment that I drafted, which was offered by Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-CA) and subsequently included in the National Science Foundation for the Future Act.
Universities are another key player. The National Academies’ 2021 report on mental health recommends that universities create the necessary infrastructure by which faculty can support early-career researchers, develop mentor training programs, and enact policy changes to accommodate the mental health needs of trainees. These policy changes could a) allow for activities that support trainee mental health to be considered in faculty promotion and tenure decisions; or b) provide faculty with financial assistance to cover mental health services for their graduate students and postdocs. Performing regular assessments of the campus climate could help establish and maintain such initiatives in universities.
Mentors themselves play a powerful role in determining that campus climate. One of my favorite examples of a positive environment is that of the Horsley Laboratory at Yale University, whose PI, Valerie Horsley, clearly states that both good science plus personal growth and mentoring are key values in her laboratory. The lab has created a handbook, which is publicly available, that describes and provides examples of these values.
In addition, a constellation of other groups is advancing an agenda to change the status of mental health on campuses and in laboratory spaces. Nonprofits such as Dragonfly Mental Health are surveying the present landscape with the goal of motivating universities to enact change through research studies, consulting services, and supportive networking sessions. A survey from the Council of Graduate Schools also addresses the need to include mental health training in orientation sessions for new faculty members, and to prioritize mentoring as central to how early-career researchers are treated in laboratories.
My hope is that these multiple efforts build a climate on campus and in research laboratories that provides early-career researchers with the resources needed to become a positive force in the world. It is a moral as well as a strategic failing to view training and well-being for the nation’s future scientists and innovators as an afterthought on the way to making great scientific discoveries. As my grandparents’ experience taught me, the path to great science is through caring for and nurturing the people who do it.