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University Researchers Need More Incentives

The high turnover of researchers and lecturers at universities cannot be fully explained merely by low pay or a lack of opportunities for self-fulfillment. Sometimes, young people choose an academic career for reasons other than an interest in research; they may take a postgraduate course to escape military service, to defer employment, or to meet society's expectations, according to Anastasia Sizykh, Research Fellow of the HSE's Institute of Statistical Studies and Economics of Knowledge (ISSEK)

Low salaries and a lack of opportunity for self-actualisation in academic settings often cause university researchers and teachers to change jobs or to combine their academic position with a better-paid job elsewhere. However, having another job can divert their time and effort away from research and affect their academic performance. But many enjoy doing research and cherish their academic freedoms, therefore they are reluctant to leave the university unless they have to.

In her paper 'Analysis of the Academic Environment as a Place of Study and Work' published in the Journal of Educational Studies, Issue 1, 2014, Research Fellow of the HSE's Institute of Statistical Studies and Economics of Knowledge (ISSEK) Anastasia Sizykh describes which aspects of university life inspire and help retain researchers and lecturers, and which de-motivate and cause them to switch to business or enter the civil service instead. Her research is based on 27 interviews with postgraduate students and staff of the Higher School of Economics, the Moscow State University of Economics, Statistics, and Informatics, and the Siberian Federal University (Krasnoyarsk).

Career Paths of Academic Staff

In Russia, unlike some other countries, including Germany, the U.S. and Japan, academic research is not always considered a prestigious occupation, as shown by the findings of a survey conducted by the ISSEK as part of its Monitoring of S&T and Innovation (Science Indicators, 2012, p. 393.) Academia is losing young talent to business and government. However, many people stay in academia despite the potential benefits of other types of employment. Sizykh examined the career paths of those who choose to continue working at Russian universities.

She identified four types of career paths. The first is an academic career in its 'pure' form, with continuous promotion to higher positions within the university. The second type includes those who have completed postgraduate studies and obtained a doctoral degree early in their careers, yet have subsequently left, or intend to leave, academia.

To aspire to a higher position than a Senior Lecturer one must have a Ph.D., and those without it never advance beyond the position of a Senior Lecturer (the third type) or seek to get a Ph.D. at some point in their career (the fourth career path). The latter group understandably finds university an attractive place to work.

Sizykh examined the reasons behind the choice to teach and do research at a university and found a variety of motives.

She studied the attitudes of young people who choose to stay in academia and take a postgraduate course and found that even at the start of their academic careers, many future researchers do not have a genuine interest in, and do not look forward to, doing research. Instead, they feel that applying for postgraduate studies was not a matter of choice for them, but was imposed by society, and reveal an internal conflict caused by this situation.

Seeking a Doctorate Degree Not Necessarily Associated with Love of Science

Respondents were asked to examine two aspects of their motivation – their desire and interest to be part of academia and their resources and circumstances.

Their interest was driven by the pursuit of knowledge and the opportunity to study certain subjects in-depth, and to learn skills that will be useful beyond the university setting.

However, other reported motives have nothing to do with an interest in research and include other people's (particularly parents') opinions and societal expectations portraying a doctorate degree as a requirement for a certain social status.

All respondents listed more than one motive for seeking a Ph.D. Notably, motives linked to social norm and pressure prevailed across the sample. In other words, a desire to do research was not the whole reason why most respondents applied for postgraduate studies.

"Women were more likely to express interest in research, where as most men explained that postgraduate studies allowed them to postpone military service or, less often, that a Ph.D. could raise their status and contribute to career success in the corporate world or in the civil service," Sizykh notes.

And finally, inertia comes into play for some respondents; they mentioned 'attachment (whether actual or declared) to the university' or 'avoiding the discomfort of looking for another job'.

Whether postgraduate students will eventually stay in academia or move on depends on the environment at the university. Respondents mentioned the advantages of postgraduate studies, such as opportunities for continuous development, higher social status and better pay in the future, delaying any potential employment decision, and a wider social network.

As a downside, they complained about too much theory and limited relevance to practice; postgraduate students also said they were struggling financially and referred to the limited availability of scholarships and an inability to combine full-time postgraduate studies with a paying job. The most frequent comment was that one needs to make a choice between the future benefits of having a Ph.D. and being comfortable financially right now.

Newcomers from Corporate and Government Jobs Value Academic Freedom

People who left their positions with corporate or government employers for an academic setting mention in particular that they value the freedom university offers, in terms of independent time management and a free choice in terms of area of research, course content and teaching methods.

Certainty is another advantage mentioned by respondents; they appreciate a clear career ladder with established rules allowing progress to higher positions, an absence of financial risks, and a fairly conservative environment where every change is based on careful thinking and consideration. And finally, respondents believe that working in academia is a creative occupation that contributes to one's intellectual ability and personal development.

A few respondents, most of them new Ph.D.'s, describe their academic affiliation as a social norm and an appropriate reward for investing time in postgraduate studies.

Low Pay Offset by Opportunity

University staff of the first type with 'purely academic' careers listed what they perceived to be the advantages of a university setting, such as continuing professional development, broad-mindedness, a friendly and professional team, and the fact that "the hierarchy is not explicit and allows substantial freedom of action."

The biggest perceived disadvantage is low pay. Respondents also felt that their potential was underutilised, in particular, due to limited academic mobility.

Low pay can be partially offset by other things important for the employee; it is therefore important to consider motives that help retain researchers and faculty at universities. Sizykh suggests that new information sources should be made available to academics – such as e-journals, newsletters, and information gateways – to meet their expressed interests.

A Bonus for Professors

According to Sizykh, many respondents do not perceive university as a very comfortable place to work. However, they are satisfied with the content of their research and their team of coworkers, loyal to academia, and reluctant to change employment without serious reasons.

But the fact that academic staff have to take additional jobs to make ends meet results in less commitment to teaching and research.

Sizykh warns, however, that better pay may not be sufficient to retain academic staff and has to be combined with other advantages, such as access to exclusive data, opportunities to attend conferences and academic mobility, and also seminars, talks, roundtables and other events that promote professional development and networking.


Author: Olga Sobolevskaya, May 26, 2014