Unspoken challenges facing researchers

There are many challenges facing researchers today, from highly-competitive funding applications to demonstrating research impact – not to mention the day-to-day work of doing your research. However, there are some challenges that tend to go unspoken – particularly issues regarding inclusivity, equality, and diversity. 

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In our podcast for researchers – The unspoken challenges of research life – which you can listen to below, we heard from a variety of research professionals on issues spanning from parental leave to unconscious bias, and much more.  

It would be impossible to say everything that could be said on these topics in one place, but in this blog, we focus on exploring some of the key outtakes from the podcast and some of the advice and insights offered by interviewees. 

Read The unspoken challenges of research life podcast transcript.

Gender equality – or the lack of it

Despite determined strides by the academic community to address gender inequality in higher education and research, it’s clear that this will remain one of the challenges of research life for some time to come. In STEM disciplines such as mathematics and physics, the under-representation of women is particularly acute.

According to recent research, there is a persistence of gender imbalances and pay gaps at both the top and the bottom levels of the academic hierarchy, as well as gender segregation across academic disciplines and activities, and a lack of integration of gender perspectives in teaching and research.

These problems were echoed by speakers on our podcast, including attendees at the Vitae Researcher Development Conference.

“We’ve got a team in chemistry devoted to promoting the diversity amongst our staff and students,” said one attendee. “And we’re quite fortunate to have a near enough 50% gender balance in our undergraduates. That becomes slightly less in post-graduates, but then there’s a massive drop by the time you get to an academic position, which we’re all trying to fix.”

There are also positives to be taken from the fact that this topic is now more out in the open. As one of the conference attendees says in our podcast, “As long as we’re all aware and talking about it, it can only improve.”  

The challenges for parents

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Another challenge facing researchers today is parenting.

In a world of two-working-parent households, the long hours expected of many researchers are becoming increasingly difficult to juggle alongside parental responsibilities. But before the children even arrive, researchers often struggle with their institutions’ parental leave policies and the reactions of supervisors and peers. 

“Some people experience fantastic support before, during, and after a period of leave that they take,” explains Anna Slater, a podcast interviewee and researcher at the University of Liverpool who ran a project, looking at the experiences of researchers who take maternity, paternity, adoption and/or parental leave. 

“However, some people feel that they’ve fallen through the cracks and get no support,” she continues. “The most common reported barrier was financial issues, followed by job security fears. People were concerned not only about what’s going to happen for their current contract but also, how it’s going to impact on their research career in the longer term.” 

  • Researchers are often employed on a series of fixed-term contracts which can also have implications for taking parental leave.

“Anecdotally, people say ‘I chose not to have children until I had a permanent contract’”, says Anna Slater. “So that’s a really profound effect on your entire life due to the short-term nature of research contracts.” 

There is, of course, much that needs to be done by institutions to tackle these issues. But what can researchers do to help themselves? 

“So one of the questions in our survey was, what top tip would you give to a researcher going on leave?” explains Anna Slater. “[Some advice was] very practical, such as ‘learn about the salary sacrifice schemes that you can be part of through your institution for paying for childcare’, or ‘sort out childcare even before your child is born’. Another great piece of advice somebody suggested was, ‘pay it forward’ – so when you are supported, pay that forward and be supportive to others.”

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Racial discrimination

Perhaps one of the least spoken about challenges facing researchers and the world of academia is racial discrimination.  

Racial inequalities are a significant issue within higher education. But they are not necessarily overt, isolated incidents. Racism is an everyday facet of society and racial inequalities manifest themselves in everyday situations, processes, and behaviors. 

“I was carrying out a lot of research for one of the London universities and the Pro-Vice-Chancellor was very candid,” explains Tinu Cornish, one of our podcast interviewees, and a senior training and learning advisor at the Equality Challenge Unit.

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“He said there is a paper-width difference between research fellows and lecturers at these institutions. And it all depends on whether your professor puts you on as first author, whether they encourage you to be on a grant application, whether they ask you to co-present at a prestigious conference, and so on. All of that is discretionary. Unfortunately, due to unconscious bias, that tends to go to people who we have closer relationships with. And we’re more likely to have closer relationships with people who are like us.” 

This puts researchers from minority groups firmly at a disadvantage. However, higher education can’t reach its full potential unless it can benefit from the talents of the whole population.


Of course, many of the unspoken challenges facing researchers today do not occur in isolation.

“Intersectionality means that an individual, a researcher, may present or have more than one protected characteristic, for example, gender and ethnicity or disability,” explains Alison Mitchell, director of development at Vitae, speaking on our podcast.

“Therefore, their social identity intersects across those characteristics to create a whole. There are different forms of discrimination. And so, for individuals who have multiple protected characteristics, there’s potentially an intersection of multiple forms of discrimination as well.”

All individuals have multiple identities, and the intersection of those different identities needs to be considered wherever possible. But where does the responsibility lie for this? 

“Who ultimately has responsibility for the welfare of researchers is an interesting question,” says Alison Mitchell. “Is it the Principal Investigator or the supervisor? Is it the university? Is it the careers service? Is it an advisor of studies?

“[I believe] it’s important that PIs (Prinicipal Investigators) challenge their own assumptions and those of others in daily decision-making. For example, who goes to a conference, who should present a paper, when to hold meetings, how to make advancement decisions. However, research is a complex environment, and it’s not just PIs who create inclusive environments. All individuals who are working in a diverse environment have responsibilities for each other. Everyone should feel accepted and be able to work to their best.” 

None of these topics offer up easy solutions. However, by breaking taboos and discussing all the challenges of research life openly, we can work towards creating a more inclusive research environment in which all researchers can thrive.

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Where to next?

If you’ve found these blog useful make sure you listen in full to the podcast episode. And for even more helpful tips, you can look at: 

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