Oct 092012
 

Science has changed. From a vocation to a career path and to the detriment of the subject, according to some observers. From an amusement of the few to an important economic factor and to the benefit of society, according to others. Yet, one thing seems to be clear: Scientists have been irrevocably expelled from the ivory tower.

Back in the old days when words like grant proposal or publication record did not yet exist, the proverbial mad scientists delved into their piece of research, but did not care about the things that happened around them. They gained exciting insights, but did not bother anyone  else with it. Their opportunities were limited, but they were satisfied with them. In contrast, today’s scientists find themselves thrown into an ocean of endless possibilities where they are exposed to the chill wind of competition and hit from every angle by waves like third-party funding, mid-term evaluation, or the particularly notorious h-index.

This essay is not about the question if the time referred to in the first picture has ever existed or if it is just the manifestation of a desire. Nor will we judge if the second picture represents an adequate description of contemporary science. Instead, we seek to present some impressions from the ocean out there, to use the same metaphor as before. For “Science under Pressure”, the overriding topic of this issue of JUnQ, has not only political, cultural, and social implications, but carries a human aspect as well. This latter aspect is most difficult to catch as it can hardly be operationalized or discussed in abstract terms. It can, however, be put into concrete terms based on the experiences of concrete people. How do the people out there set their course? Do they long to return into the ivory tower or do they feel comfortable with their situation? Do they feel intimidated by the waves they encounter or do they enjoy riding them?

To learn about the impact of pressure on young researchers, we interviewed Professor Luka-Krausgrill who is director of the psychotherapeutic service center (PSC)(In German: Psychotherapeutische Beratungsstelle (PBS)) at the University of Mainz. Right at the outset, she points out that pressure is ubiquitous: “In a competition-based society like ours, individuals experience pressure on many levels and for various reasons”, she explains. “Our focus here at the PSC is on undergraduate students. Yet, 6.5% of our clients, about 50 people per year, are Ph.D. students and scientists pursuing a Habilitation.” This latter group, i.e., young scientists, faces multiple challenges: They need to conduct excellent research, teach students, acquire funding, and publish high-quality manuscripts, just to name a few tasks, without being guaranteed a permanent position. Hence, it may take a certain amount of courage to pursue a career in science given the high degree of uncertainty. However, Prof. Luka-Krausgrill advises against singling out science in this regard. “Being put under pressure is not a phenomenon limited to the scientific community and it is not always something negative. Self-created positive pressure can help in keeping track of personal long-term goals. The important thing is to identify these long-term goals and to have a clear idea of the driving forces. This holds especially true for young people at the outset of their career whether in science or other fields”, Prof. Luka-Krausgrill continues. No matter what someone sets course for, he will run into heavy sea sooner or later. How to stay the course and how to cope with defeat under such circumstances, are the crucial questions according to Prof. Luka-Krausgrill and her answer is simple but not easy at all: It is only the intrinsic motivation that keeps people going. Yet, this motivation does not come for free, it must be maintained and cultivated.

It seems that seafaring is not for landsmen. But are scientists really so tough that they can stand the pressure piled on them? At least, our second interviewee probably is: Michaela,(real name
withheld) a physicist who currently holds a junior professorship,(an institution started in 2002 in Germany). This is a 6-year time-limited professorship for promising young scholars which has been introduced as a replacement for the Habilitation. Unlike in the tenure track schemes used, e.g., in the USA, the employing university is not supposed to offer tenure, instead junior professors are expected to apply for professorships at other universities.} emphasizes her genuine interest in and motivation for science. “The strongest pressure I feel stems from science itself”, Michaela explains. “This is what pushed me to pursue a scientific career. In my current position as a junior professor I can freely decide which projects I want to tackle”, she continues. “Acquiring a permanent position, i.e., a professorship is a career goal of mine, but I do not worry about it all the time. I always chose topics I was interested in and did not try to make the smartest career move”, she adds.

Clearly, Michaela is a dedicated scientist, but has she never experienced pressure in a negative way? When asked about it, she mentions one issue above all: As a junior professor, she does not hold a permanent position. Thus, Michaela already knows that her contract will expire regardless of her performance. As a consequence, she will be forced to find a new position in a few years. Having worked in four different countries over the past fifteen years, she has amply demonstrated her flexibility, but her private life, especially her two little children, would heavily benefit if she could plan her future under more stable circumstances. With that said, it is easy to see that Michaela would prefer holding a tenure-track position although she does not feel uncomfortable with her position as a junior professor, including her budget and equipment. Concerning the evaluations junior professors have to undergo, Michaela has observed an impact on her behavior: Her publication record and the third-party funding granted to her constitute important evaluation criteria and that is why she feels forced to spend time in writing research papers and funding proposals. “I would prefer spending this time with actual research”, she says. However, Michaela is aware that publications play a key role in science: “It is important to share your results with the community”, she explains and adds: “Writing proposals is not a pleasure, but it helps in organizing and structuring future research projects.”

Hence, do you think that pressure is helpful for science? “Yes, but only up to a certain extent. I spent a couple of years in the UK as a postdoctoral researcher. One thing I recall from this time is that small research groups were especially struggling, since big science consortia were heavily favored by the British funding system. Furthermore, mainstream research was normally preferred over outlying or unconventional projects. Young scholars were thus not really free in their choice of topic. If you have a crazy idea and want to give it a try”, Michaela points out, “it may be difficult to acquire any funds. That means that funding systems may cause people to concentrate on low-risk
science.”

So much concerning the situation of a faculty member in physics. Let us now turn to Mario, a postdoctoral researcher in the field of sociology. Is he confronted with similar issues? Can he confirm Michaela’s statements? “As a postdoctoral researcher, I enjoy great freedom in my work”, he says. “I can just follow my interests and in principle, there is plenty of space for creative and unconventional ideas. The amount of routine work is small, I rather feel like a writer”, he explains and adds that it is hard to find a job outside of science that shares the advantages of his current position.

“But that freedom also implies pressure”, Mario continues. “If I want to continue my career in science, I need to assert my position, but this is not a simple task. Back in the old days, the path to a professorship was quite clear, a career in academic sociology proceeded as follows: You spent an average of six years on your Ph.D. thesis and then got a permanent position as scientific assistant where you worked on your habilitation treatise. At these stages, it was perfectly normal to muddle along for a couple of years without a clear course, there is even a special word for that in the German language: `Herumdoktern.’ The concept of post-doc was adapted from natural science”, Mario explains, “temporary positions like the one I hold used to be uncommon to sociology until recently. But that is not the only thing which has changed: There is increasing pressure to complete your studies more quickly and to spend less time on your Ph.D.. Spending six years on a dissertation as I did is now considered highly unusual.”

Was life easier for a sociologist in former times? Mario is reluctant to agree upon this statement: “We need to bear in mind that the ‘Herumdoktern’ carried drawbacks as well.” He refers to his own Ph.D.: “I enjoyed great freedom, but was completely on my own. I felt like a lone wolf, uncommitted and a bit lost, it was hard to stay motivated under such circumstances and my isolation had serious consequences. For example, I did not publish any paper during my Ph.D., since I thought my work did not meet the requirements. Sharing experiences with peers would have been of great benefit for me. I am quite sure that I would have managed to publish my work if I had enjoyed support by a peer group. In return, I would have accepted a higher degree of pressure. In principle, this applies to my current situation as well: More collaborations would imply more pressure in the form of commitments, but create synergies at the same time. It would be positive pressure”, Mario concludes.

There are, however, other forms of pressure, which Mario is more skeptical about. “I consider teaching an important part of my work”, he says. “But as a teacher I have to cope with increasing time pressure. How much time should I spend on reading a diploma thesis? How much time should I dedicate to supervising students? Such questions come to my mind and I sometimes wonder if I work too slowly. Yet, I am convinced that careful and thorough teaching takes time. My fear is that the quality of my teaching may be affected by the pressure piled on me.” He adds that the quality of the classes does not increase by evaluating them permanently. ”This makes me feel as if I were under suspicion”, he says.

Asked about the role of publications, Mario tells the following story: “Recently I acted as a guest editor and put together a special issue of a journal which I considered quite prestigious according to traditional standards. When I asked about it, some people refused to contribute with the reason that the journal was not listed in the ISI database.”(The Institute for Scientific Information (ISI) maintains citation databases covering thousands of academic journals. Its specialty are citation indexing and analysis.) Mario explains that this is just a visible symptom of a substantial change in publication behavior: “Today, articles in peer-reviewed English-language journals are the only thing that counts while traditionally, the understanding of a publication record was much broader. Monographs, anthologies, and articles in German-language journals contributed to a scientist’s reputation as well. Actually, the situation is even worse”, he continues, “as there exists a further bias in terms of content. There are highly prestigious flagship journals which focus on certain methods and topics which are already established. My science is simply not publishable in such a journal, it is too exotic according to their standards.” Nevertheless, the new standards make an impact on Mario’s mindset. “I have sometimes caught myself assessing fellow scientists by means of their flagship publications even though I am actually aware of how questionable that is”, he says.

Funding is yet another topic Mario worries about: “There are funding opportunities which seem to be only available to the elites in a given field. Most systems favor mainstream topics and well-recognized applicants with a long scientific record over unconventional ideas and people new to the field. Some research institutions have already realized that and provide `venture capital’ for projects which are promising but look too daring in terms of the standards of the `normal’ funding agencies.” Mario adds that such an approach could be a valuable complement to the standard procedure where the applicant’s credentials sometimes matter more than the research proposed.

Now, where we have learned about the sources of pressure, can you tell us how it manifests itself in your life? Mario is reluctant to answer this question: “Weakness is not part of a scientist’s public image, I usually do not talk about how I suffer from pressure, I try to fight it out with myself.” However, eventually Mario shares some of the problems he has faced. “I suffered from writer’s block on several occasions”, he reports. “Also, it happened that I struggled to overcome thinking barriers or that I temporarily lost my creativity. Yet, so far, I have always managed to surmount these problems.” Staying in the metaphor that we introduced at the beginning, we can conclude that even real seamen can get seasick and a question naturally arising at this point is: How to deal with seasickness?

To answer this question, let us return to the PSC and ask Prof. Luka-Krausgrill. “In principle, we can provide help in such a situation”, she says and adds: “The PSC should be seen as an enabler. Our aim is to strengthen people. We cannot relieve any pressure, but we provide the means for coping with it. We cannot supply our clients with a personal goal, but we assist them in setting their goals and defining a path to achieve them.”

However, seasickness is sometimes not related to heavy sea at all and some people would suffer from landsickness if they stayed on the dry land: “In many cases, we eventually found out that problems were related to work only seemingly, but actually rooted much deeper in family and relational issues”, Prof. Luka-Krausgrill explains. Also, a substantial share of our clients (52% in 2009) suffers from an actual mental disorder. In most of these cases, (40% in 2009) a psychotherapy is indicated. We thus propose the clients to undergo a therapy in an external institution. In less severe cases, we offer the clients counseling services as well as group courses here at the PSC. In the latter, we teach for example communication skills and management skills.”

Are people struggling nowadays more often than in the past? In 2011, the PSC had 785 clients, which represents an increase by almost 70% compared to five years ago. However, Prof. Luka-Krausgrill warns against interpreting this surge as an increase of pressure in the scientific system. “Today, people are more open-minded about mental health issues than they were in earlier times. Psychological counseling and related services have gained more social acceptance in recent years”, she explains. “With this said, it is not so easy to establish a connection between the constant rise in the number of clients we observe and an alleged increase of pressure.” As an example, Prof. Luka-Krausgrill refers to the implementation of bachelor’s and master’s programs at the University of Mainz: “We constantly monitor the reasons for approaching us, but we did not see any significant changes related to the switch from the traditional diploma and magister’s programs to the new courses. In public perception, the rumor goes that the new programs put more pressure on students, but at least according to our surveys conducted at the University of Mainz, the problems that students face are quite stable in time. We rather observe an increasing satisfaction among our clients with their studies in recent years. In 2009, 23% were satisfied or very satisfied, while the same applied to 37% in 2011.” However, Prof. Luka-Krausgrill emphasizes one feature of the new bachelor’s and master’s programs: “Since the new courses are more structured, a lot of problems become visible at an earlier stage. A diploma student potentially could keep taking classes for 25 semesters and then leave university without any degree. This has become more difficult with the more structured new programs. For me, that is a good thing”, she concludes.

This sounds like a good closing line. So, let us return to the mainland and recapitulate what we have learned on our trip to the ocean of science. Can we leave the high sea without worrying? We do not need to worry about Mario or Michaela. They are experienced seafarers and not in danger of capsize. With their intrinsic motivation, they have at hand the most valuable nautical instrument: A compass that guides them. That is probably why they prefer seafaring to a calm life on land although they have experienced all kinds of problems arising from heavy sea. They do not object the wind of competition even though it sometimes blows from ahead. Funding, publishing, and teaching are the names of some winds they are exposed to and these winds sometimes form waves that look scary to landsmen. Yet, seamen know how to deal with waves and do not perceive them as scary from the outset: “Positive pressure” was one of the key terms that all our interview partners used.

However, there are other people whom we rather should worry about, namely those about to set sail. We met two seafarers and saw that sailing the ocean of science demands a lot of strength and toughness. “Weakness is not part of a scientist’s public image” as our interviewee Mario put it, but weakness is an inherent part of the human condition. Not everyone can cope with this contradiction, thus, not everyone is ready for a life as scientist. Yet, we also learned about the advantages of a life on high sea and the importance of the inner compass. And this what our final message is about. It was pointed out almost two thousand years ago by Roman philosopher Seneca, but is still valid: When a man does not know what harbor he is making for, no wind is the right wind.

— Thomas Jagau

  One Response to ““Weakness Is not Part of a Scientist’s Public Image” – Scientists under pressure”

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