Getting an Academic Research Position: Challenges Faced by Researchers

By: Una Farr, Tue Jun 13 2023
Una Farr

Author: Una Farr

There are many challenges facing those wanting a career in research, both when it comes to applying for a new research position and advancing a career to the next step. As is the case with most career pathways, getting an academic research position requires an array of specialised skills and competencies.

The importance of developing these skills is well-recognised in institutional communities. In a 2022 survey of researchers and the budget holders for research training (n=485), almost all participants (around 97%) agreed that having the right skills is essential to both getting an academic research position and advancing their research career.

The survey, which was used to develop the new Nature Masterclasses online course, ‘Getting an academic research position’, also highlighted some of the key barriers researchers are looking to overcome in this area, and how institutions can support their development.

As a continuation of our series on researcher training needs, in this blog post we explore the survey findings in more detail.

Getting a research position

The first hurdle when looking for a job can simply be finding a suitable position. An Associate Professor/Lecturer in the Clinical sciences highlighted this difficulty:

“The main issue is that researchers don’t even know where and how to look for a job they may also have an aptitude for… Many brilliant minds lose their opportunity [because] they are not even able to see that opportunity.”

The survey results supported this observation. A little more than half (52%) of researchers thought that knowing what jobs were available to them was a main challenge, and knowing about available positions or labs that suited their skills was the most popular response when respondents were asked to pick just one topic that was most important to learn more about (29%).

Even once this problem is overcome, many researchers also acknowledged logistical issues when applying for a job, including adapting a CV to a particular job (47%) and knowing what the application process is in each country (42%). And the difficulties do not end with a successful invitation to interview; rather for half of researchers this is something else they would want to learn more about given the opportunity with a careers advisor.

In an open follow-up question (n=129), the issue raised most often by researchers was ‘competition’ (15%). As one research manager in the biomedical sciences put it:

“The crowded academic market, the intense competition for jobs is the main problem with finding an academic job.”

Advancing a career

Similar pain-points were also observed by researchers when trying to take their career to the next level, with around three quarters of researchers stating that they found advancing their career to be challenging (76%).

Skills development and understanding were amongst the most frequently recognised issues. Half of researchers identified the difficulty of understanding what skills are required for career progression (50%) and even more acknowledged the challenge of managing workload training and/or skill development (62%).

In a world where collaboration is more important than ever, a majority of researchers (54%) also recognised building a network for collaboration as a barrier to advancing their career. A substantial proportion of researchers recognised identifying potential collaborations (43%) and establishing and maintaining collaborative relationships (42%) as top priorities if they had one hour to talk to a career advisor about advancing their career.

Traditional indicators of academic success also continue to be seen as important, with securing funding (46%) and achieving publication in relevant journals (46%) as top priorities for researchers to learn about. 

Disconnect between researchers and budget holders

Many of the differences between researchers and budget holders are minor rather than statistically significant, however, budget holders are significantly less likely to think researchers found getting a job or advancing a career to be a challenge, indicating that they may underestimate the needs of their researchers. Whereas three quarters of researchers thought getting a job is difficult (75%), just over half of budget holders thought their researchers found getting a job difficult (58%). Similarly, the challenge of researchers advancing their career was less likely to be recognized by budget holders (61%) than researchers (76%).

One of the other significant differences between the two groups was the fact that budget holders were more likely to report that understanding the requirements of the job was an issue for their researchers (44%) than the researchers themselves (27%). This may be due to researchers being earlier in their career and so have had less experience with the difficulties of getting a job, as well as a potential disconnect between researchers’ understanding of requirements and what is expected of them by budget holders.

Supporting researchers

Helping researchers to find the right job and progress through their research careers is important to researchers, their institutions, and the process of scientific discovery, but as the survey findings show, researchers face many challenges along the way. The Nature Masterclasses course ‘Getting an academic research position’ is designed to help researchers in the natural sciences to overcome some of the obstacles and help researchers to take their next career step.

The course can help researchers understand how to overcome some of the hurdles discussed, from finding the right position to sending applications that highlight their strongest attributes and qualities, while continuing to present themselves authentically and effectively.

You can find out more about the course, license the course for your researchers, and get a free sample, on the Nature Masterclasses website.

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Una Farr

Author: Una Farr

Una Farr, a tech-curious Senior Content Marketing Manager based in London, delves into AI and research management on her blog, "The Continuing Rise of Collaboration". With a passion for empowering research administrators, librarians, and information professionals, she explores new trends and insights to foster knowledge sharing in the research community.