Talking about the life of PhD students and postdocs in the Czech academic environment with Katerina Cidlinska

22. 2. 2021
22. 2. 2021 SCIOTHECA

We discussed with Katerina Cidlinska, PhD various factors influencing careers of early career scientists in the Czech Republic, relatively low scientific mobility, main reasons for quitting the scientific career and possible solutions that could prevent it all. Katerina Cidlinska, PhD is a sociologist who focuses her research on studying working environment in academia, support to early career researchers, mentoring, gender inequalities in academia, exits from academic career, intersectoral mobility or professional identities.

What are the key factors influencing careers of early career researchers, that are often underestimated?

Supervision and support. If you have it, your progress in terms of research work and career is much faster. Unfortunately, there is a strong notion in the Czech Republic that if you are good researcher you do not need any special support. Many supervisors of nowadays PhD students or postdocs have very minimalistic approach to their leadership role. Supervision could be seen only as correcting reports and overseeing research topics but not as leading in terms of professional and career advisors and also as “door openers” to important professional networks. Hence, the early career researchers often miss important career opportunities that they were not aware of. Sometimes PhD students are left alone and lack even basic research supervision. This is a problem especially for PhD students but also for postdocs because they have a handicap in building their research carrier especially if they want to be successful in international competition. Of course, it does not mean that there are no good supervisors in the Czech Republic! But the discourse related to supervision and support differs from the discourse in Western countries where e.g. mentoring programs for academics are standard. And the other factor, which is the case especially in social sciences and humanities, is time for research. It means to have adequate financial support to be able to focus on your research work properly.

What are the key features of a good supervisor? How can I as early-career researcher recognize during job interview that my future/potential supervisor will not sink my scientific career?

It is difficult if you need to choose supervisor who you do not know and you do not have any personal experience with. You should well consider supervisor´s research topic and interests, record of publications and research projects. It is a good idea to speak with his/her PhD students and postdocs about their collaboration with the supervisor. But still, you will not know everything important in advance like certain supervisor´s personal features that someone is ok with, someone is not. There is no perfect type of leadership. Various early-career researchers appreciate different types of supervisors. But there are typical features the good supervisor should have: being reachable (have time for students), being interested in students’ progress and provide feedback on their work, not exploit students nor appropriate their work. However, if you have very specific research topic the pool of supervisors is small and then the questions about the type of leadership go aside. Many PhD students thus cooperate with one or two extra informal advisors because they need more than what they get from their supervisor.

Is it common for the applicants to ask about the experience of students and postdocs from the group where they apply for a position?

Indeed, it is not considered as standard. In the first place, it is not even in their mind that they should do that. In fact, at some universities or institutes in the Czech Republic they do not even have any open selection procedure or interview for new candidates. Or sometimes there is a formal selection procedure, but they automatically accept everyone. Some PhD students can smoothly move from their graduate studies to PhD position with no competition or selection procedure at all. They do not really consider the qualities of their supervisor and they do not understand it is important. This practice is obviously not everywhere however I was surprised when I with my colleagues from the Czech Association of PhD students (ČAD) were communicating with PhD students from all around the Czech Republic and we found out that some PhD programmes or whole universities do not have any entrance exams or interviews for PhD studies. Thus, we have two problems here – one is that the supervisors are not always aware and well prepared how to be good supervisors and the second problem is that many PhD students and postdocs are not asking them for that. Unfortunately, students often even do not know to what extent they can expect and ask for attention and proactive support from their supervisors, they are not aware about their student rights. PhD students usually understand their duties because they are included in their study plan and the fulfilment of these duties is evaluated annually. But nobody speaks with them about their rights. There is problem with lack of information and with the culture at the research institutions.

At the Institute of Psychology of the Czech Academy of Sciences, Dr. Machovcova studied leadership and followership at Czech universities. Her study showed that there is quite high level of individualism in the Czech research environment. In our culture we believe that if you want to perform excellent research you should be good by your own. We think that someone who needs leadership is weaker, not good enough, not independent or mature enough. There is a significant cultural problem. If you are naturally good supervisor you work well in any system but if the system in which you work does not define and explain what it means to be a good supervisor, and supervisors are not assessed for being supervisors, then many supervisors do not perform their supervisory role well enough. Thus, we do not use and develop the potential on both sides – supervisors and students. Nevertheless, there is a hope for improvement. The new Strategic Plan of the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sports for the period after 2021 includes a special priority goal “Raising effectivity and quality of the PhD education” also covering the topic of quality of supervision. Universities should formulate standards for supervisors specifying supervisor’s duties and responsibilities and establish a system of their assessment.

According to your research how the Czech researchers perceive scientific mobility? Are there big differences between different age groups or research disciplines?

I did not do research about scientific mobility, but it is a topic which in my research naturally pops up as it is a part of academic´s life. However, Dr. Vohlidalova from the Institute of Sociology of the Czech Academy of Sciences investigated thoroughly gender aspects of scientific mobility. In general women move for their work abroad less often than men. She demonstrated that this trend is even stronger in the Czech Republic because of our conservative family policy and gender culture. Women, mostly at the postdoc stage, usually stay at home after birth of their child for a longer period than it is usual abroad. Firstly, in the Czech Republic we have a culture of intensive motherhood which causes difficulties to justify people around you and yourself as a woman if you would like to go back to work sooner than 2 or 3 years after birth. Secondly, there is structural problem, which is lack of affordable (which basically means public) childcare facilities for children under the age of three. And finally, our rather conservative gender culture creates situation when male postdocs are usually followed abroad by their partner on parental leave, and it does not work vice versa.

We can see disciplinary differences in frequency and type of mobility too. For example, if you are a physicist, you usually work as part of a research team that has some collaborative network. It is not unusual that PhD students and postdocs work on big international projects and get in direct contact with research institutes from abroad. Then it is quite easy to do short-term visits and long-term internships and your supervisor also sends you to the conferences abroad to learn from your foreign colleagues. But if you do PhD in social sciences and humanities you are often not in close contact with your university because you are not employed on any research project. And if you are not employed and paid while working on your PhD thesis, you usually work somewhere else to earn money for living. Then it is difficult for you to go for internship for few months because you can lose the job you need. I had a colleague during my PhD who had to leave a good job in state administration because he wanted to go for a PhD internship abroad for couple of months. When he came back from his internship, he was unemployed and with no income. And this is quite different situation compared to a student of physics who can simply continue with his or her work after the return from the internship because s/he will still have a place in the academic institution.

"If the system in which you work does not define and explain what it means to be a good supervisor, and supervisors are not assessed for being supervisors, then many supervisors do not perform their role well enough."

What is the impact of the local research funding system on careers of young researchers?

Not too good. The fact is that the ratio between competitive and institutional funding is other way round than it should be. Institutional funding should form a core or represent at least 50 % of total budget of research institutions otherwise it endangers the development of research disciplines how indicated authors of international audit of the Czech Research environment ten years ago. But between 2007 and 2016 the institutional funding of the Academy of Sciences fell from 63 % to 34 % of the total budget. This is one of the reasons why early-career researchers but not only them work usually on short-term projects and contracts (2-3 years). It means huge economic and work instability which makes any plans in personal and professional life difficult. Beside that it does not benefit deep research work which needs time and focus. Researchers have to think about new project every second year, they invest lot of time and energy to demanding process of applying and thus do not have sufficient time and energy to work on the grant they currently have because in the middle of it they need to find where to apply next. Of course, the competitive funding is important and beneficial but in different ratio with the institutional funding than it is now. Basic funding stability is needed for saving researchers energy to do research itself, supervising, reading, and writing the articles or books. Senior researchers experience similar problems related to grant funding, but they are in a different position. If their grant ends and they do not have immediately another one, they do not lose their job unlike contract research staff where early-career researchers dominate.

Is still having a family with kids a real obstacle for achieving successful scientific career?

If you are woman yes, if you are man, it is easier. Statistics shows that women in the Czech Republic “disappear“ from the academic research at the postdoctoral stage. They obtain their PhD and soon afterwards, women with children vanish from science. It is a big problem, and it is caused by the combination of the mentioned job instability, in case of short-term contract on grant project you have no where to come back after parent leave, and conservative family policy in the Czech Republic that does not count with dual-career families. It considers only the situation when one person is doing career and the second one is caring person. If you are researcher and you wish to return to work six months after giving a birth, it is complicated. If you do not find place for your baby in the public facility, you must have lot of money to pay babysitter or private nursery. In general, women with a small child are in quite different situation than men. Only 2% of Czech men go on parental leave instead of their female partners, compared to 98% of women who stay home with their children. Thus, we almost lack the situation when man follows his partner when she proceeds her career. Yet another issue are HR policies. HR policies at majority of Czech research institutions do not consider personal life of researchers and do not reflect it in their internal career rules. If you do not reflect in your career rules that someone who cares of children has much less time for publishing and achieving mandatory career steps, then you have a bad HR policy and in reality, you make obstacles for those who actually do a good research but also take caring role in families. However, even here we can hope in positive change since many research institutions work on HR Excellence in Research Award projects.

What usually motivates young postdocs to leave academic research?

According to results of my PhD research project, there are many reasons for leaving the science and there are also gender and disciplinary differences. Economic reasons are most frequent but they do not seem to play the crucial role in decision to leave academic career. At least in case of people who entered PhD study with a real ambition to pursue an academic career. Many postdocs got disappointed by academic research environment. They initially expected fruitful cooperation and discussion with colleagues in an effort for doing high quality research, but the reality was quite different. They experienced absence of interest in the content of their research. They got frustrated because the management of their institution cared mostly about number of the publications, their impact factor, and the H-index of the scientists. Problem with grant funding I mentioned earlier are also among the reasons for their frustration. Another group of postdocs left academic research because they did not feel fulfilled by basic research, they needed to work on something more practical and applied and they needed to see the outcomes and real impacts of their work faster. Such people usually opt for private sector where they still work as researchers or analysts. Postdocs from social sciences left to work not only in private companies but also in various government bodies, they are experts and advisors. Postdocs in life sciences usually considered their chances to reach research independence, about being leaders. If they doubted their intellectual capacities or were not willing to sacrifice their private life for academic career, they decided to leave. However, here we have to stress the gender dimension. It was more often women who decided to leave even if they felt confident about their intellectual capacity, but they feared that the academic career could cause damage to their personal life. On contrary, for men the time demand of family was not a topic, which implies still very unequal division of care duties between men and women in Czech families.

What steps should Czech research institutions do to attract young talents and to keep them doing the work that they are good in?

First, they need to give them good guidance, support, and advices how to start. They should not evaluate scientists only according to number of the publications but acknowledge the content of their work. We need to show scientists that they are part of something with higher purpose than just project reports and timesheets. Otherwise, at some point researchers stop to feel the importance of their work and on the contrary start to feel they do “science for science”. To minimize this happen you should prioritize the discussion about the content of their work over the discussion about its quantity. This generates the vivid research community not just counting points. Also, we need to improve culture of caring of employees which is not good in the Czech Republic, and it does not apply only to academic environment. If you want the talented people to stay, offer them work contracts with good working conditions, decent salary and especially treat them with respect. Show them your trust and do not just control them. Positive motivation is always better than the negative one.


Veronika Mikitova, PhD.

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