Bold ideas and critical thoughts on science.

Zhao et al. on an individual’s role in the scientific system and some coping mechanisms to alleviate the stress of the precarious working conditions of early career academics.

Fang Zhao

Many German scientists are under pressure due to the restriction of the 12-year scientific period (Lang et al., 2020). One has 6 years to submit the doctoral thesis and another 6 years in the postdoctoral phase to apply for a professorial position. Similar to the Grimm brothers’ fairy tales, the path of a researcher is adventurous and arduous. Unfortunately, it does not always end happily. A postdoctoral researcher, who has been working for 9 years in academia, describes her frustrating experience as follows: “I always feel like a small snail, who is being chased by an eagle. Many companions of the snail ‘died’ and I am one of the few left.” She has observed colleagues who have worked hard each day and could not find a professorial position within 12 years. Some are unemployed and are already in their 40’s, still searching for permanent positions. Some become teachers in schools, and some have jobs in the industry and others work abroad and outside of academia. The dilemma, that follows the combination of constant job insecurity on the one side and doing a highly fulfilling job on the other side, is common to most scientific employees at German universities. The precarious situation has sparked an uproar in social media in recent months (#IchbinHanna,, which has helped to communicate the urgency of this matter to a broader public. While this gives hope for a change, it is likely to remain a controversial subject for policy makers in the short and long run. Thus, it is crucial for individuals not to lose hope before a change of the higher education system sets in. Accordingly, this article aims to first reflect on an individual’s role in the scientific system and then provide some coping mechanisms (i.e., motivation, self-control, optimism and networking) to individuals on how to alleviate the stress of the 12-year restriction.

1. Reflection on an individual’s role in the scientific system

First, we would like to briefly reflect upon our metaphor of “snails on the chase” in order to open a room for debate. It is important to notice the scientific barrier and the urgent necessity for a fundamental change in the current scientific system. 

1.1 Scientific barrier

Len Ole Schäfer

The current scientific system creates a new form of scientists – the adapted scientists. Adapted scientists reproduce the academic system by internalizing core values, which can even lead to a dysfunction of the academic system. For instance, adapted scientists work mostly on the surface and periphery issues of scientific disciplines, as addressing fundamental questions requires too much time. Such scientists agree in silence with established academic power hierarchies to secure their own positions. Since there are too few permanent positions, keeping silent becomes a powerful technique of defining the borders of the inner circle and to preserve the status quo of the academic caste system. It guarantees the barrier between the academic elites and others.

1.2 Fundamental change

Lars van Rijn

In order to heal the scientific organism, we need a fundamental change of deep-rooted mechanisms. On the one hand, we need a fundamental change of the mindsets of the  politicians and professors who are at the top of the academic hierarchy. It starts with open discussions in seminars and the courage and commitment to defend one’s own point of view. On the other hand, we as scientists in the lower end or middle of the academic hierarchy should reflect upon our habitual ways of thinking. We should see ourselves as an academic community instead of as individuals. Collaborative working is more important than focussing on an individual’s successes and failures. We should envision a bigger picture about how a highly functional academic system could look like. At the individual level, we need inclusive, reflective, active collective thinking and feeling of highly creative individuals. At the system level, we need an academic and scientific sphere that stimulates academic debates, creates and defends the space of freedom. In order to ensure a high quality of academic research, we need a deeper understanding of academic hierarchies that form and maintain scientific practices and traditions. This fundamental change of the inner world of the scientist should work hand in hand with a change of the academic system. 

2. Coping mechanisms

As individual scientists, we cannot cure the dysfunction of the scientific organism right away. However, there are some coping mechanisms, which can help researchers to survive in the current academic system.

2.1 Motivation

Joachim Wöhrle

Being motivated is one key mechanism for coping with the stress of the 12-year restriction, and staying on track in academia. At the early phase of academic career, intrinsic motivation is the decisive factor for publication productivity (Teodorescu, 2000). Having clear goals, being interested in the field of research and staying motivated to pursue the scientific career are essential to achieve high performance and satisfaction in an unceasingly difficult working environment. A study involving more than 1000 doctoral and postdoctoral researchers at 65 German universities demonstrated that both intrinsic and extrinsic work motivations can significantly predict academic performance (Wollersheim et al., 2015). Additionally, a study among South Korean university students (Shin et al., 2018) shows that the satisfaction in the doctoral period is significantly influenced by motivational factors. High levels of motivation can help researchers realize their values and get through rough patches (see Hazell et al., 2020). Life is short and you spend at least one third of the time at work. If this career is science, do not forget to enjoy the pleasure of reading and discussing with the smartest heads in academia. 

2.2 Self-control 

Having self-control can empower you to continually push your research. Self-control is defined as “the capacity to alter or override dominant response tendencies and to regulate behavior, thoughts, and emotions” (de Ridder et al., 2012, p. 77). People with high levels of self-control tend to do and feel better on a broad range of indicators of human functioning than people with low self-control do (Tangney et al., 2018). This has also been shown with respect to academic functioning (Duckworth et al., 2019; Stadler et al., 2016). The job of a researcher often involves tasks that require high levels of self-control, such as management and coordination of different projects simultaneously, reading, writing, reviewing, submitting and revising research articles, and in some cases teaching. If self-control does not come easy to you, you could try to work with project management tools, to-do-lists or setting realistic deadlines and goals. A heavy workload can be detrimental for the health of researchers (Lang et al., 2020), and high levels of self-control can help to navigate through times of insecurity and support mental health (Tangney et al., 2018). If you feel that you do not possess enough self-control, maybe you could benefit from taking a course on how to achieve higher levels of self-control (Friese et al., 2017).

2.3 Optimism

Being optimistic alleviates the stress of work. Neural evidence (Uchida et al., 2018) shows that optimism is related to a healthy profile in our immune systems. In academia there are several feedback mechanisms, such as peer-review process, mentoring, exchange with peers, workshops, etc. Among them, the peer-review process is one of the most important feedback mechanisms (Spier, 2002). It accompanies you in academia in many ways. One type of peer review takes place before the submission of the article, more specifically feedback from colleagues, supervisors, co-authors and external experts at conferences. The other type of peer review takes place after the submission, which is the peer-review process of journals. The feedback is normally given by external anonymous reviewers who read your work voluntarily. They will pick up on everything that they are not satisfied with, and often even reject your work. Then the cycle of criticism starts all over. Many doctoral or postdoctoral students quit after several rejections because they start to question their abilities. One should therefore know that criticism is a part of everyday life of a researcher. Staying optimistic is one of the most important strategies to ease the stress caused by the criticism. The founder of the Positive Psychology Martin Seligman (1990, 2011) has summarized the common characteristics of optimistic people in all walks of life: Not taking the adversity personally, not thinking it is pervasive (e.g., if a paper is rejected, one can still be a valuable person), or permanent (e.g., if take actions, one will get out of the situation). These tips can also be very valuable for researchers.

2.4 Networking

Building and maintaining networks may also increase the chances of achieving a professorial position and alleviating stress. Some studies in this field have focused on the meritocratic (e.g., academic productivity) and non-meritocratic factors (e.g., network, social capital) that influence the chance of getting a professor position (Lutter et al. 2016; Schröder et al., 2021). Network size as a non-meritocratic factor is a strong predictor of getting tenure. Nevertheless, publications that are double blind peer-reviewed are more important than social capital. Hazell et al. (2020) suggested that social support from academic relationships can protect us against feelings of isolation, which can cause several health problems (see e.g., Leigh-Hunt et al., 2017). In addition, disciplinary collaboration is a good method to find genuine research topics. Networking is therefore highly recommended for junior as well as senior researchers.

3. Conclusion

Doing research is hard, as one always receives criticism from peers and reviewers (Grinstein & Treister, 2018; Levecque et al., 2017). It is especially hard, if one conducts research in Germany due to the 12-year restriction (Franz, 2018; Graf et al., 2020). We therefore would like to suggest some coping mechanisms for German researchers. Of course, they cannot solve the problem of the time restriction in this scientific system. They only aim to give suggestions to individuals to survive in this system. Discussions between scientists are very important, as we can realize that the stress affects everyone in academia in Germany. We should not think that we have to take full responsibility, that our academic career ends after 12 years. The problem is often not rooted in most researchers’ work ethics or behaviour, but rather in a failure of the current system, which seems to value job insecurity above stability, and power and silence above reflection and action. As mentioned above, the precarious conditions of German scientists (e.g., short working contracts, few permanent positions, 12-year time restriction) have been receiving attention in social media (for more information see #IchBinHanna). There is also a special issue on the criticism that many qualified German psychologists work in Austria after their 12-year restriction is due (Neubauer et al., 2020). Please note that many other factors play essential roles in pursuing an academic career, such as luck, health, research direction, and reputation of the doctoral supervisor. Nevertheless, we hope the individual scientists can realize that they are not fully responsible if they drop out of the academic career. They are not alone and each one who has experienced the system knows the problem of silence and time pressure. As an individual, we cannot always change the system straight away. However, we can use the coping mechanisms mentioned in this article (i.e., motivation, optimism, self-control, and networking) to adjust ourselves to the system for the time being and take our time to reflect on the mechanisms of power that preserve the status quo.