Big Ideas event in the ACT – Is Australia producing too many PhDs?

Thanks to Toss Gascoigne and Ian McDonald for providing this information. 

Long hours, short-term contracts, uncertain employment, and cut-throat competition for grants, fellowships and positions. The work may be on interesting and important issues and the company stimulating, but for many the reality of a career in research isn’t so rosy.

This event was held yesterday – we look forward to hearing the reviews.

ABOUT the event

Paul Barclay, presenter and series producer of Big Ideas on ABC Radio National.

Paul Barclay, presenter and series producer of Big Ideas on ABC Radio National.

In 2012, the Department of Industry, Innovation, Science, Research and Tertiary Education commissioned the Australian Council of Learned Academies to investigate the career pathway for researchers in Australia.

Science communication consultant Mr Toss Gascoigne was asked to conduct the survey and draft the report, Career support for researchers: Understanding needs and developing a best practice approach [external link, 997 KB PDF], which highlighted job insecurity as the number one problem facing Australian researchers.

Join our panel of experts as they discuss the pros and cons of getting a PhD, and explore a best practice approach to how the career pathway of researchers might be improved.

Mr Paul Barclay, the host of ABC Radio National’s Big Ideas program, will be facilitating the panel discussion.

Our speakers include:

  • Mr Toss Gascoigne – Author, Australian Council of Learned Academies report, Career Support for Researchers
  • Professor Aidan Byrne – CEO, Australian Research Council
  • Dr Marguerite Evans-Galea – Chair, Early-Mid Career Researcher Forum (an initiative of the Australian Academy of Science)
  • Ms Melanie Hand – PhD student, Dairy Futures Cooperative Research Centre (CRC).

Report findings

The 1203 researchers who participated in an online survey and focus group discussions say the best thing about a career in research is working on interesting and important issues, and working in a stimulating environment.

Respondents say that best thing about a career in research is working on interesting and important issues, and working in a stimulating environment.

They appreciate the PhD program, which supports students as they work through their training; they feel encouraged to take up post-doctoral appointments; and they value the mentoring provided formally or informally by their institutions or their workplace.

Questions regarding the adequacy of salaries and assistance available to women re-entering the workforce draw mixed responses, rather more negative than positive.

On the less positive side are job security, uncertainty of funding and workload.

Almost universally, respondents to the survey like their work but not the employment system in which they work. For many the reality is seen as a frustrating round of chasing grants and fellowships while trying to write papers and (for some) manage a heavy teaching load.

Respondents say solutions to these matters require:

  • a greater investment in the system
  • more funding for fellowships and grants
  • more funding for universities so they can ‘carry’ researchers over the lean times between winning grants
  • more time to allow early career researchers to publish and establish themselves
  • more support to reduce work loads in the mature stages of a career.

This event is proudly brought to you by Australian Science Communicators [external link] and Inspiring Australia – a national strategy for engagement with the sciences[external link].