News from the MCAA - Mental health and research careers


News from the MCAA - Mental health and research careers

One of the sessions in the 2021 MCAA Conference focuses on mental health and research careers. Fatemeh Asgari, member of the Communication Working Group, summarises some relevant points discussed in the session. No doubt that work is one of the top-rated reasons for daily life stress, and scientific research is not an exception.

I am a researcher, I know what it costs to be a researcher. Well, simply your mind! You need to deal with a broad type of tasks and responsibilities. You need to do the research, and that means you need to learn, apply what you have learnt, produce results, deliver these results in a tight deadline while you are worried about the funding, and throughout the process you are of course stressed because of the competitive nature of the field. For early researchers, other factors add to what I mentioned above, which brings more anxiety to cope with.

In the last MCAA Conference, there was a session on mental health and research careers in which different speakers shared tips on ways to decrease stress and improve the quality of life of early career researchers. The talk inspired me to write this article and give an overview on three critical issues: mobility and expectation, the relationship with supervisors, and the importance of seeking help.

Mobility and expectation

Many people migrate to other countries to extend their research path. This movement brings many challenges to deal with. To ease the difficulty in adapting to a new country, some strategies can aid us with the adjustment process. Here I mention tips that Scott Harrison (postdoctoral researcher and German chapter chair for MCAA) suggested during the session to those who must leave their own city/country:

• Make regular time to interact with family members and friends.
• Look for online communities with some local context.
• Make new friends. You can use websites to find a similar community with your interests.

There is no doubt that you are going to have some expectations about the new environment (country, city, institute), supervisor, and colleagues. However, our expectations might be unrealistic, and if we are not flexible with them, there is a big chance of being disappointed.

On this point, Scott Harrison emphasized:

“To be flexible with your expectation does not mean forget about your values, they are what make you who you are, but understand that not always what we expect is going to be the exact reality! Being flexible, you can easily adjust to this new life.”

Relationship with supervisors

For many of us, work consumes most of our life and it is how we spend our lives. When it comes to the research life, working hours are not clearly implemented, and often working on a project continues at home even during weekends. Supervisors have an enormous influence on our life. By being in a good relationship with them, the work gets easier and pleasant, moreover, their support brings us opportunities later.

To have a good relationship with a person, we need to get to know them. Knowing one’s supervisor is very important, as highlighted by Hugh Kearns (public speaker at ThinkWell) during the session. He gave some tips for students:

• There is no empty moment dedicated to you unless you make it yourself. Make regular time to have a meeting with them.
• It is important to report to them and ask their ideas, this way you are sure you are going in the right way.
• Show them your passion and try to learn things as soon as possible. It makes you independent, and independence reduces your stress.

The importance of seeking help

Regardless of the effort we put to overcome issues to move on, there are conditions where the road is too tough to pass, and it is painful to manage. If you are going through a hard time, it is your right to ask for help. Lea Heckmann, (Doctoral Researcher at Max Planck Institute for Physics) another speaker at the conference, emphasized that:

“At the beginning, especially when you migrate to a new country you need a lot of support, the responsibility is most for the institute that hosts you and the supervisor. Leaving yourself in your hole will not help you get out of the situation, it will just be a mental crisis.”

It is important to be happy with our life; it does not mean there should not be any difficulties to cope with or research work is an easy job to have (I think an easy job does not exist), but it is important to manage things in such a way that success and happiness should go hand in hand.

Fatemeh Asgari
Communication Working Group