Out of the many thousands of writers we’ve worked with, one group is under more pressure to write than others: early career researchers. We took a deep dive into the experience of academic writers at the start of their writing career to investigate the barriers they face and what keeps them going.
Stakes matter. Being under pressure to write can work wonders for your productivity – just think of the power of a deadline to motivate.
But too much pressure can kill a writing career, depriving the world of diverse stories, and when it comes to academics, of valuable research. I was shocked to find out that 50% of PhD candidates fail to complete their doctoral studies.
Rather than look at anonymous trends we sought individual stories.
We asked researchers to share their experience, first, by doing in-depth interviews then running a detailed survey on their writing process. With 199 responses, we found a diversity of experiences; together they provided patterns. Using first person testimony, here’s what they told us.
Under pressure, overwhelmed and unhappy with their writing
85% of the early career researchers who contributed to the study said they were under pressure to write and publish more than they currently do. While publish or perish might be a cliché it pretty much sums it up.
Pressure goes up and down over the course of an academic career but it peaks at the beginning, and many won’t progress beyond this initial barrier.
“Some days I feel sick at the idea of writing or reading anything to do with my PhD.”
Only 29% felt satisfied with their writing schedule. Experience will bring greater satisfaction, but for now our rookie researchers are under the cosh.
Writing as a work a in progress
With under five years writing experience, they are at the beginning of their academic careers and are aware they have much to learn.
They describe their writing practise as a ‘work in progress’. Like all skills, there’s no shortcuts and it takes trial and error to figure out what works. Writing requires deliberate practise to improve: time, effort, feedback and learning from failure.
“Be consistent and be OK with failure. Submit the article. Don’t strive for perfection. You’ll have time to get perfect over the course of your career.”
“Find a mentor who can give you good feedback and be open to receiving the feedback good and bad.”
>> Related reads: How successful academic writers stay productive with Helen Sword
Low confidence and high anxiety
When asked about their writing, in comparison with other more experienced writers, they ‘over indexed’ on negative emotions with feelings of overwhelm dominating their responses.
They feel they should write more, but struggle with low confidence and high levels of anxiety. While some of this is perfectionism and procrastination, many experiences go beyond that.
“I’m struggling to adjust my research/work life to home life with a toddler while dealing with high levels of anxiety.”
“I am a novice researcher so not sure how what I am doing is comparable to those who have been doing it longer. Am I living up to the expectations of the job?”
Writing and work/life balance for early career researchers
Ask any writer what they struggle with and finding time to write is top of the list for most. For many this is an issue of prioritisation.
“I tend to prioritise other things. Grading, teaching admin tasks etc and even if I schedule writing I use the time for other things.”
For early career researchers, fresh from their PhDs, they are juggling new work responsibilities alongside family, and the pressure to write and publish. Don’t assume they are all young, while 54% were 25-34, all life stages represented. Those with families have particular difficulties.
“I really struggle to combine work and family (I have a baby) and I have recently joined a new university, so I am still adapting to my new situation.”
>> Related reads: How to find the time to write
Working in crisis mode
However, the biggest barrier to finding time to write is work pressure. The responses point to more than just prioritising busy schedules. It seems like crisis management is the default, with staffing problems causing undue stress.
“Due to short staffing I have a higher teaching and admin load than normal. I have no time to schedule in writing and still maintain some sort of family and social life.”
“I can’t seem to get any momentum with my writing. I find my time and energy is used up putting out fires in my teaching allocation and trying to manage colleagues / workload.”
Why early career researchers write
When it’s so hard, why do people go into academia to write?
The responses to this part of the study were truly inspiring – take the desire to make positive change in the world.
“I want to share my research and change the world.”
“I write because it is an important tool in ushering in social change and reform and shape the way we think about things.”
Researchers have a role as public intellectuals, explaining the complexity of world and sharing academic thinking. Many are driven to popularise their study.
“On an academic level, to understand and better engage the world we live in by articulating issues often overlooked because they are too complex.”
“I write because it feels like my science doesn’t count unless I can express it in writing to my peers or the general public.”
Writing to think
Writing is a tool for thinking. The process of sharing their findings helps them engage at a deeper level, and make new breakthroughs.
“Writing helps me analyse my data and organize my thoughts.”
“To gain clarity of thought, to become a public intellectual and thought leader in my field.”
Writing ambition and rewards
Because writing is so central to academic development, many shared personal motivations to write, including career ambition.
“To advance my research career, either by writing a journal paper (strengthening my track record) or by writing grant applications (hopefully winning money to fund said research).”
Getting promoted, gaining tenure, or as one person admitted ‘to not get fired’, is a driver. Also, gaining funding to continue their research. Some also admitted financial incentives to publish.
“I write to get work published. This is a goal with added incentive because my institution pays a small amount to academics per published article.”
Writing for the love of it
Writing is tough and for academics the pressure to publish is real. Yet, there is real fulfilment found in doing the hard thing. Asked why they write, many do it for the love of it.
“I write because I love to research, and I want to give back to my scholarly community.”
“Most of all, I love writing.”
We shared the first-person experience of early career researchers at the Researcher to Reader Conference on 25 and 26 February 2019, working with participants from across publishing to co-create solutions to better support researchers’ writing and publishing.
The data and quotes are taken from a wider study into academic writing practice based on a sample of 593 academic writers from 43 countries.