How do early career researchers at BSS do 1,5 years into the pandemic?
In March 2020, the pandemic led to the closure of the university and subsequently to a transition to online teaching, supervision, and virtual work. This has now been endured for almost two years and university staff at all levels have invested a lot of time and energy and continued to offer education. A year ago, YESS BSS (a network that aims to be a voice for early career researchers at the Faculty of Behavioural and Social Sciences) conducted a survey on how early career researchers experience the situation. We repeated the survey in April 2021 and expanded the survey to learn more about ECRs current but also future-oriented concerns.
Similar to last year, we invited early career researchers in the BSS faculty to participate in the follow-up questionnaire and 32 responded (app. 30% response rate). The majority of respondents were assistant professors (59%), followed by associate professors (16%) and postdoctoral researchers (13%). 55% of respondents indicated that they hold a temporary position and 47% are in the tenure track. The vast majority of respondents (81%) work at full capacity and work overtime. Some respondents indicated that they manage to complete their work without overtime (30%) with the remaining number of early career researchers working a high number of additional hours per week; 44% work between 3 to 9 additional hours per week, 26% work between 10 to 40 hours in addition to their contractual hours.
Based on the survey responses, we identified work-life balance, lack of social interactions, difficulty to focus, increased work hours and workload, lack of stimulation, creativity, and motivation, and a general sense of work being less enjoyable to be the biggest concerns of ECRs. We elaborate further on struggles with work-life balance and the lack of enjoyment as these two areas stood out in particular.
“Almost all ECRs report that the situation has decreased their research productivity. The reasons range from caring for children at home, to difficulty concentrating, to teaching taking up all of the time.”
Given the situation (e.g., increased workload, having children at home while working for weeks indefinitely, lack of interactions with colleagues or friends), it is not surprising that ECRs experience work-life balance as a struggle. ECRs with children or other caring responsibilities find it difficult to navigate the work demands while they need to simultaneously attend to children’s needs. These requirements to switch back and forth between work tasks and caring responsibilities are an immense additional burden. ECRs without children struggle with work-life balance as well; they find it difficult to detach from work because of the never-ending inflow of work tasks and a lack of attractive leisure activities (e.g., closed sport centers). In last year’s survey, mostly ECRs with caring responsibilities indicated that the additional burden hampers their research productivity. This year, we see that almost all ECRs report that the situation has decreased their research productivity. The reasons range from caring for children at home to teaching taking up all of the time. Many also mention difficulties to concentrate either because of the situation at home and/or worries and stress.
A notion that has been shared across different ECR groups is that work is just generally less enjoyable. ECRs report that teaching eats up all of their time while teaching itself has become less rewarding and enjoyable in the online context. After a lecture, ECRs do not feel as energized as they usually do and it is hard to get a sense of meaning and impact. This situation is particularly alarming. A vast body of scientific literature demonstrates that periods of intense workload can be tolerated as long as employees perceive some rewards and meaning to it. If there is an imbalance between the invested efforts and the perceived rewards, as it is the case here, risks for well-being and health impairments are very high.
“ECRs share the notion that work is just generally less enjoyable.”
Three areas for improvement
Three areas for improvement emerged from the survey: Support, teaching load, and career opportunities.
ECRs who feel supported are more likely to enjoy work and are better able to endure the challenging working circumstances brought by the pandemic. The good news is that the majority (68%) of ECRs indicated that they can count on their supervisor/manager for support when they need it, but only 29% of all ECR indicated that their supervisor proactively contacted them to offer support or check in how they are doing.
ECRs mentioned the following types of support that was useful to them:
– Quick responses to emails
– Emotional support (e.g., clear signs of understanding and empathy)
– Informal meetings which allowed ECRs to exchange their views and needs with other ECRs and their supervisor
However, 20% shared that they hardly received any support. This is a substantial share of ECRs who have to deal with the challenges by themselves. The survey suggests that this group is mainly suffering from the extensive teaching and the incompatibility of the heavy workload with private life. A notion that has been shared by ECRs with and without support is the feeling that senior colleagues and management do not take the situation of ECRs seriously and underestimate the impact of the pandemic-related measures on a group that generally has a lower status, less security, and competing work and private demands.
“ECRs feel that senior colleagues and management underestimate the impact of the pandemic-related measures on a group that generally has a lower status, less security, and competing work and private demands.”
ECRs would find it helpful if supervisors and managers proactively contact them and offer emotional but also concrete, tangible support. Especially in the area of lost research time, ECRs would like to see some efforts for compensation (e.g., via contract extensions, fewer teaching obligations, adjusted performance criteria). In addition, informal meetings within the research group could help navigate uncertainties.
The large majority of ECRs emphasized the extensive teaching load which has increased during the pandemic due to online teaching and the influx of students. Courses had to be restructured and online exams required additional investments such as creating multiple new exam versions or changing the exam mode completely to avoid fraud. Although several departments have offered student assistants as support, ECRs note that this generally increased workload even further for them. For example, some ECRs had to organize the recruitment, training, and management of the student assistants. As a result of these issues, a large proportion of ECRs indicated that they do not enjoy teaching anymore. This is alarming for two reasons. First, teachers’ motivation directly affects the teaching quality. Our students, who already suffer extensively due to the closing of the university, are faced with teachers who do not enjoy their work anymore. Second, the heavy time and resource investment described above does not pay off and leaves ECRs just drained and worried about their future. The increased teaching load and loss of enjoyment amplify the above-mentioned issues of loneliness and burden among parents.
ECRs mention the following areas that would help them dealing with the teaching load:
– Qualified teaching, research, and administrative support. Teaching assistants are often unreliable and require a lot of training; efforts that need to be repeated every semester. ECRs now cover tasks that could be done by support staff if they themselves would not be understaffed.
– Strategic solution how to deal with the student-to-staff ratio instead of yearly ad-hoc, short-term solutions.
– Getting time back. The prospect of getting at least some of the time that has been invested back would feel fair to ECRs who do not have the luxury of tenure and an established academic career yet.
ECRs have shared a variety of serious concerns about their professional and personal future. Such concerns were already present during the first survey with ECRs sharing that they are worried about meeting their (short-term) performance goals. It appears these worries have amplified and became more pressing over the year. While work-life balance was a major struggle early on in the pandemic, an issue that has not disappeared, career-related worries and stressors seem much more pressing now. Many ECRs (66%) feel they were unable to develop their skills and expertise, opportunities that are especially important at early career stages to be able to set oneself apart from others and become a successful academic.
“While work-life balance was a major struggle early on in the pandemic, an issue that has not disappeared, career-related worries and stressors seem much more pressing now.”
Another area of concern is visibility. The lack of social interaction not only comes with a feeling of low stimulation and inspiration, many ECRs do not feel seen. ECRs are in the process of building their professional network, but with academic conferences being cancelled or held virtually, opportunities for interactions, especially with more senior researchers, are difficult, awkward or just impossible. Similarly, at the local level, many ECRs feel they are not seen in their departments. This is further amplified for new colleagues who joined either right before or during the pandemic. This general feeling of a lack of visibility raises worries about contributing enough to the group and meeting the performance expectations. It is important for employees to know that their efforts are recognized to stay motivated and healthy.
ECRs generally expressed many concerns regarding the impact of the pandemic-related measures on their career progression. A group of ECRs raised concerns about not being recognized for the additional work that they invested in teaching at the cost of research. The current tenure track criteria heavily focus on meeting publication and grant-related performance criteria, but the situation did not allow to invest time and energy into research. Similarly, ECRs in a temporary position are worried that their willingness to help the faculty with the increased teaching load will make them less competitive when they look for a new position outside of BSS and apply for funding. Some researchers who managed to fulfill their teaching duties and collect some data online, stressed that this came at the expense of their mental health (e.g., anxiety).
Official communication of creative initiatives and revised official policy that offer some relief (e.g., contract extensions, tenure track extensions) would go a long way to ease some of the career concerns. In addition, such initiatives would demonstrate appreciation for the invested efforts, communicate to ECRs that the investment was not just at their own expense, and that they currently do not need to fulfill all three roles (i.e., being a teacher, researcher, and manager) at the price of their own health.
Some ECRs mentioned that they understand that senior colleagues and management are not miracle workers and that they themselves are also impacted by the pandemic. However, they also would like senior management and colleagues to acknowledge that the current situation is hard, especially for ECRs who typically do not have the same infrastructure, network, and security as senior researchers do. As one respondent put it: “If senior management and colleagues would stop “making lemonade” of the lemon-situation. In other words, if those in power would acknowledge how difficult it is instead of repeatedly pretending or trying to convince [us] that it’s all not so bad.”
“A striking conclusion is that the concerns that have been raised a year ago, especially in the areas of mental health and research progress, have further escalated.”
A striking conclusion is that the concerns that have been raised a year ago, especially in the areas of mental health and research progress, have further escalated. ECRs rose to the occasion and fulfilled the increased demand for teaching. The support ECRs gave to the university to navigate the crisis are experienced as somewhat one-sided and ECRs need more concrete initiatives and acknowledgement that go beyond individual solutions, the reliance on the relationship with the direct supervisor, and emotional support. This is particularly pressing since the issues raised by ECRs in this survey will have long-lasting implications for the motivation, performance, and mental health of ECRs, their groups, and the faculty. We believe it is time to think big and to take the whole system into consideration, instead of individual solutions that further alienate ECRs and run the risk of creating unfair conditions.
Response to the survey from the Faculty Board: “First, we want to thank YESS-BSS for conducting this survey once again. We have discussed the results within the Faculty Board and with the Directors of Education. The second ECR survey during COVID-19 shows that most of respondents have somehow coped with the consequences of the pandemic – but at serious costs. They work longer hours, spend relatively more time on teaching at the expense of their research, and experience a growing disbalance between work and private life.
Last year we praised the enormous and successful efforts of all colleagues in our faculty in transforming practically all of our academic work to online and at-home versions. We can only repeat and amplify this praise here, while at the same time being more alert than ever to signals of those side-effects. All staff members should feel at home in their group and in the faculty, but the faculty and group should not crowd out your private life.
The summary of the ECR survey mentions three recommendations for supervisors, directors, and the Faculty Board: active support in response to new and often extra activities required by the pandemic; reduction of the teaching load; and acknowledgement of the consequences of the pandemic for individual career opportunities. These recommendations are justified and realistic. The first requires that those with supervising tasks actively recognize the good work that is being done. Also, supervisors have an important task in making arrangements with their staff about hybrid working. Some reduction of the increased teaching load will hopefully be accomplished soon with the extra funding for teaching through recent national and local initiatives (the faculty is currently hiring dozens of extra staff). The effects of the pandemic on individual careers have our full attention, and where necessary and possible the strict time-lines in our personnel policies are adjusted. The academic career paths in our faculty are also being reconsidered in the light of the current Recognition and Reward debate in Dutch universities (Erkennen en waarderen).”
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