Three reasons why early career researchers suffer with writing stress

Starting out in any career is going to be tough – and academia’s no different. But the interim findings of our study into scholarly writing practice suggest that early career researchers – those in years one and two of their career – find it particularly tough and that’s something that could impact their publishing productivity and wellbeing long term.

Over the past few months we’ve been investigating the tools and systems academics use to keep writing and publishing – how they write, what holds them back and how satisfied they feel along the way.

Our aim is to build a picture of the academic writing and publishing process over a life time – from PhD to full professor – and encourage some debate around what kind of interventions might be needed at what stage of a scholarly career.

Now with over 600 responses from over 40 countries, the findings show that researchers are more dissatisfied with their writing and publishing processes in years one and two of their career than at any other point in their lives.

And digging through the data, we’ve found three reasons which might explain why:

  1. Early career researchers experience the highest amount of external pressure to publish (ie. pressure of ‘the bad’ kind)

The majority of academics surveyed (82%) say they feel under pressure to write and publish more than they currently do – perhaps no surprise there. But the research also indicates that scholars experience different kinds of pressure throughout their careers and some kinds seem to be easier to cope with – and less stress inducing – than others.

Our study finds that the type of pressure that originates from within – from a personal drive to meet career targets and advance in a field of study – rarely makes academics feel unhappy or stressed-out. In fact, this kind of pressure doesn’t seem to have much negative impact at all – it’s also the type of pressure most likely to be experienced in mid- and late-career.

However, the study also finds that the type of pressure to write and publish that comes from the outside – from institutional targets, colleagues or management – does lead to dissatisfaction and negative feelings of stress and overwhelm. And it’s this ‘bad’ type of pressure that’s experienced most acutely during the first two years of an academic’s career.

Related reads: How to develop a publishing strategy and advance your academic career >>

  1. Those new to academia are plagued with the most damaging kinds of blockers, barriers and obstacles to their writing

Whilst our data shows that all academics experience writing and publishing blocks and barriers, it indicates that early career researchers experience the most damaging and generally stress-inducing variety.

Although mid- and late-career academics might complain that their writing and research gets disturbed by day-to-day interruptions, admin and management responsibilities, the data suggests that these challenges aren’t linked to feelings of dissatisfaction.

The study finds that whilst annoying and frustrating, academics experiencing ‘day-to-day’ type challenges don’t seem particularly de-railed by them. Perhaps they’re just seen as part of the job of a busy academic and something to be expected? More to investigate there.

Early career researchers on the other hand are most likely to be held back and challenged by what we might call ‘psychological’ blockers.

They’re far more likely to be held back by procrastination and be plagued by negative emotions, feeling of guilt and overwhelm – all of which are very strongly linked to high levels of dissatisfaction with their writing process, stress and unhappiness.

  1. Early career academics haven’t developed (or haven’t been taught) the strategies necessary to cope with all of the above

The study finds that researchers at an early stage are most likely to struggle to find a regular writing routine, system or pattern that helps them to keep writing and publishing – which might explain the high levels of stress and dissatisfaction also experienced at this point.

Whilst finding a writing system that works still eludes many mid-career academics, the research finds that more experienced scholars are far more likely to have discovered at least a few tactics to help them keep writing and publishing despite the pressures of their schedules.

Tellingly, early stage academics are also most likely to complain that they don’t have enough time for writing than at any other time in their careers – which might suggest that the lack of a writing system or routine might be the cause of these time pressures.

Related reads: How successful academic writers stay productive with Helen Sword >>

Supporting talent

Learning the ropes is never easy but the interim findings of our research suggest that academics at an early stage of their careers are poorly equipped – or poorly supported – to grapple with the high pressure demands of writing and publishing in today’s universities and research institutions.

Scholars just starting out feel more dissatisfied, more pressured and probably more stressed than at any other point in their careers.

They experience more negative emotions, are more likely to feel overwhelm – and they don’t seem to have developed the support structures around them to cope.

How should institutions respond and how might university cultures and educational policy makers adapt? All topics for future research and debate.

But one thing’s clear. In whatever field – whether it’s business, public sector or education – when early talent isn’t nurtured, supported and encouraged, everyone pays a heavy price.

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The short survey is still open as we’d like to grow our dataset further. Contribute and we’ll keep you updated! Ultimately, our aim is to create a data-visualization map of scholarly writing practice across a career.

About the author: Co-founder and writer in residence at Prolifiko | failed academic and ex-philosophy lecturer | maker of unpopular short comedy films.