Do you ever feel like you’re surviving instead of thriving in your research career? The underlying cause may be the cultural issues in our research environment. This article explores how productivity pressures, power dynamics and toxic work environments can be detrimental to our mental health, and what collective action can be taken to address that.
PhD to Postdoc
While an exciting opportunity to master skills and gain expertise, undertaking a PhD is essentially a litmus test for survival. If you can endure the PhD marathon and make it across the finish line, then you are probably suited to academic life. Following my PhD, I pursued a career in research, mainly because I am a curious person and interested in gaining a better understanding of how and why things work (or don’t work). For me, it was a natural progression to take the skills and experiences acquired during my PhD and use them to carve out my own research questions. Currently, in my third year as a Postdoctoral Researcher and in the first of my two-year Marie Skłodowska-Curie Action (MSCA) fellowship (grant agreement no:101027911), I have learned that there are certain expectations that come with a postdoctoral role.
Conventionally, we are expected to be good scientists and undertake various tasks and projects. Depending on the research setting, postdoctoral responsibilities may include supervising students; writing/reviewing funding applications; building relationships with other academic or industry partners, and joining committees. This, of course, is all in addition to core tasks like keeping abreast of the literature, writing/reviewing manuscripts, and building research networks. Like a black hole in space, the to-do list of a postdoc seems to be forever expanding. While stress-inducing, we assume these extra roles because we recognize that responsibilities naturally increase as we climb the research ladder. When I undertook my postdoctoral role, I knew I would face new challenges and responsibilities. Unfortunately, I now see some assignments as stress-inducing, and have ended up trying to survive instead of working to thrive in my chosen profession.
Researchers are familiar with the “publish or perish” aphorism. To prove competency and to have a successful academic career, as students we quickly learn the importance of building academic credit – and that publications are the dominant currency. Recognizing the limitations of a single scientific reporting metric, emphasis is now being directed toward acknowledging a broader range of achievements as valid research outputs. A growing number of research institutes are adopting the San Francisco Declaration on Research Assessment (DORA), which recognizes contributions to general knowledge, society, the wider research community, and the development of individuals. For me, this approach has been a double-edged sword. While initiatives like DORA offer more flexibility to researchers and encourage scientists to be more creative, I believe they can exacerbate the productivity pressure that has become part of our research culture (Haseltalab, 2019). The pressure to undertake every new opportunity presented to us and meet these multiple metrics is enormous. Ironically, nobody really knows how much work is enough, and so we produce as much content as we can. We believe that a heavy workload is a norm. Along with the ubiquitous job insecurity in our profession, we feel pressured to ensure that we remain competitive with other postdocs while seeking coveted research funding opportunities and contracts. As a result, we succumb to productivity pressure. We end up working more than our contracted hours, working late into the evenings or at the weekends. We also overextend ourselves to counteract the imposter phenomenon, and to avoid feelings of guilt and insecurity associated with the thought of not meeting those standards and not keeping up with this unrealistic pace.
A power dynamic exists naturally within the hierarchical structure of the research setting, which at times, can work quite well. For example, as PhD students, we benefit hugely from our superiors – trusting their expertise and guidance as we embark on our own research journey. Although we contribute and take charge of the course of our PhD, ultimately, we rely on those in higher positions to show us the way. On the other hand, power dynamics can often exacerbate cultural issues prevalent in the research environment that are harmful to our mental health. These include research misconduct or questionable research practices. Evidence from existing literature and surveys of researchers suggested that researchers in lower academic positions are less likely (than researchers in senior positions) to report alleged misconduct (Horbach et al. 2020). A prominent underlying reason for not voicing concerns was a fear of retaliation or negative consequences e.g., losing future opportunities from those in higher positions. Others cited a belief that certain individuals were being protected due to their social position, and that reporting any concern would not result in anything productive. Interestingly, power dynamics are also intertwined with other issues such as a toxic work environment. Passive-aggressive communication, cliques and gossipy behavior, an expectation to be on-call all the time, harassment or bullying behaviour, and feelings of unease or fear at the thought of going into your office – these are all common signs of a toxic workplace (Woolston, 2020). When the dynamics between the chain of command or the power balance between peers is disrupted due to such behaviours, an environment of fear and mistrust breeds. People no longer feel safe and happy in their workplace, and their mental health suffers.
Maybe I need to give the PhD-postdoc transition period a little longer? Maybe I need to accept that productivity pressure, power imbalance and toxicity are just the problems of a postdoc. Or maybe we need to take collective responsibility. If 51% (n>7,600) of respondents from a recent Nature Postdoctoral Survey stated that “they had considered leaving science because of mental health concerns related to their work” (Woolston, 2020), then we need to realize that we have a problem and that our culture and practices need to change.
A way forward
For now, I continue to navigate the postdoctoral tightrope. Along the way, I have taken some steps to mind my mental health. These include:
- Building a supportive network. Sometimes a chat over coffee with a family member or friend is all you need to voice your worries. Whenever I feel like I need a little more guidance, I turn to professional counselling services and speak with mentors who work outside my primary research area.
- Setting time aside (alone or with others) to do something enjoyable that is not related to work. Whether it's swimming, hiking, board games, or dancing, finding something that you enjoy can help give you a new perspective and space from your professional roles.
- Recognizing the warning signs of a toxic work environment, I have sifted the positive from the counter-productive, directing my time and energy to the people I want to work with and setting boundaries with the people I see as conducive to that.
- Wanting to be part of the solution to mental health issues in academia, I recently joined the Researcher Mental Health Observatory (ReMO) European COST action. At a systemic, institutional and individual level, ReMO aims to develop policies to monitor, improve and maintain well-being in research environments.
While there are steps we can take as individuals to mind our mental health, accountability and action at a top-down level is essential. As scientists and future leaders, we need to hold current leaders accountable and voice our concerns about the cultural issues at play. We also need to support people raising awareness about mental health issues in academia. Progress is challenging and will take time.
University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign,and Postdoctoral researcher,
South East Technological University
Haseltalab A. (2019). Work pressure in academia: collective awareness and resistance. Delta Lab. https://www.delta.tudelft.nl/article/work-pressure-academia-collective-awareness-and-resistance
Horbach S, Breit E, Halffman W, and Mamelund S. (2020). On the Willingness to Report and the Consequences of Reporting Research Misconduct: The Role of Power Relations. Science and Engineering Ethics 26(3), 1595-1623. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11948-020-00202-8
Woolston C. (2020). Postdocs under pressure: ‘Can I even do this any more?’ Nature, 587(7835), 689–692. https://doi.org/10.1038/d41586-020-03235-y