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Kirsten Westmoreland
Careers and professional development, Children, young people and families, Education, Teaching and learning

The Zillenial

Kirsten Westmoreland on how the ECR environment has changed and how experienced researchers can address it.

03 January 2023

Finding a research position in social psychology was a nightmare after the pandemic. The competition for academic positions in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) has long been a challenge that only seems to get worse (Vigoreaux & Liebowitz, 2021), and recently many institutions have implemented hiring freezes, which reduced the availability of jobs.

I defended my PhD on 12 March 2021 in the midst of the third national lockdown in the UK. My defense was on Zoom with assessors who joined from their homes in cities hundreds of miles away. Earlier that week, I had interviewed for postdoctoral research positions at Oxford University in England, Queens College in Ireland, and the University of Pennsylvania in the United States, all from my bedroom in Bristol. I applied for jobs across the United States, Canada, Europe, and Australia. It wasn’t until mid-June of 2021 that I finally signed a contract with Rice University, after having applied and interviewed at countless universities from October 2020 onwards.

One year into my life as an early career researcher (ECR), I am confident that if I hadn’t made the decision to travel thousands of miles for my first job, I may still be unemployed today. I felt that I had been forced to leave the institution and even the country where I had completed my education just to find employment. Now that I have some experience and am starting to consider what I want out of my next role, I realise my priorities seem quite different from those of my Millennial, Generation X and Boomer colleagues.

A drive to live differently

I was born in Seattle, Washington in 1995, which makes me a Zillenial – a micro generation, encompassing those born at the end of Millenialism and at the beginning of Generation Z. I remember the floppy-disc days and getting upset when my brother wouldn’t let me use the family computer; I remember having to go to typing classes in middle school, and in college I was never taught how to use statistical software so I ran all analyses by hand. As with many of my fellow Zillenials, one of my earliest memories is watching the World Trade Center fall live on television. I was a senior in high school during Sandy Hook, and I watched as we turned from lockdown drills to active shooter drills.

Zillenials grew up watching the world crumble right from their phone, laptop, and television screens. While we are by no means the only generation affected by these stressful life events, we are a generation that is burnt out before we even hit the job market. We have turned into the generation of ‘FOMO’ and ‘YOLO’, where we want to seize the day and live a fulfilled life now rather than wait for retirement. Furthermore, Zillenials are the generation behind the #MeToo movement, meaning that we are substantially less likely to stand for the sexist culture that many universities have fostered since their establishment (Bull & Rye 2018).

As I look at my student loans, try to find affordable housing, weigh up the costs of healthcare and reflect on the fact that life can be fleeting, finances are a more important consideration than ever.

This drive to live differently from the generations before us, and our unwillingness to work in psychologically or physically unsafe environments, presents a unique and complicated predicament for the future of academia. Joining academia and choosing research was done out of a passion for the field and a drive to make the world a better place through the advancement of psychological science. But now, as I look at my student loans, try to find affordable housing, weigh up the costs of healthcare and reflect on the fact that life can be fleeting, finances are a more important consideration than ever.

Well equipped

I am not alone in this thinking. A quick read through of #AcademicChatter on Twitter or TikTok will quickly show you that The Great Resignation seems to have hit academia (Gewin, 2022). Many researchers, not just Zillenials, are leaving their university positions to seek more profitable and flexible positions in industry. In part, this has been a direct result of the increasing pushback against unsustainable working conditions that have been classic of academia for decades, where academics are expected to work extra hours for less pay because of our passion for the field. The heavy focus on publishing or perishing has led many academics toward unhealthy work-life balances and even nonmedical pharmaceutical use to improve cognition and enhance work outputs (Maher, 2008).

For academia to survive The Great Resignation, it is imperative that universities start taking the priorities of Zillenial employees more seriously.

Unlike prior generations, Zillenials and Generation Z grew up with greater access to technology, which has trained us to quickly adapt to growing technology-based fields. Not only that, but ECRs are well equipped with programming, statistical, and research skills that highly profitable industries rely on. Zillenials are in a prime position to join tech or pharmaceutical companies with a starting salary double what they would make if they stayed in academia. In doing so, they are often given more luxurious work environments, more flexible remote working policies, and better funding for personal and professional development, the combination of which might allow people to travel more and take advantage of their youth while still growing in their careers.

For academia to survive The Great Resignation, it is imperative that universities start taking the priorities of Zillenial employees more seriously. Zillenials want starting salaries commensurate with inflation and experience, rather than the meager $35k per year that I personally saw advertised alongside some post-PhD level positions in 2021. Zillenials also want the freedom to work remotely, whether that be joining virtually from their apartments down the street or from thousands of miles away. Zillenials want to be valued by their employers and treated equitably and with the basic respect any human should extend to another.

As more Zillenials and Generation Z enter the workforce and Boomers retire, academia will not survive without addressing Zillenial values more closely. Without serious action and a re-evaluation of university policies and standards, academia as we know it may fall. Perhaps that might not be a bad thing.

About the author

After completing her PhD at the University of Bristol, Kirsten Westmoreland started her postdoctoral research fellowship at Rice University. There she assesses leader developmental efficacy and identity change. In fall 2022, Kirsten started as an adjunct professor in the psychology departments at both Rice University and the University of Houston.

Key sources

Bull, A. & Rye, R. (2018). Silencing students: institutional responses to staff sexual misconduct in UK higher education. The 1752 Group/University of Portsmouth.

Gewin, V. (2022). Has the 'great resignation' hit academia? Nature, 606, 211-213.

Maher, B. (2008). Poll results: look who’s doping. Nature, 452, 674-675.

Vigoreaux, J.O. & Leibowitz, M.J. (2021). Obtaining a faculty position in STEM at a research-intensive institution. BMC Proceedings, 15.