10 Common Challenges Faced by Early Career Researchers

September 1, 2016 Ania Gruszczynska


As a proud holder of a PhD in Sociology and a part-time career coach with a special interest in working with PhD students and early career researchers on their post-PhD journeys, I feel I’m well equipped to discuss some of the key challenges that ECRs experience. I’ve been there, and many of my coaching sessions focus on common themes.

  1. Coping with change: Getting a PhD is more than merely attaching two letters in front of your surname and hoping that they will lead to a life filled with research and publications. Many ECRs I talk to seem quite unprepared for the emotional upheaval that follows the end of their doctoral studies and the transition into what often feels like a very insecure future. Even if everything went swimmingly – and that’s more of an exception than a rule – the transition process and letting go of the “old me” can be unexpected and challenging. Knowing that others go through a similar process can be quite comforting.
  2. Post-PhD blues: Sometimes, instead of the anticipated elation at finally completing the thesis, there is a feeling of emptiness. Some feel lost once the project that took up so much of their lives over the past three or more years is over, and they struggle to find anything that will offer similar intensity and a sense of purpose.
  3. Personal life changes: As the old adage goes, life is definitely something that happens while you are busy making other plans and the post-PhD period is no different. Given how long it can take to either secure an academic post or figure out a way to transition out of academia, many new PhDs will be making those transitions alongside major life changes such as getting married, having children, coping with caring responsibilities, etc., and will be searching for a way to bring some control back into a messy and chaotic time.
  4. Lack of access to resources: It is quite a sad paradox that very often ECRs find themselves disconnected from sources of support (networking, professional development or career advice) at a time when they need those most. Instead, they might find themselves cut off from resources that are only available in permanent roles, precisely the ones that the ECRs are aspiring to. Recreating those networks without any official institutional affiliation can be quite challenging and coaching can help jump-start that process.
  5. Lack of support from supervisors: While the official relationship may be over, some ECRs will be keen to maintain the informal connection with their supervisors. However, I often hear about a mismatch of expectations and some misguided, if well-intentioned advice. Many supervisors managed to secure their academic roles in a much friendlier economic climate and don’t understand the harsh reality faced by current ECRs attempting to find academic jobs. Equally, even though the majority of ECRs end up outside of academia, there are times when supervisors can be dismissive of those choices, thus leaving their previous supervisees feeling like they failed.
  6. Time management: The same PhD students that came to me wanting to carve out a better routine to their days often turn into ECRs that need support with managing their time better in a new situation. It seems to be feast or famine: They will either be juggling a couple of part-time jobs, a cross-country move (perhaps with a baby thrown in for good measure), or they might find themselves unemployed, with long stretches of time that they now struggle to devote to publications or job hunting.
  7. Sustaining writing productivity: The ability to produce academic publications will make or break somebody’s career, plain and simple. At the same time, this is possibly one of the most challenging aspects of being an academic, whether it is part of your job or part of the plan aimed at getting you a job. For that reason, I devote a lot of my coaching work to helping people establish a regular writing practice in order to slay some of their writing demons (while sometimes reminding myself to listen to my own advice!).
  8. Doubts about academic careers: The glorious "life of the mind" that doctoral students sometimes fantasize about when in the midst of writing up doesn’t always materialize. Even if they win the academic lottery and secure that coveted lectureship, the reality involves a sobering mix of teaching, administration, academic politics, and a whole set of new rules to live up to, including the infamous "publish or perish." On the flip side, those who keep buying the lottery tickets (a.k.a. keep attempting to secure academic roles), while failing to succeed, might start feeling quite disillusioned and wonder if it is worthwhile to keep applying for membership in a club that clearly isn’t accepting them.
  9. Identity crises: The truth is, most PhD holders will end up working outside of academia, yet academic employment is something they spent years preparing for. It can be really difficult to let go of a vision of a future in which somebody embraces the so-called "life of the mind" (whether that exists anymore is up for debate) in exchange for a future as a self-employed project manager or consultant. Leaving academia can feel like having to learn a new language and adapt to a whole new set of rules, and often ECRs find they need a space to grieve for their old identities before they can move on to a different version of the story they tell about themselves.
  10. Career issues: The path to post-PhD employment is rarely linear and can involve blind alleys, sideways moves, and a lot of twists and turns, leaving people confused about what their next steps should be. Some, before they can even start thinking about career progression, need a career and a quick refresher on basic job hunting skills, and so I find myself putting on the hat of a career advisor on a regular basis.

The list could potentially go on and on, but the above seem to crop up on a regular basis. What do you feel are the biggest challenges ECRs are up against? Feel free to share your own challenges in the comments below.

Image credit: anyaivanova/Shutterstock

About the Author

Academic Career Coach //

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