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Top five challenges
Lack of support or becoming isolated
Lack of skills (for example, in writing, communication or research)
Lack of relevant data/literature for work
Maintaining a focused topic of study
There are many challenges to advancing a career in science, not least the ‘publish or perish’ culture in which researchers are immersed. Modern academia can be a difficult landscape for early-career researchers to navigate — how do you establish what your priorities should be while avoiding the pitfalls that might hamper your future career?
With this in mind, SciDev.Net conducted a survey of researchers from all over the world about the biggest challenges they face, pitfalls to avoid, and advice they would give other researchers facing the same obstacles.
With more than 80 respondents and input from professionals who support researchers, we’ve distilled this input and added useful resources.
Challenges faced by researchers
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the ability to get funding came through as the biggest challenge for researchers. However, respondents also painted a picture of an environment where it is easy to become isolated, and where getting adequate support can be difficult.
Other significant challenges included dealing with heavy workloads; time management; navigating bureaucracy; and knowing how to get published in the right journal. We’ve categorised the advice below with some of these challenges in mind:
|Familiarise yourself with the landscape and key frameworks||Does your research fit into wider agendas such as the SDGs or Agenda 2063? Increasingly, you must be able to explain how your research fits the bigger picture, and such frameworks are great starting points.|
|Don’t rush into a PhD||What kind of funding exists in the field? If it seems there is limited funding or resources in a particular area, think carefully about rushing into a PhD.|
|Keep an eye on calls||Look out for specific funding calls relevant to your research. Research councils are a good place to start, with sections on their websites requesting proposals. Here is an example from the South African Medical Research Council.|
|Listen to feedback||Share your ideas with trusted people outside your research group (and with non-specialists). They’ll be able to tell you if you’ve expressed your ideas clearly.|
|Become media savvy||Talking to the media can lead to more collaborations and, ultimately, funding. For example, policymakers often use the media as their source of information for science and technology. SciDev.Net has an online media training course for scientists, discounted for developing-country researchers.|
|Know yourself||Reflect on what you are good at, and on your biggest areas for development. If you’re not sure, get feedback from trusted colleagues, mentors or friends. This will help you choose the skills and knowledge to prioritise.|
Improve your communication
|You never know who you will be pitching your research to, when the opportunity might arise, or where it might lead. Polish your communication skills so you are able to tell anyone about your research. This practical guide is packed with tips for boosting your science communication skills.|
|Keep learning||There is a wealth of information at your fingertips. Free online resources such as SciDev.Net’s practical guides and online courses, and support networks such as AuthorAID are extremely helpful. If possible, attend short courses or seminars.|
|Manage your time||Researchers face a number of competing priorities and this can be daunting to manage. There are many things you can do to develop your time management skills. Check out this article from Science which is packed with specific tips for academic scientists.|
|Make a plan||Write a timeline for your medium and long-term ambitions. Distinguish between what you know and what you should know in order to achieve it. Figure out what you need to do in order to address any knowledge or skills gaps you’ve identified.|
|Get a great mentor||It’s important to have someone who cares about you and your career. A PhD supervisor should be a mentor, so maintain contact with them even after graduation. Cultivating relationships can result in more opportunities in the future.|
|Develop your online profile||Having ORCID and Google Scholar accounts will make your work searchable and trackable. This practical guide is packed with advice on this theme. Social media and blogging will also help you to showcase your work.|
|Network in real life||Many professional opportunities come through networking, rather than online. Developing your online persona is useful but nothing can replace meeting people at events such as conferences and seminars. Talk to people both within and outside your field and test your ideas with them.|
|Evaluate the impact of your research||Be organised about tracking where your work is mentioned, referenced or used for a news piece. Distinguish between traditional and alternative ways of tracking the impact of your research.|
|Publish early||Don’t leave it until the end of your PhD to publish a paper. Try to get your Masters research published, for example.|
|Stay focused||Try not to spread yourself too thinly by working on too many projects at once. This should allow you the time to write manuscripts and endeavour to get published.|
|Target the right journals||Do your best to get published in a journal that’s right for your research. Don’t succumb to the pressure of publishing in predatory journals, but don’t become obsessed with publishing only in ‘big name’ journals either.|
|Know the process||In addition to having a clear research objective, it is essential that you know the conventions and procedures for how to submit an article to your choice of journal. This practical guide will support you through the process. Journals usually have guidance for this too; here is Elsevier’s, for example.|
|Know how to write a scientific paper||Brush up on how to report scientific findings and make sure that you follow the conventions of your target journal.|
Some of this advice reinforces the previous points, but came through strongly in the feedback and deserves highlighting.
Another common message, from both experienced researchers and others starting off, is that it is perfectly natural to feel overwhelmed at the beginning. Make sure that you prioritise your wellbeing and that you surround yourself with supportive people who share your interests.
Finally, remember to be assertive and not to underestimate yourself, even if you are only just starting out on your career.