New survey to assess challenges facing young scholars

What are the unique challenges faced by researchers and academics early in their careers and how can they be better supported? A new study – geared towards early-career scholars in all disciplines in Africa – is set to find out.

The study, launched last week by the Global Young Academy, an international society of young scientists, will investigate the context in which young scientists and scholars work, their experiences with international mobility, and the challenges and motivations that shape their careers. This will generate evidence to inform policy recommendations aimed at improving conditions for young scientists.

A global precursor study indicated that today’s young scientists face a competitive funding environment and long work hours, and spend a large proportion of their workday on tasks that are not research-related, according to a Global State of Young Scientists, or GloSYS, statement.

Southern African champion of the Africa project, University of Cape Town immunologist Dr Anna Coussens, said with the push of many governments to increase the number of PhD graduates, a pipeline for PhDs is generating a new cohort of postdoctoral students.

Support structures

“But the question is whether the support structures exist within institutions for this increasing number of early career scientists, and whether they are staying in academia to teach the next generation of scientists or whether they are moving into positions in government, industry or the private sector,” she told University World News in an email.

“The other major factor we are looking at with the GloSYS Africa project is surrounding mobility. We are interested in the factors which cause young researchers to move both within and into and out of Africa. This is crucial in order to understand the factors which can contribute to maintaining the new cohort of scientists emerging from Africa, in order to have local solutions to local problems.”

According to Abdeslam Badre, GloSYS core team member and North Africa champion for the study, the ultimate aim is to develop evidence-based policy recommendations that highlight the ways in which young scientists can be better supported in their research efforts and career development.

An additional goal of the study is to create a database of comparable data on the state of young scientists and scholars across world regions.

Knowledge gaps

“Given that there are large gaps in our knowledge of the working conditions and obstacles faced by early-career scientists, particularly in Africa where data is scarce in quantity, and mediocre, at times, in quality, the value of this study lies in its promise to fill these gaps by collecting comparable data from under-represented regions within Africa,” Badre told University World News.

Known as the Global State of Young Scientists or GloSYS Africa, the Africa-based study is being rolled out by an international group of scientists in collaboration with local research partners. Officially launched last week, the study will cover 14 African countries: Cameroon, Egypt, Ghana, Kenya, Mauritius, Morocco, Mozambique, Nigeria, Rwanda, Senegal, South Africa, Tunisia, Uganda and Zimbabwe.

Particular areas of interest for the GloSYS Africa project are young scientists’ and scholars' motivations to enter research, support mechanisms, access to mentoring, scientific productivity and challenges faced as well as funding, mobility, issues of “brain drain”, and gender inequities within the higher education and research environments.

The Africa study follows a report released earlier this year which was based on a smaller study of young scientists in Southeast Asia.

Globally relevant

According to Coussens, the GloSYS project is “globally relevant”.

“Our first [Southeast Asian] study showed that early career scientists across the world are dealing with many issues affecting their career progression as well as work-life balance. Yet, this study also showed some significant regional differences which we now aim to investigate further … However the study design, using the same core survey across regions, also allows us to compare our results to the rest of the world. This may indicate areas where Africa is leading the world and other areas where it can learn from others,” she told University World News.

Coussens said Africa was chosen as the launch pad for the biggest GloSYS study yet, due to the “rapid transition” taking place in academia on the continent.

“There is a large and continually growing network of National Young Academies, or NYAs, in Africa, many of which the Global Young Academy has facilitated in setting up. Over the past 10 years, 10 NYAs have been established in Sudan, Nigeria, Zimbabwe, South Africa, Ghana, Kenya, Egypt, Uganda, Senegal and Tanzania, with two NYA-like bodies in Rwanda and Liberia.

Financially supported by funding from the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research, the Africa regional study explicitly aims to include young scientists who were born in, or grew up in, one of the listed African countries, but are currently living elsewhere, to better understand the factors that push many young scientists to leave their home countries for career development.

Early-career researchers and scholars with at least a masters degree or equivalent qualification in any field, from the humanities and social sciences to the natural and physical sciences, and in any employment sector, may be eligible to participate in the study which involves an online questionnaire which takes approximately 20 minutes to complete, and a possible follow-up interview for interested participants.