Life as a scientific group leader

How do UK universities treat their early-career group leaders?
30 October 2019

Interview with 

Sophie Acton, UCL


In the words of co-author Sophie Acton, who took Chris Smith through what happened, it began as an online whinge on Twitter. But, as responses poured in, it rapidly transformed into a valuable, publishable dataset that’s now a paper in eLife, and documents the - frankly mixed - experiences of early-career lab group leaders...

Sophie - Well, in the end, it was more than we expected: it was about 385 people responded, primarily people who work in the life sciences. We have all started independent research labs at various universities in the last five years and we collected this data mostly through advertising via Twitter. We are all our generation of researchers we're very active in social media. We're trying to get our voices and our research heard and the word just spread. It just took off so everybody responded to a survey that we'd put together and added their comments when we saw the data. We really should publish this.

Chris - And what was it you were seeking to probe mostly?

Sophie - Mostly I think just unfairness that these are a bunch of really bright people, they've been very successful in their training to that point. They have great ideas. They've been given grant funding and we just want everybody to have equal opportunities to make the most of that. And some people were reporting that they were really being stuck, they were having trouble with getting lab space, they were having trouble recruiting people. They were being swamped with teaching load - all these various issues - and other people were swimming through and having a great time. But we are we were all starting at the same level, and we wanted everybody to have the opportunity to show what they could do.

Chris - And when you began to unpack and decode the data you had collected what messages emerged. I mean what did you find from this?

Sophie - The one very surprising issue that we found was a gender disparity that I genuinely did not expect. And that came through in starting salaries. It came through in the research group size of people recruiting. It came through in teaching load, it came through in administration, working in committees and they're very small differences, but I can imagine that these may compound over the years and if you're starting off unequal that's something we should really take notice of and fix.

Chris - Does seem rather strange doesn't it? Because, you know, when we hire people, for instance in the medical job I do, I was doing some interviews this week. It's not the individual that attracts a salary, it is the role that they're going to do. You hire a person and they earn whatever that role is specified to earn; and I thought that academic salaries were the same...

Sophie - I thought so too! And certainly the way I was recruited it wasn't really given as an option. There was no negotiation of salary; I was told that, if you join this department in this role, you bring that funding. This is your starting salary. But, I presume there must be a little bit of wiggle-room in certain situations where people are asking for just a couple more increment points on a scale here and there. That's being awarded and that those little negotiations tend to be done by the male applicants.

Chris - I'll read you one of the quotes that you put from one of your respondents in the survey because it really it made me laugh - for the right reason - but also made me think and this person says "I feel like I'm trying to do three separate jobs research, management, admin, teaching" - there's a slash between management and admin which is why she says three - "as well as be a mother; to be my own postdoc because I can't afford one; to be a lab technician, because I can't afford one; to be the lab manager, because I can't afford one; to be a good mentor for my PhD students" etc.. The point that's being made here is that this is a very stressful position because all the time prior to this in a scientific career a person is largely having their life sorted out for them on their university we get spoon fed, as a PhD student we're often handed a project and guided through it; as a postdoc we're part of a moving train; and, suddenly, you have to stand on your own two feet and - it sounds to me - from this that so many of your respondents are feeling that they could be better directed, or better supported, in the in the early ramp up to get their careers airborne?

Sophie - Absolutely that! The people who responded who were happy in their positions, stressful as it may be, were the ones that had mentorship; that had supportive heads of department; who were eased into these various roles gradually when they have no experience of management, teaching, all of those things they can come gradually with the right preparation or people have been on training courses and leadership courses. But there are others in that cohort who were just thrown into all of these things at once. So get grant money hire students set up your lab be on these committees teach this many hours a week and that's so different from the training that they'd received to that point we all had. We focus on one research project as a postdoc, we focused purely on the site and getting out something new. And then as soon as you're managing a group even if it's a group of two or three people there's all these other roles that we're just not adequately trained for.

Chris - So it could really use a bit of input on that front?

Sophie - I think there's some really simple interventions that would just level the playing field for everybody.

Chris - It looks like also from your survey that the universities across the country - and these are Russell Group universities heavily represented in your data, so these are some of the foremost institutions in the world let alone in the UK - they're trying to have their cake and eat it here aren't they? Because some of the people who've responded to your survey are really high flyers. They've brought in enormous amounts of grant money, but they've been given a soft contract and they're being handed some cases enormous teaching burdens, more than people who are full time teachers at universities!

Sophie - I know I don't know how that can be possible but it is happening. We do have individuals in our cohort that report that they have got a full teaching load and they may have brought in multi-million pound research grants and they just feel like their hands are tied and they cannot do it all. And people going to these very prestigious institutions should be treated like they are those high flyers and mentored into being the next generation of amazing scientists not burdened with everything in and set up for failure.

Chris - Helpfully, at the end of your paper, you've got this survival guide - what amounts to a survival guide - for PIs. This is advice from you collectively as a group who've made it, but also from the survey data isn't it. What would be your top few tips for people who may be listening to this and they're about to start a group or they're about to embark on this particular career track?

Sophie - Yes and they have been our main audience; I have to say the number of people who've said this transparency has been amazing. The most important point I think that we raise here are to have as much transparency as you can when you're negotiating. There may not be very much to negotiate, but get in writing the things that you need. Get your head of department to really adhere to those things in writing before you start. You may also take from the datasets what the starting salary should be, or the average starting salaries are. So, if you feel like you're on the lower levels of those, you can now take these datasets, show them that - it's published - and say why are you suggesting that I'm on this grade when actually I know a lot of people on the same funding that I'm bringing in are recruited as a senior lecturer level and vice versa. So you can have those conversations when you're applying a little bit more with a bit more backing I suppose.

Chris - So play a little bit "harder to get" from the get-go would appear to be the moral of that story! Sophie Acton there she is an immunologist at UCL. 


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