Survey: a lot of stress amongst UU researchers about the consequences of corona for their careers

It became clear relatively early on that the lockdown of Dutch universities mainly affected PhD candidates, Postdocs, and researchers in tenure track positions. These young scientists have a fixed term in which they have to finish their research projects, and hope to be able to climb up the academic ladder afterwards. Both are rather tricky at the moment.

Last week, DUB spoke with three PhD candidates and a Postdoc about how the corona measures affect their work. The Utrecht Young Academy, the platform of young UU scientists, has been hearing similar stories for the past few months.

To gain more clarity about the exact worries and struggles, the decision was made to conduct a survey, says initiator Martijn Huysmans on the UU website. In late April, around 500 UU researchers – mainly PhD candidates, but also other UU academics with other types of contracts – responded.

More stress, less productive
Nearly sixty percent of the respondents state they’ve experienced an increase in stress since the start of the corona measures. The percentage of respondents who say they’re less productive than usual is even higher, at 64 percent. On the other hand, there’s also a minority of respondents who say they’ve actually been experiencing fewer work issues, and have become more productive.

The mental issues are mainly caused by working from home (including having to care for children), the reduced access to research facilities and data, and the reduced scientific contact with colleagues at work and during international conventions. Respondents named these as the top-3 from a list of options.

But respondents also name a range of other factors, such as grant programmes that are on hold, the necessary extra time invested in online education, postponements of PhD ceremonies, reduced motivation, and the growing uncertainty about career options in the future.

A striking outcome is that scientists with care tasks and female scientists experience even more stress. They also say they’re less productive. In its own study, the UYA hasn’t found any proof for the hypothesis that female scientists perform all care tasks in their own families. In the survey, in fact, a little more men than women indicate they perform care tasks. However, the study did not explicitly ask about the division of these tasks within the family or about their nature.

Necessary extension
Nearly sixty percent of the respondents say they would like to get an extension of their contract. Many researchers say they need the extension because they would like to do high-quality work without major time pressure. “I’d use it to make up for the research time that was ‘lost’, because I can only work on my research in the evenings and weekends now,” says one of the UU researchers.

Other respondents indicate that a contract extension is simply necessary for them, either financially or for their residence permit. “I need it. The number of available jobs has gone down. And for a few jobs I applied to, the recruitment process was put on hold.”

But there are also young scientists who’ve already found a new job, who aren’t experiencing delays, or who think they’ll be able to make up for lost time. “I want to finish my PhD track and move on,”

one respondent says. “Why would you stall the careers of PhD candidates unnecessarily? It’s better to adjust expectations.”

Custom solutions
In a DUB article, UYA president Martine Veldhuizen already called for custom solutions for PhD candidates, Postdocs, and tenure trackers who are experiencing delays, based on the preliminary results of this survey.

That call can now be read in the report as well. The UYA hopes that the meetings the VSNU is having with research financers and ministries will create the financial possibility of extending contracts. That’s not necessarily the best option for everyone; employees should be able to choose.

The UYA says the UU should consider establishing a central fund for research supervisors to use to help their young employees. It shouldn’t be the case that PhD candidates and Postdocs can only be helped in financially powerful groups. This call seems to be in line with an agreement recently reached between trade unions and universities in the negotiations on a new collective labour agreement.

Finally, the UYA issues a warning for ‘traffic jams’. Those could arise when young researchers don’t get the chance to take the next steps in their careers if the contracts of other researchers are extended.