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Elements of a positive academic environment for early career researchers, and how we are contributing


Academia can be a very intellectually challenging place, but also frustrating for more vulnerable populations, including early career researchers (ECRs), due to power imbalances. Ultimately, we must create a positive environment where ECRs can thrive and grow professionally. At Future of Research, we seek to make academia more transparent and empower early career researchers with evidence-based resources to advocate for change within their institutions, and begin to create culture change. Some elements of this environment are fair pay, adequate training and mentoring, recognition of scholarly contributions, and opportunities for leadership. Our projects revolve around these topics, as seen below.  


Fair pay

Low salaries can keep promising scientists out of academia, resulting in the loss of significant human capital. This is especially true of transitional positions such as the postdoc, typically meant to train scientists for academic careers. Conversely, for postdocs, increasing salaries can remove the financial burden that so many encounter for pursuing science careers while also having a family, for example. We gathered data to document the compliance of institutions with the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) which resulted in an online database for institutions to compare each other, and publication of these data in F1000Research. This work was successfully used to advocate for institutional salary raises. We then used Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests to obtain data from individual postdocs across U.S. institutions, showing the actual salary amounts in an online resource and publication, also allowing others to perform their own independent analyses at the same time. Finally, we also helped to create, a self-reporting tool for both postdoctoral salaries and benefits in a given year. Overall these efforts have changed the conversation around salaries in academia, which we hope is the beginning of cultural change against finances as a selection factor in academia.


Training and mentoring

Mentoring is critical for early career researchers to realize their full potential. To discuss the importance of ethical, effective and inspiring mentorship, we organized a meeting that highlighted systemic issues and actionable steps for change in the mentoring landscape by various groups. This includes funding agencies, professional societies and research institutes. At the institutional level, culture change within departments has the potential to more broadly effect change, therefore we are now focusing more specifically on this level. We are organizing a mentoring meeting which will take place in Chicago on June 14, 2019 to develop a set of mentoring guidelines for departments wishing to implement actionable change. There will also be an option for remote participation through satellite meetings across the country. If your department would like to help develop these mentoring climate guidelines or if your institution would like to host a satellite meeting, please contact us at  


Recognition of scholarly contributions

Peer review of manuscripts is an essential part of research evaluation, and should be viewed as a critical scholarly contribution. Graduate students and postdocs often perform this activity when their PI is the invited reviewer; however the names of these ECR co-reviewers may not be provided to the journal. This results in a phenomenon called “peer review ghostwriting” which significantly limits the ability of ECRs to be recognized for work they have done for the scientific community. A survey in eLife showed that while 92% of those surveyed had undertaken peer review activities, 37% of graduate students had done so without their advisor’s assistance. In collaboration with researchers at Mount Holyoke College and Harvard College, we surveyed 498 researchers about their experiences with, and opinions about, ghostwriting. We found that 1 of 2 respondents had participated in ghostwriting despite the fact that 4 of 5 believe it is unethical. We also evaluated the motivations for ghostwriting and made recommendations to discourage it while encouraging co-review as training in peer review. Some of the data was presented at the 2019 Biomedical Transparency Summit, and this work was highlighted in a Physics Today post.


Opportunities for leadership

The power imbalance in academia weighs heavily against ECRs, who lack decision-making power in the very enterprise they drive forward through their experimental work. One place where ECRs can make an impact is through scientific societies, which may offer leadership opportunities on committees. However, these committees do not always enable them to truly make their voices heard and influence the policy directions of the scientific society they belong to. Previously, we organized a meeting on expanding leadership roles for early career researchers, and realized the need for a structure to be created in which they are both placed and supported in these leadership positions. We conducted a survey of scientific societies, focusing on early career researchers on boards, board chairs, and other society leadership to obtain a more complete picture of early career leadership experiences. We are currently examining these data to compile into a useful product for the scientific community.  

In conclusion, there are many opportunities for creating a positive environment for early career researchers in academia; we are working on just a few of them. What do you think makes such an environment? Leave your comments or contact us!


If you would like to read more about our projects, see our brochure here.


Featured image: obtained from Pixabay under Pixabay license, i.e. free for commercial use and no attribution required



Adriana Bankston and Gary S McDowell. (2017). Monitoring the compliance of the academic enterprise with the Fair Labor Standards Act [version 2; peer review: 3 approved]. F1000Research. Vol. 5, 2690.

Dalmeet Singh Chawla. (April 29, 2019). Junior researchers often ghostwrite peer reviews. Physics Today.

Gary S. McDowell, John Knutsen, June Graham, Sarah K. Oelker, Rebeccah S. Lijek.

Co-reviewing and ghostwriting by early career researchers in the peer review of manuscripts. bioRxiv 617373; doi:

Inside eLIFE. (January 17, 2018). Early-career researchers: Views on peer review. eLIFE.

Leonid Schneider. (2017). Peer review ghost-writing, or do professors understand plagiarism? For Better Science.

Rodoniki Athanasiadou, Adriana Bankston, McKenzie Carlisle, Caroline A. Niziolek, Gary S. McDowell. (2018). Assessing the landscape of US postdoctoral salaries. Studies in Graduate and Postdoctoral Education, Vol. 9 (2), 213-242.

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