Student Life

The Big Problem with Academia: What is the Brain Drain and Why is It Happening?

You’re probably familiar with the term ‘brain drain’. It refers to the loss of expertise and talent of Australia’s best and brightest minds as they are drawn abroad to find work (and much-needed funding) in their field. In 2016, News Corp Australia reported that one of Australia’s top four leading researchers was forced to move overseas to secure funding for his work with blood cancer. And that’s not to mention the other 671 Australian researchers in that same year!

Why is this happening, though? In this article, we’ll explore the state of the academic workforce in Australia, and explain why we should care about what happens to Australia’s PhD students after they graduate.

The Oversupply of PhD Graduates

According to ‘Fix the PhD’ (2011, para. 1), an editorial from Nature, a PhD is ‘no longer a guaranteed ticket to an academic career’. The article suggests PhDs are sprouting up ‘like mushrooms’ (para. 1)—the implication is that the graduate output is high, but problematic.

Individuals at the top of their field, highly qualified with expert skills, are forced to compete with other brilliant minds for limited places in the oversupplied job market of academia for research positions and grants. We already know that PhD students struggle financially for the duration of their studies. However, the situation can remain grim after graduation. The crushing disappointment of not being able to secure a permanent job, even if you are a leading expert in your field, is very real for many PhD graduates.

Unfortunately, there is no real reason for universities to fix the oversupply issue on their end by moderating PhDs. In fact, universities are arguably disincentivised to fix the problem: PhD students are cheap labour, they add to the university’s publications output and universities receive government subsidies for them (‘Fix the PhD’, 2011, para. 5, Osborne, 2016, para. 16).

The State of the Academic Workforce

The consequence of this oversupply of PhDs is that ‘educational supply’ doesn’t correspond with ‘occupational demand’ (‘Fix the PhD’, 2011, para. 6). This oversupply has significant consequences for the whole sector and especially impacts the types of contracts offered and the workplace climate.

When there are many people seeking limited jobs, the employment provider wields a great deal of power and can set the terms for employment. This is the case in Australian higher education institutions, especially for research positions.

Universities can get away with offering short-term contracts or casual employment because researchers are desperate for employment and are forced to take any work they can get, even if it is short term or casual. Additionally, employees are urged—whether this is explicit or implicit—to work longer hours, give more and take less (especially leave and holidays) if they want to secure another block of work. The workplace becomes weighted in favour of the employer, not the employee.

The National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU, 2017a, para. 2) has reported that over 60 per cent of the total staff working at universities experience job insecurity. The NTEU’s 2015 State of the Uni survey revealed that job security isn’t limited to the experience of early-career academics; over 40 per cent of research staff on contract are on contracts of one year or less, regardless of years employed in the sector (para. 9). Over 50 per cent of teaching staff are employed on a casual basis with no promise of ongoing employment (para. 10). Dunlevy (2016, para. 12) cites an Australian Society for Medical Research survey that found that one in four employees in the health and medical research field are unsure about their employment prospects for the following year.

Consider the consequences of long-term job instability: an inability to plan for the future by budgeting for long-term expenses and making financial commitments. Beyond the financial, there are also personal repercussions. The NTEU’s website (2017b) documents the stories of Australian researchers who experience anxiety, concerns about ‘lost retirement savings opportunities’, difficulty with arranging childcare for unpredictable schedules, loss of income over Christmas, no access to sick leave entitlements, and a pervading nervousness that prevents employees from ‘feeling as though … [they] could just concentrate on [their] work’.

Additionally, the job insecurity epidemic—in which employees are working to earn another contract—also creates questions about academic quality, freedom and integrity.

According to Dr Catherine Osbourne (2016, para. 16), PhD graduates are on the increase. She explains that she despite her PhD and five years of postdoctoral experience, she struggled to secure a contract longer than one year. As a result, she left the ‘research game’ because the ongoing stress was too high. And that’s just it, research has become a game: a gamble. The odds are stacked against graduates and they’re not improving.

While there are more PhD graduates looking for research jobs, there is less funding available—only exacerbating the conditions of an already competitive sector. Dunlevy (2016, para. 9) reports that the government funds less than one in seven project grants now; in 2007, it was one in four.

Why You Should Care

The job instability in the research sector is something we should all care about because it could have devastating consequences for the Australian economy—not to mention the consequences for the education industry.

The cost of replacing even 25 per cent of the PhD-qualified health and medical research academics is in excess of $500 million dollars (Dunlevy, 2016, para. 13). In Osbourne’s case (2016, para. 15), 80 per cent of her PhD and postdoctoral experience was funded by the tax payer. She confesses that her exit from the research sector ‘seems like a huge waste of money’. The brain drain not only costs us in expertise, but also in ongoing costs of replacing our best and brightest minds.

Of course, there is also the possibility that job instability will deter people from entering the research field altogether. The Nature editorial (para. 4) suggests that the ‘widening concerns about dismal job prospects … dissuad[e] some of the brightest candidates from taking the PhD route’.

Arguably, job instability impacts female researchers the most. If a researcher does take maternity leave, Osborne (2016, para. 9) recounts that there is an increased likelihood of one’s contract not being renewed upon her return to the workforce. Unpredictable work hours make arranging childcare difficult. Financial insecurity can become amplified for researchers trying to support a family.

Germany recently passed legislation to protect against further brain drain. No longer are rolling 12-month contracts permitted to be offered when a project has long-term funding (Kwok, 2016, para. 6)—a practice that is commonplace in Australian universities. German researchers must be offered contracts for the duration of their project’s funding. Additionally, researchers cannot be penalised—or their contracts not renewed—for taking parental and carers leave; in Germany, contracts are extended to accommodate such leave (para. 10).

With these promising opportunities available abroad, the Australian government needs to intervene to protect our country from the devastating economic and academic consequences of further brain drain. It’s important to remember that advances in science and medicine are dependent on research. Our ability to understand ourselves and our universe is dependent on research. Our ability to innovate is dependent on research. When research—and Australian researchers—takes a hit, we all lose.

The Capstone Editing Mid-Career Researchers Grant

The Capstone Editing Grant for Mid-Career Researchers provides $10,000 of seed funding for one researcher every year to undertake research. We recognise that the climate of short-term contracts and competitive funding means it can be difficult for a researcher to get started with their research project. Ongoing job instability can equate to financial uncertainty for researchers and their families. Capstone Editing is targeting this grant at mid-career researchers, because we believe it’s important to stem the tide of the Australian brain drain.

The expectation is that this grant would support the preliminary stages of a research project and lead to the development of a funding application, most commonly for the Australian Research Council or the National Health and Medical Research Council. The grant can be such as software or small lab equipment; domestic or overseas travel to learn new techniques or collaborate with colleagues; and data analysis.

Applications are open from 1 July to 30 December every year. Please share the news of this funding opportunity with everyone you think might benefit from it.

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