OPINION | It has been hard to find a silver lining lately

OPINION | It has been hard to find a silver lining lately

This week another one of my PhD students will submit their thesis. For those not in the know, a PhD, and the title of Dr, is the culmination of at least three years of research and (sometimes literal) blood, sweat and tears.

Finishing a PhD is a cause for celebration, but as a supervisor these are becoming bittersweet moments. Why? Because while the PhD might be over, the challenge of forging a career in science is only just beginning.

Being an early career researcher is, to put it bluntly, bloody hard. Competition for jobs is fierce, and most are short-term contracts, not permanent positions.

Early career scientists often have to move across the country, or around the world, to secure work. And even once a job is secured, the pressure isn't off.

There is a saying in research that you must "publish or perish", with researchers under pressure to publish as many papers as possible, to be competitive for funding, and for the next job application.

Speaking of funding, research in Australia is heavily dependent on government funding.

Competition for that funding is intense, and early career researchers tend to come out on the bottom (even more so for women than men). Take, for example, the Australian Research Council grants announced last week: early career researchers shared around 21 per cent of the funding while more than 40 per cent was taken home by senior-level men.

Given all of that, it's perhaps no wonder that a survey carried out during 2019 found four out of five early-career researchers have considered leaving science or their jobs.

This year, with COVID hitting, things have become even tougher. Universities have been slashing staff, with estimates that as many as 21,000 jobs could be gone. A report from the Chief Scientists office suggests that early-career researchers, and women, will be disproportionately affected by these losses.

My regular readers will know I generally like to put a positive spin on things, but, to be honest, it's been tough to find the silver linings lately. I look around at the science community and find we're all stressed, and anxious about what the future might hold.

If we've learnt anything from COVID, surely it's an appreciation for the importance of science. I can only hope that, eventually, that will translate into fairer funding models and better job security. And, for the students who are graduating, the chance to craft long and successful careers in science.

Dr Mary McMillan is a senior lecturer at the School of Science and Technology, University of New England.