Supporting the next generation of researchers


The workplace for early-career researchers in STEMM is highly competitive.

Supporting early-career researchers (ECRs) by providing greater job security and a better pathway for flexible working will help attract and retain more females in science, technology, engineering, mathematics and medicine (STEMM) careers, a study by Federation University Australia researchers has found.

Dr Kate Christian, who led the study, said international research and interviews with Australian ECR's who had left their research careers, found a series of challenges for young female researchers, including gender discrimination, a lack of female role models, and an apparent reluctance to put themselves forward. Having children also had an impact on the number of female researchers changing their career paths.

"The workplace for early-career researchers in STEMM is highly competitive. ECRs urgently need to publish and attract funding to secure their next job, and the literature suggests this environment is more difficult for women than for men," Dr Christian said.

"Females start the postdoctoral period in equal numbers, but more women leave academia than men, and women are also under-represented at the senior levels."

Dr Christian said there is a clear need for greater job security and a better pathway for flexible working so women and their partners are not disadvantaged by focusing on caregiver responsibilities at some life stages.

"This cultural shift would certainly lead to benefit for all ECRs and to attracting and retaining women in STEMM in line with current efforts," Dr Christian said.

"We found that people stay in science despite encountering significant difficulties for two clear reasons — because they love science and because they want to make a difference. In some recent explorations of the data, I have found that the need to make a difference appears to be much stronger in women than in men."

Dean of the Graduate Research School Professor Wendy Wright, who contributed to the research, said Federation was taking a leading role in helping female researchers overcome barriers to establish a successful academic research career.

"It's very meaningful for me to be involved in this area, including participating in a recent Academic Promotions for Women Information Session, where I spoke about some of these issues," Professor Wright said.

"Our researchers have identified that there has been a problem across the world, and working in academia isn't all that easy, but we are also working towards solutions to this issue."

Professor Wright said she often shared her experiences in establishing her academic career. This included participating in the Women Attaining Leadership (WATTLE) program to continue to develop her skills.

She also had several tips for researchers at the start of their careers.

"This includes working with others and getting a mentor. Don't try and do everything on your own,” Professor Wright said.

"Another point is to recognise and consciously dismiss the 'imposter syndrome'. Many people, including many women, may doubt that they belong in a senior position and at times feel that they are just not good enough. These doubts and feelings are not based on evidence and are often quite untrue.

"And I always say to anyone who is beginning to doubt their career choice to remember why they got involved in the first place and return to that, to ask themselves why have they become a researcher, or why are they in academia.

"For me, it's the ability to make a difference. If I'm having a bad day, I just have to remember that it's OK, and in this job, I make a difference."