Careers in academia: the good, the bad and the ugly

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Having worked as an independent group leader in Germany for the last few years, I have come face-to-face with the good but also the not so great aspects of the academic research world. There are many things to like about academia, including complete freedom to pursue your research of choice, and a fascinating work environment with passionate colleagues. However, in my opinion, there are still several aspects that need to be improved upon in order to achieve a better work environment, which will hopefully help attract and retain more brilliant young minds in the future. Here, I briefly discuss some of my main concerns about scientific research today and what, in my opinion, can be done to improve upon the current situation.

Constant worry about the future

The great uncertainty regarding my future in academia, especially as a group leader, is always lingering in the back of my mind. Even after showing ‘academic success’ in measurable terms as in the number of well-received publications and grants, there is a real danger of having to find a new job and re-establish your lab elsewhere in the future. As an immigrant scientist, it is quite challenging having to start a new life repeatedly nearly every five years after completing your PhD. This is my personal opinion and experience; it may be different in other Universities and/or for other individuals. Luckily, I have two very encouraging directors who support us so that we can stay at the CMMC (Center for Molecular Medicine) in Cologne for a little longer. It would provide greater peace of mind if a tenure track was laid down with set milestones from the side of the University so as to level the playing field and make things more transparent – this is currently lacking. A longer-term academic prospect would allow us to work towards long-term goals. We complain that the interest in academic science among the brightest of our students is decreasing, but we cannot sustainably attract the top talents if we do not offer them the right conditions to thrive.

Lack of gender equality and diversity

In my view, we are still far behind in establishing gender equality, diversity and representation. In our work environment, there is still less than a 30% female representation at the group leader (Asst. Professor) level, and even smaller percentage at the higher levels. Another glaring matter is the lack of other diversity and representation. In most of our labs, more than half of our students and trainees are non-Europeans. These hard-working students play a monumental role in our success and our University's success. However, their representation is severely lacking at the faculty level, even in comparison to Universities in the USA. To support our claims that we would like to provide equal opportunities in the academic environment we need to try harder, because currently I believe that we are still failing miserably. We only see diversity and representation on a superficial level, in leaflets and other material printed yearly for promotional purposes, but not really in practice. Hopefully, this will improve, at least for the future generation of scientists. 

Lack of emphasis on basic research

Recently, I have noted that there is an unhealthy emphasis on ‘applied’ research, nearly ignoring the merits of basic research. The recent decisions to cut down funding in basic research by the European Research Council (ERC), is a good example of this. Simultaneously, currently flourishing research communities, for example in China, have substantially increased basic research funding and are offering better working conditions and job security. The result of this is evident from the increasing number of top ranked institutes/universities as well as from the near-exponentially increasing number of innovative and highly cited research articles arising from these places. If this trend continues, we may lose our strategic position in the research landscape and face a brain drain. We need to remind ourselves that without strong basic research, there will be nothing to ‘apply’.

All in all, I believe that by better focusing on consistency in the support for fundamental research, representation and job security we could significantly improve the bioscience research landscape for the future generation of scientists.


Top image in post: Tumisu/Pixabay

Leo Kurian

Group Leader, Institute for Neurophysiology/ Center for Molecular Medicine Cologne/CECAD, University of Cologne, Germany

Our lab is interested in understanding the basic molecular rules by which a cell defines and maintains its identity and function. Our main focus is on understanding the molecular basis of programming and reprogramming of cell-fate decisions during embryogenesis, homeostasis, and aging. Additionally, we focus on devising molecular strategies to ‘hack’ these genetic networks that program cell-fates to induce regenerative responses upon injury.