The effect of the coronavirus on the careers of (young) academics at Utrecht University

The coronavirus heavily affects the career of many academics at Utrecht University. Martijn Huysmans conducted a survey on behalf of the Utrecht Young Academy on the concerns amongst fixed-term academic staff. Within a week, over 500 people completed the survey. What can we learn from their responses?

Dr. Martijn Huysmans (Photo: Ed van Rijswijk)

Martijn Huysmans, member of the Utrecht Young Academy, initiated the survey to provide a comprehensive overview of the issues young academics run into. “I started this project because many colleagues with temporary contracts approached me with their concerns. I firmly believe that by making sure appropriate measures are taken, for instance through a central fund for contract extensions, the human and research cost of this crisis can be mitigated.” 

Through the survey (n=503), that ran from April 23 until April 30, the Utrecht Young Academy collected concerns and problems of fixed-term academic staff (e.g. tenure track, postdoc, PhD) on the impact of the coronavirus on their timelines and contracts. Most respondents are worried about difficulties working at home and delays in research due to setbacks in (field) experiments or surveys. 

Unsurprisingly, the survey showed stress levels are up while research output is down. Stress levels have especially increased for respondents with care duties at home. Many PhD students and postdocs have young families with increased care responsibilities. For example, one of the respondents mentions “concerns about lagging behind in competition with scholars and colleagues without care duties”. In an interview with DUB, three PhD students and postdoc Divya Raj, member of the Utrecht Young Academy, discuss how the coronavirus affects their plans. 

Furthermore, we also analysed whether the survey shows gender-specific differences. Of the female respondents, 68% reported they produce less research output than usual, as opposed to 58% of male respondents. This is consistent with some academic journals reporting more submissions from male authors and less submissions from female authors than usual

Most respondents (59%) would opt-in on a contract extension. One respondent elaborates why. “Because all the disturbances occurring at the moment, and for the foreseeable future, will greatly difficult achieving the tenure targets in the prescribed time. Also, they will make it extremely hard to find a job in this year’s job market, which I’ll have to do if I’m not granted tenure in the summer.”

The Utrecht Young Academy hopes Utrecht University will come up with appropriate, tailored measures to help temporary staff, as UYA chair Martine Veldhuizen also discussed in an interview with DUB. Rather than a mandatory extension of contracts, we feel it is important that the local situation and individual diversity should be considered, and we therefore recommend the extension to be on an opt-in basis. 

The Utrecht Young Academy also likes to emphasise that individuals should not become subject to arbitrariness. Where supervisors or departments lack funds, the university should consider a central fund that fixed-term staff can apply to if their supervisors cannot or will not help them. In addition, we encourage the university to consider potential negative side-effects of any measures over time, as there is a risk of a traffic jam-effect: helping specific groups now may have negative secondary effects on more junior groups. 

If you are interested in reading the full report, please contact the Utrecht Young Academy through uya@uu.nl. The Young Academy Leiden also conducted a survey among young academics at Leiden University. Take a look at a short summary of the results here