Beware of survival bias in science career advice

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If today’s successful academics usually work late in the lab, they are likely to be an advocate for the next generation to do the same.Credit: Thomas Barwick / Getty

A major flaw in many scientific and academic career advice is survival bias. This is a common logical error, which involves drawing conclusions based on those who “survived” a process – and are therefore more visible than those who did not. In the case of science career counseling, the bias arises because those who manage to stick to their chosen career path are there to advise the next generation of researchers on how to stay in their field.

As two postdoctoral fellows in Ecology (DHB, DR) and Senior Lecturer in Learning and Teaching (EK), we have seen many examples of deserving but “unsuccessful” colleagues who have left their field of research against their will. On the other hand, the positions we hold in our respective fields are, to some extent, the result of many fortuitous events that we have experienced.

Part of our success has come from hard work, courage and good judgment. But a lot of it came from decisions, luck, and circumstances that never make it career advice. For example, employment opportunities for DR and her friends presented themselves over drinks with seasoned scientists, and DR was asked to publish her first book. Does it fart? thanks to a completely unexpected Twitter hashtag. Fortuitous or fortuitous experiences like these are impossible to replicate, yet are the key to many people’s ability to stay in their chosen careers.

Conversely, EK had to leave her home field of English literature because she could not afford to remain in the insecure and poorly paid teaching roles that were available. It is therefore important to know not only why some people “succeeded”, but also what repelled many others. Assuming that all aspiring scientists and academics enjoy similar circumstances to their colleagues who have ‘survived’ can only hurt the prospects of the next generation and will lead to professions with a much less diverse workforce than might have been the case. case.

Over the years, many senior researchers have assumed that we would be able to go without pay for an extended period of time during our research, even living in one of the most expensive cities in the world. Sometimes we had to make our case and explain why we couldn’t afford it; sometimes we just had to find other jobs. Anyone who is able to work without pay is not only financially secure, but also unlikely to have other demands such as family responsibilities – and those who think unpaid work is straightforward are likely to share these. circumstances.

For these reasons, the survival bias in career counseling becomes self-sustaining. Those who have survived and prospered on privilege assume that those who hope to follow in their footsteps find themselves in similar financial and social situations; conversely, those without this privilege are less likely to access a position from which they can give less biased advice.

As the coronavirus pandemic has blurred the lines between “work” and “life,” the issue of balance has become even more important. The closest many senior researchers have to promoting work-life balance is to offer the common advice to ‘take a break’: perhaps between contracts, during vacation periods, or even by not working while. just not on weekends. Survival bias plays here as well, as this advice assumes that beneficiaries can afford to take time off despite the pressure to post or keep their heads above water financially. DR took a six-month hiatus between receiving her doctorate and starting her postdoctoral fellowship, but this was only possible thanks to the savings made, thanks to the publication of this book on farts – a privileged position that the Most doctoral students cannot easily reproduce.

Diagram of an airplane marked with red dots representing bullet holes.

Survival bias: During World War II, bullet holes on returning planes demarcated areas that were not critical to aircraft integrity.Credit: Martin Grandjean (vector), McGeddon (photo), Cameron Moll (concept) (CC BY-SA 4.0)

While survival bias makes intuitive sense to most academics, its influence on career counseling is rarely taken into account. Studies that examine the career outcomes of current scientists might even conclude that career setbacks are beneficial, without acknowledging that these setbacks lead many others to leave their fields altogether.1. Some researchers will encounter obstacles and setbacks beyond anything we have known, for example active discrimination, bullying or serious financial difficulties, and leave their fields accordingly. It is important to understand what the advice our communities convey is rooted in and that none of us can be truly representative of all the budding scientists. Each scientist has their own barriers to overcome, but let’s be careful not to extrapolate this, because something was not a problem for us, so it is not seriously problematic for those around us.

During the pandemic and its aftermath, relying on conventional thinking and the biased experience of others is more dangerous than ever, especially given COVID-19’s documented ethnic, class and gender disparities in our communities2,3,4.

Those of us who are old enough to give advice and set expectations can improve the quality and inclusiveness of our work environments by asking our students and colleagues about the barriers they face, with a view to understanding the factors that could exclude people from career progression. . Those around you may have faced challenges and circumstances different from yours, so when you are involved in mentoring conversations, take the time to ask what solutions might be right for them, rather than just recommending. your own way. The fact that you have overcome one obstacle does not prevent it from unfairly excluding many others.

Seeking more mentorship and support from others whose backgrounds are similar to yours and who have encountered similar obstacles during their career can be particularly helpful in this regard. Frank but sensitive conversations around these issues may seem awkward, but by helping us better understand how to support each other, they could be essential in reducing inequalities in science careers.

This is an article from the Nature Careers Community, a place to Nature readers to share their professional experiences and advice. Guest posts are encouraged.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing interests.


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