Early Career Researchers Network Blog

Will We Ever Be Able to Reach the Finish Line?

Joaquín Piedra, Universidad de Sevilla Spain and George Jennings, Cardiff Metropolitan University present their view on scholar burnout and the academic career.

The concept of the career

Undoubtedly, many of us remember our surprise that the great American gymnast Simone Biles caused when stepping down from participating in the artistic gymnastics during the Olympic Games in Tokyo 2021. Thanks to her and other known cases such as the tennis player Naomi Osaka, the basketball player Álex Abrines or none other than the swimmer Michael Phelps, we hear more voices concerned about the health and care of high-performance sports people. The precision, the stress, the maximum effort required, the separation from one’s family are all lived by the majority of athletes that reach the highest level of the sporting career. However, this situation is also experienced in other professions, among them academia, which holds a significant parallel with sport.

The word career immediately makes us think of a competitive situation, a competition where we have to demonstrate that we are better, faster and more successful than others. Career as a verb and a noun has its etymology in carros, an ancient carriage in Roman times. Later, the meaning of career changed to a path or racecourse for horses, finally becoming known as one’s professional trajectory. Now, it is easy to think of our careers as a linear race – fast, measured, controlled and planned, not as an adventure in different directions with time to contemplate, as in freerunning or parkour. Recently, we have seen Serena Williams ending her sporting career as the most successful tennis players in history. She has fought obviously against her opponents in different tournaments, but also against a society that has been critical of how she is.

We in academia also have our own stars in the world of research, as in those famous Nobel Prize or Fields medals winners, accolades that not only provide an economic benefit, but something that brings someone on a scientific pedestal. To reach this level, like top athletes, we have to make a great number of sacrifices, efforts and even investments. That way, only a few arrive and for sure, they become scientists operating within a limited area of knowledge.

The word career immediately makes us think of a competitive situation, a competition where we have to demonstrate that we are better, faster and more successful than others.

Ranking and rivalry

As science has evolved, to finally become a noted scientist or academic requires a young researcher that make many sacrifices, work long hours, experience great stress in trying to overcome the evaluations and reviews for journal to undertake research stays in other universities with the difficulty to balance all that with family life. Moreover, there is a constant comparison or rivalry (competition, in the end of the day) between some academics, which translates into the creation of rankings of departments and universities, with their limited areas of knowledge, just like those made for sporting disciplines such as tennis, skiing and athletics.

Just like sports teams, each university, school or department invites (or demands) their staff to publish more and more and in better journals, with the objective to better the positions of the said institutions in the ranking system. Furthermore, to each those better academic positions requires a budget. Just like what happens in Real Madrid or in Manchester City compared with clubs of a more humble origin, there are academic fields and universities that manage huge amounts of money. That, in the current scientific system, primes the marketisation for the diffusion of knowledge open to all, until a point in which the “rich” have more facilities than those without such resources. More frequently that we think, researchers dip into their own pockets in order to publish in open-access journals and to attend conferences to advance their careers.

George Jennings (002)
George Jennings
ECR Joaquin Piedra
Joaquín Piedra

A long-distance career

In contrast with sport, where the career of an athlete normally has a period of development and growth, reaching maturity and peak performance some years later, the academic career is much longer (potentially 30 or 40 years in many cases) and the necessity to publish in and with prestigious journals and publishers in constant if one wishes to secure projects, scholarships, promotions or professorships. A particularly complicated situation for female researchers (and also men) wishing to have a family is to be given the freedom or simply wish to dedicate time to their children is in many cases incompatible with the academic career. This is something that often happens with sportspeople. Moreover, in sports teams, the function of each player is clearly marked according to their specialisation, but in the case of universities (at least in Spain), the academic has to be a good teacher, innovator, know different theories, manage statistics, be fluent in other languages, write well, understand the dynamics of publishing, etc.

It is necessary to reflect deeply about the current scientific and academic system in our countries. Just as in sport where people are being to take notice that the actual structure is insufficient to care for athletes’ mental wellbeing, universities have to start to think about their researchers, offering opportunities to progress and reach their professional goals without having to mortgage their own mental health.

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