At the beginning of their careers, academics find the odds stacked against them. They lack a track record of success, most proven through research outputs like journal articles. At the same time, as American sociologist Robert Merton pointed out, the rewards of research that, in turn, facilitate more research, disproportionately go to established scientists.
So how do ambitious early-career academics get a foot in the door? We recently published a study in the South African Journal of Higher Education that looked at an exceptional group of leading early-career researchers given a prestigious ‘Y-rating’ by the South African National Research Foundation (NRF).
These are ‘promising’ candidates aged 40 or younger, with potential to become established researchers within five years of assessment. The results reveal some of the strategies they employ to build up an academic ‘currency’ of quality research outputs.
What makes a successful early-career academic? Discussions with these high-performing respondents reveal that engagement with diverse fields and media catalyse creative thinking, from in-depth engagement with conferences and literature in their own and other fields to reading practitioner-targeted printed media.
This mix of applied, academic and multidisciplinary inputs allows researchers to borrow insights and methodology from different disciplines, in addition to pondering the fundamental scientific solutions to applied problems. This kind of multidisciplinary enrichment, however, is not always incentivised in higher education. In terms of incentives, improving one’s NRF rating is a key component of securing employment and career progression in South African academia.
Successful early-career academics may feel compelled to specialise in a certain overarching direction, as NRF ratings hinge on an academic’s standing in one specific field and not a variety of fields. This often counteracts the advantages of having diverse research foci in the early career. Such diversity allows these academics to find their feet and take up any project that comes their way which reportedly equips them with diverse skill sets and knowledge.
Academic citizenship, such as taking on peer review duties and actively participating in conferences, forms an essential career strategy for successful early-career academics.
Respondents indicated that peer-reviewing offers them an insider’s view on the process by which journal articles are fielded, accepted and rejected, and provides them with a skill set to prepare their own journal article submissions. Conference participation is also used as a tool to promote academics’ own visibility in their fields, and respondents reported repeating ‘the same story’ about their work on a topic at several different conferences or workshops to maximise their visibility.
Mentoring relationships also form a cornerstone of early-career progress, as the sheer mass of published work in a certain field makes it practically impossible to know everything on a topic, and where the gaps exist for publishing novel research.
Mentors help early-career academics by guiding them through the mass of published literature towards the gaps that exist in the field.
In terms of work arrangements, successful early-career academics put in long hours, with 16-hour workdays not uncommon. Respondents indicated that the large amount of day-to-day work and consistent interruptions at university workplaces make it difficult to focus on producing quality research. A spare hour during a workday at the office is not considered sufficient to do quality research, and respondents reported needing the freedom to be able to set aside five- to six-hour blocks of time to form an ‘uninterrupted train of thought’.
While conventional academic work responsibilities such as administration and supervising students may be time-consuming, supervision duties do provide helpful avenues to introduce novel ideas that assist academics in answering research questions. Supervised students interact with a variety of practitioners, acting as a communications network that brings vital information back to their supervisor.
Furthermore, supervised students can exponentially increase the academic’s working efficiency and capacity. Students reportedly pick up most of the academic’s laboratory work and individually work on smaller pieces of the puzzle that feed into the academic’s overarching research focus.
A variety of metrics and related incentives also affect successful early-career academics, with respondents in this study reporting different ways of interacting with them. Journal impact factor (JIF) is a metric that elicits diverse opinions, with some respondents indicating it as “a joke that everyone hates” and as a poor indicator of where the important research in a field lies.
However, many agree that publications in high-JIF journals are important for getting a favourable NRF rating, forging collaboration partnerships and thereby building one’s career. Successful early-career academics also tend to practise so-called cascading peer review, whereby journal article manuscripts are sent to journals with a high-impact factor, and with higher rejection rates, first.
Since these journals provide excellent feedback with rejection, academics may submit an improved manuscript to a lower-JIF journal. South African academics receive performance-based research funding (PBRF) based on the journal article outputs produced.
One respondent considered PBRF as a potentially dangerous measure that can damage the reputation of the researcher’s institution and country, as low-quality research may be produced in response to such incentives.
Furthermore, PBRF is characterised as privileging fields that produce journal articles as a conventional output over fields where instruments and artefacts are produced, thus depriving fields that produce fewer journal articles of funding.
Policy and funding background
The current funding and policy paradigm in which South Africa’s high-performing early-career academics have been working dates to the 1990s when our universities started to participate in international university rankings after apartheid and the international academic boycott ended.
The subsidy awarded per journal article, which was approximately ZAR100,000 (US$7,000) at the time of conducting this research project, aims to – at least in part – improve our universities’ international rankings, which are influenced to a significant degree by the volume of research outputs produced.
In addition to distributing funding based on research outputs, South Africa’s NRF uses a variety of different metrics to rate researchers, including age, qualification, as well as assessments of researchers as being ‘promising’ or established leaders in their fields.
While several policy and funding instruments form part of the national research and innovation system, NRF rankings and performance-based funding policies affect early-career academics most as they work to accumulate publications, visibility, and prowess in a certain field.
In practice, NRF rankings and performance-based research funding may often hurt ambitious early-career academics more than help them. While rankings and other metrics such as journal impact factor are important signalling mechanisms for academics to secure collaborations and visibility in their fields, they often discourage the kind of cross-disciplinary work that produces new and elegant solutions to scientific problems.
Furthermore, performance-based research funding may undermine its founding rationale by incentivising low-quality research and undermining the prestige of researchers, universities, and the country.
The deciding factor in a successful early-career academic trajectory seems to rather be eking out regular ‘blocks’ of time for intense focus on quality research amid a heavy workload, in addition to increasing working capacity through supervised students.
Additionally, success in the early academic career comes down to excellent direction from well-read mentors, as well as extensive participation in peer review activities and conferences to hone article publication skills and maximise visibility as a dynamic researcher in their field.
Charl Albertyn and Heidi Prozesky are affiliated with the Department of Science and Technology-National Research Foundation (DST-NRF) Centre of Excellence in Scientometrics and Science, Technology and Innovation Policy hosted by the Centre for Research on Evaluation, Science and Technology at Stellenbosch University, South Africa. This article first appeared in the University World News Africa Edition. The views expressed in the article are those of the writers and not Torque Media.