Expectation versus reality: the early career researcher’s guide to surviving academia

Academia can be an immensely rewarding profession, especially for those of us who love challenge, hard work, and the thrill of new discoveries. However, it can also be a bruising experience for some early career researchers as they navigate toxic workplace cultures.

Academia can be an immensely rewarding profession, especially for those of us who love challenge, hard work, and the thrill of new discoveries. However, it can also be a bruising experience for some early career researchers as they navigate toxic workplace cultures.

If you are a PhD student or fresh from your post graduate degree and ready for new adventures, the chances are that you will be leaving behind the familiar in search of a new position at a new place. This may even take you to a foreign country, far from friends and family. For many, these experiences are entirely positive, living up to the promises made at interview. However, for some early career researchers (ECRs), they can find themselves struggling in a hostile working environment, working alongside academics with a ‘rock-star’ mentality.

We can do better than this. Academic culture needs to raise its sights, with employee wellbeing promoted as the norm. Scientists worldwide need to break the cycle of abused becoming abuser and together focus on making, not breaking, the next academic generation. There is no doubt that progress has been made in the last few decades, but we still have a way to go to achieve an equitable workplace environment for everyone.

Here, we look at four common negative behaviours, with tips to overcome them.

Exclusivity in research

Exclusivity occurs when a manager limits the work of an early career researcher. This can take the form of stopping researchers from working on grant applications on the same research topic, or not inviting junior scientists to be co-PI in the PI’s grant applications. This behaviour may be masked as concern for the junior staff. For example, one may not be invited to contribute to a proposal because of concerns about one’s workload. However, by withholding these experiences, PIs can be accidentally limiting their mentee’s career development.


The time involved in mentoring students and ECRs in skills like teaching and grant writing can be relatively high for the PI initially. Yet, mentoring does not have to fall on the PIs themselves. There are many mentoring opportunities available. The BES has a mentoring network where mentees can get support in areas like career change, work-life balance and career development. Another route is ensuring mentoring is explicit in the PI’s job description with management receiving frequent feedback from students and postdocs.


Bullying is a persistent problem in academia. Common behaviours include unjustified verbal/written accusations, persistent criticism, rumour spreading, smears, pressure to work beyond contractual obligations, or preventing junior colleagues from carrying-out their research. Academic groups exist where a culture of bullying is so standard that it has become entrenched. How can we collectively tackle systemic academic bullying?

Assess the work ethics of the laboratory before accepting your position

When choosing placements, assess potential employers not only on the quality of their publications, but also on the reputation of their laboratory – chatting with current and past lab members can be insightful. You can also check the institution’s track record in dealing with bullying.

Informal resolution

A frank but cordial conversion can help. Perhaps ask a friend or colleague who knows you to be present and make sure you create a paper trail of written evidence. After the meeting, write a summary of what was discussed and email it to the person to sign off, cc’ing your witness. This is a good initial course of action, but it may not be successful, and further steps may be necessary.

Formal complaint channels

If the behaviours persist, take a more formal stand. Most academics, including PIs, have a line manager, and departments often have dedicated staff who are available to begin these proceedings, normally at the HR office. Some institutions already have explicit policies against bullying and are known to take legal action against them. Inform yourself of the channels and discuss potential pathways with anti-bullying champions in your department.

Institutional policy

An institutional position against bullying must be unequivocal and clear cut, and policy documents – often a code of conduct – should be openly available. All staff should be aware of the institutional position and understand what behaviours are expected.

Institutional assessments

The threat of losing funding is an effective tool in encouraging cultural change. More progress in this area could be achieved if broader assessments of productivity, including lab mental health, played into the ranking and future funding allotted to institutions. The UK’s Wellcome Trust, has already taken action in this direction, including “un-funding” PIs due to clear evidence of bullying. Similarly, the Leverhulme Trust has withdrawn a research grant from a prominent scientist who breached anti-harassment rules.


Well-known scientists are often invited to give keynote speeches or join editorial boards. This selection is often based primarily on their publications, grants, awards, etc. We advocate that selection is also based on workplace behaviours, so bullying is not rewarded with positions of power and influence.


A common expression of discrimination is providing career opportunities to some while denying them to others, irrespective of the individual’s achievements or potential. We have experienced group leaders who, likely unconsciously, supported the career development of ECRs from their own country/culture over those from other backgrounds.

Ending discrimination in academia, and in society, requires a mindful commitment, so what steps can we take?

Raise your voice

If you feel you are a victim of discrimination, speak out. This is not easy, but the support of friends and colleagues will help – make sure you have this in place.

Find your community

There are many networks that provide support to marginalised groups, such as BlackAFinSTEM, 500 Women Scientists, Pride in STEM, and academic society groups including the BES’s REED Ecological Network.

Do not be complicit

If you witness discrimination, speak up and become an ally.

Collaboration, not competition

There are enormous advantages to combining the expertise, experience and knowledge of different and diverse minds. The concept of academic merit should be reframed to embrace the importance of wellbeing as well as good practices and integrity in the sciences.


The constant pressure to be novel and innovative in academia can lead to the theft of ideas and results; students and ECRs are particularly vulnerable to group leaders appropriating ideas that were originally co-engineered with ECRs. Unfortunately, research groups exist where students and ECRs are only given credit when publishing, but little mentoring occurs towards their overall development as well-rounded scientists.

Keep written records

Always circulate written records after meetings, either as an aide memoire, or as formal minutes. If you brought specific ideas to a meeting, make sure that this is clear in the record. Likewise, acknowledge the ideas of others. These records can also be a great way to advance your career development.

Rethink academic achievement

The value of collaboration can be better supported by academic institutions. New indicators of success based on collaboration, as well as involvement of students in research and mentorship, would be a good step forward.

Build an equitable partnership

In the current system of hiring graduate students and ECRs, thesis research and project work is often prescribed and approved for funding before the appropriate person is hired for the task. This leaves little room for the incumbent to inject their own ideas into projects. Creating opportunities for junior members to participate in the design and planning of research will develop and support the next generation.

Towards a new research culture

While academia continues to attract, these four examples are signs of a system that could raise its game. Here’s to a research culture of humility over egotism, integrity over nepotism, and compassion over competition. It starts with each of us simply playing our part.

This article first appeared in The Niche, Autumn 2023. The Niche is the British Ecological Society’s quarterly membership magazine. If you’re not a member but would like to subscribe to The Nichejoin us today.