Valuing early career psychologists

Daniel Yon offers concrete suggestions for supporting and valuing early career researchers in psychology.

30 July 2020

I remember as a newly minted postdoc being introduced to a prominent professor of psychology by my supervisor:
‘So are you a PhD student?
‘A postdoc, actually’
‘Aaah… a stay of execution’

Gloomy forecasts about the prospects for early career researchers (ECRs) in psychology are commonplace, and perhaps for good reason. Swing a cat in most departments and you’ll hit someone who will tell you about promising undergrads struggling to get PhD places, PhD students sweating to get published and land postdocs, postdocs chasing faculty jobs and fresh-faced faculty struggling to deal with growing workloads and shrinking grant pots. Yet you would probably also land a blow on several ECRs who, in the face of all these obstacles, find a homely spot at the coalface of psychological science, have immensely rewarding careers and are optimistic about their futures. What explains the difference?

This question has exercised me a lot. For about a year I have been on the committee of the Experimental Psychology Society (EPS) representing ECRs, and have spoken to lots of junior psychologists. I have learnt about the problems they face and the kinds of things the EPS and the wider psychology community could do to help them.

Slow science on short contracts

A major concern that ECRs often raise with me is that they don’t have enough to show for the work put into their research, and they are concerned about keeping up with their more productive peers. Though ‘publish or perish’ is a common refrain across academia, psychology is peculiar in that projects come in many shapes and sizes – some of which are more germane to churning out papers quickly. While some experiments in cognitive psychology can be designed, run and analysed in a month, a student who works on infant development, with neuroimaging techniques or with rare patients will begin acquiring skills and data that could take years to bear fruit. Even within subfields, a student who joins a lab with a rich vein of ongoing work will string together publishable results much more quickly than their predecessors who ironed out the wrinkles in the research questions and spent months getting the equipment to work.

At the heart of this problem are the tight timescales of PhDs and postdoc contracts, and the drawn-out pace of academic publishing: even if you are talented, motivated, and do important work, you still need a generous pinch of luck to get papers published before you apply for the next job. This doesn’t just put pressure on ECRs, but also contributes to a culture of ‘fast science’ – where piecemeal ideas or data get bounced through academic journals because the ECR needs CV column inches. There are growing calls to challenge these norms and focus on ‘slow science’: shifting from quantity to quality, and generating fewer, but more substantial, credible and important papers. A slower culture would no doubt improve the quality and impact of psychological science, but it will be hard to establish without rethinking what success as an ECR looks like and how ‘quality’ is recognised in the community.

Taking ECRs seriously

Marks of recognition are given to ECRs by societies including the BPS, and by departments to their own trainees. The EPS recognises excellent early career research through a President’s prize awarded to a student or postdoc who has presented an especially impressive study, and the yearly Frith Prize awarded to an exceptional psychologist who recently received their PhD. But what seems crucial is not ‘prize giving’ itself, but cultivating an atmosphere where ECRs are considered important members of the scientific conversation. This is sometimes missing.

For example, while ‘early career’ conferences are common, these are often poorly attended by senior colleagues, reinforcing the idea that what ECRs have to say is less important. Junior scientists need to be seen as serious members of the community – not just people who collect the data to test someone else’s idea. The EPS does this by giving its early career prize-winners a platform to tell other psychologists about their ideas through talks and interviews. But thinking more widely about the visibility of ECRs in general (not just the handful who win a prize), an important challenge for psychology societies and departments is encouraging senior scientists to take their junior colleagues seriously.

Creating mentorship opportunities

ECRs can find it difficult to get advice about their work and careers. Another peculiarity of psychology is that most research teams are quite small, and a ‘lab’ could just be you and your supervisor. When they work well, these pupillages can offer a deep intellectual training and valuable guidance about how to navigate the academic world (and much else). I still feel very lucky to have had one of these generous supervisory ‘apprenticeships’ with Dr Clare Press at Birkbeck, who was committed to training us as scientists and guiding our first steps into the wider psychological community during and beyond the PhD. 

An especially valuable part of Clare’s mentorship was her eagerness to introduce us to other colleagues and collaborators. These relationships with other psychologists were (and are) a source of advice and reassurance, and also contribute to a sense of ‘belonging’ to a wider research community (and not just being an appendage of your boss). But not everyone is so lucky – and when a supervisor and supervisee are poorly matched, the latter are often left with no idea about what they should be doing and are disconnected from those who could help. Such floundering is particularly unfortunate given the many senior scientists who would happily share some pearls of wisdom, given the opportunity.

At the EPS we recently started creating these opportunities through structured mentoring at each meeting: junior and senior psychologists sign up and are paired together for a brief ‘speed date’ based on common interests. At the last London meeting Dr Jane Conway, a recent PhD graduate and now research fellow, was paired with Professor Uta Frith – an internationally recognised authority on social cognition. ‘Having just finished a PhD on theory of mind, it was a delight to be paired with Prof Uta Frith,’ Jane told me. ‘I remember especially her heartfelt concern for ECRs amid the pace and pressures of scientific careers, and was inspired by the sense of fun and adventure with which she spoke about her own. The EPS provided a social structure that allowed conversations to occur between early and experienced researchers that otherwise wouldn’t have, and the buzz in the room was a testament to its success.’ 

While these interactions are particularly useful and encouraging for the mentees, the benefits cut both ways. Uta said: ‘I think that mentoring fosters perspective taking and this should be two-way. As a mentor I am reminded that I can still learn from younger people, especially about new methods but also about new questions. I am curious to find out what really interests them, and this allows me to re-evaluate my own interests too.’ Similar initiatives (like the BPS Early Career Network) could be easily implemented by other societies and departments, promoting mutually beneficial relationships between junior and senior colleagues outside the standard trainee-supervisor model.

Looking beyond academia

There is one question many ECRs have that most senior academics are ill-equipped to deal with: ‘What should I do if I don’t want to be a scientist?’ Many of those who PhDs and postdocs seek advice from have been on a single track in psychological science, often for many years, and are poorly placed to advise on what other professions look like. This homogeneity among academic faculty contributes to a culture where fellowships and lectureships are seen as the only options to aim for. This is a problem because as well as there being fewer permanent jobs than good scientists who would like them, different stages of a career in psychological science offer wildly different things. An ECR who most loves the monastic aspects of programming and hands-on data analysis might not benefit from advice to aim for a standard academic job, where they would eventually be expected to run a lab and spend more and more time managing projects, writing grants and teaching students. 

ECRs don’t tend to appreciate how they can use their skills outside the traditional academic track while retaining a close connection to the aspects of science that they most enjoy or care about. I spoke to Dr Myrthel Dogge, who after a PhD and short period of postdoctoral work in the Netherlands has recently joined the psychology and neuroscience editorial team at the journal Nature Communications. ‘My aspiration to become an editor came from a desire to be at the forefront of science while being less restricted to a subject area. As an editor at Nature Communications, I constantly get exposed to the newest developments in a variety of different fields (before most others!). The environment is very stimulating, and even though I am not involved in primary research anymore, I feel like I am now part of an even bigger research community.’

At the same time, early career psychologists often have an unusually diverse training, including in problem solving, data analysis, creative writing, programming and public speaking. This makes them well-placed to tackle lots of different challenges. Somebody who realised this was Dr Adam Chekroud, who as a PhD student co-founded the start-up company Spring Health, which applies tools from precision medicine to design mental healthcare. Adam said: ‘During a PhD you definitely learn some concrete things, like how to code, specific analysis methods, or domain knowledge. But you’re also really learning how to navigate uncertainty, and how to quickly learn new things. I think these latter two things – not any specific thing I learned or did – are what was most valuable for me about my graduate work in science, as they enable you to pick up a new topic, get up to speed quickly, and experiment your way forward toward your goal.’

Keeping contact

Many ECRs in psychology go on to thrive outside of academia, but these individuals and the examples they set are hard for current trainees to reach. Perhaps this is because while many group leaders keep in touch with their former lab members who have stayed in research, ties are more easily broken with those who ‘leave science’. When I was a postdoc at Birkbeck, some ECR colleagues and I tried to remedy this by setting up an informal series inviting recent PhD graduates to talk about their personal and professional journeys inside and outside of academia. Over pizza and a glass of wine – and with senior members of the department barred from attending – these sessions led to candid conversations about the realities of doing (and finishing!) a PhD, and what careers in and out of science are really like. While these sessions broadened our perspective, they depended heavily on our networks and what we personally knew about the trajectories of old friends and colleagues. 

Departments could and should have much longer memories about what their alumni have gone on to do. They are in an excellent position to use these communities to support their newest members flourish in psychology and beyond.

Will these suggestions solve all the problems that early career psychologists face? Perhaps not. But we know that our community is replete with examples of generous support and close mentorship that nurtures ECRs as they grow in and into their roles. It is a shame that at the moment most of us who enjoy this guidance do so as a matter of luck – based on who trained us or supervised our work. It might take a village to raise a psychologist, but luckily the village is already there, and there’s a lot it can do to help.

- Daniel Yon is a Lecturer in Psychology at Goldsmiths, University of London
[email protected]

Originally published online 30 July 2020