Moving Through Uncertain Research Landscapes

Early Stage Researchers in the Life Sciences and Their Strategies of Coping with Uncertainties

ÖAW/DOC-Fellowship - 04/2009-03/2011

Lisa Sigl is a contract researcher at the Department of Social Studies of Science in the framework of a DOC-fellowship of the Austrian Academy of Sciences (supervision: Ulrike Felt).

Early stage researchers in changing research landscapes

It has become a controversially discussed question within Science and Technology Studies (STS) how cultures of research and framework conditions of science are mutually shaping each other. However, how entanglements between societal contexts and actual research processes take place in actual research work is largely unexplored empirically. Building on research activities at the Department of Social Studies of Science (EU-FP6 project KNOWING, GEN-AU project GOLD II), this thesis qualitatively analyses how early stage researchers are contributing to this process by coping with uncertainties.

In today’s research landscape, researchers in the life sciences, and in particular early stage researchers (PhD students, Postdocs), are confronted with a wide range of uncertainties, from risky research projects to uncertain job prospects. By employing sophisticated “managerial skills”, young researchers (have to) invent ways of coping with these uncertainties. To trace early stage researchers’ perception of these uncertainties and their approaches to dealing with them is the central focus of this thesis.

Changing political and institutional framings of research make it especially interesting to look at these ways of coping. In the context of the Lisbon goal of a knowledge-based economy, funding structures for research and the organisation of universities are in a process of reformation. Within the context of a transforming employment situation, redefined quality criteria for research and other changes in research environments, early stage researchers are facing new uncertainties that are challenging culturally established ways of dealing with incalculable aspects in research. In turn, their reactions to these challenges shape future cultures of research. As such they are an excellent focus for investigating co-evolutionary processes.

In bringing together broader lines of development within the contexts of research on the one hand and early stage researchers’ ways of manoeuvring through these landscapes on the other hand, my PhD thesis is located at the interface of two theoretical trajectories in STS: theories of shifting cultures of research on the macro-level that have diagnosed an “age of uncertainty”, and traditional “lab studies” that have investigated how actual research practices are constructed.

This thesis ties into a policy discussion of high contemporary relevance. In the Lisbon process, early stage researchers are seen as an increasingly important force in building up the human resources needed. The life sciences have been identified as a field of research with high economic potential. There are various attempts to move young people to choose educational trajectories that fit recent research policies.

Methodological Approach

This PhD thesis builds on 13 narrative, biographical interviews and 4 focus group discussions with Postdocs and experienced PhD students that have already been carried out in the framework of the projects KNOWING and GOLDII within the two settings described above. In addition to that, 5 researchers within the same sample have been interviewed again after a period of 3-4 years in order to grasp the transformation of uncertainty-perceptions in different episodes of researchers’ careers. All interviewees held temporary positions in academic institutional contexts (mostly funded by research projects) and aspired to stay in academia or have at least considered it as their favourite option at some point in time. Unlike researchers that are already planning to leave academia for a job in industry, they are constantly reacting to the framework of demands within the academic system.


Lisa Sigl

This project is funded within the DOC-programme of the Austrian Academy of Sciences.