Stress while working in academia can quickly become overwhelming, putting many researchers’ well-being at risk. Without good management from team leaders and institutes, the mental health support needed for researchers will remain incomplete.
Dureen Samandar Eweis,
a personal account
Dureen Samandar Eweis is currently a Junior Consultant at the International Science Council. Her curiosity about understanding living things led her to do a PhD in developmental cell biology at Institut Curie in Paris. She has been an active member in student representative organizations in different countries. Following her PhD, she carried out a Bluebook traineeship at the Directorate General of Research and Innovation of the European Commission to launch her career transition into science policy.
Recent governmental efforts encouraging open science and research assessment policies are paving the way for an improved academic system. This is great news! The world of research, however, involves many other factors that heavily impact the pressure a researcher faces. On a day-to-day basis, researchers must cope with an overload of work, failing experiments and pressing deadlines, all in a limited time-frame. Therefore, if we expect creative minds to bring knowledge and innovation in order to lead our societies into a brighter future, the high stress researchers face should not be normalized. Good working conditions need to be provided for researchers if institutions desire to keep the best minds. We must also reflect on how we expect younger generations to be inspired to pursue careers that can be quite stressful. It is becoming clear that if we seek sustainable academic systems, much must be implemented to reduce the uncertainty of a researcher’s career. Among the issues that I genuinely believe must be addressed urgently, include safeguarding and improving mental health support for researchers at the managerial and institutional level.
Since the types and availability of permanent positions in academia vary from one country to another , the call for mental health support presented in this article is focused on young researchers or postgraduate researchers (PGRs) who have limited contracts. This includes PhD students, postdoctorates, engineers and technicians. While institutional support is needed for all researchers, the vulnerability of PGRs due to short-term projects and power imbalance makes for more particular cases.
Institutional support must be made accessible to young researchers. This can be done by encouraging the team leaders to talk about mental health in order to normalize the conversation and prompting researchers to seek support. Research institutes and universities should establish a systemic approach by creating and providing the space and resources for having communities where issues faced by PGRs can be discussed. A recurrent concern of many young researchers is the relationship with their supervisor, typically the principal investigator (PI) of the team. There can be a lack in the alignment of a young researcher’s personality and the management style of the PI. This can potentially be explained, since PIs are mainly assessed on their excellent research and innovation skills when starting a new team, but are not judged on their managerial and interpersonal skills. While support from friends and colleagues can comfort a young researcher, research institutions need to adopt a systematic approach to ensure a healthy and respectful relationship between the PI and their researchers. This can include various strategies, such as providing communication training for both supervisors and young researchers, providing management courses for PIs and advising regular evaluation meetings where feedback can be shared. While supervisory relationships can be improved, an essential policy lacking here is making good management one of the top requirements in PI applications, since it is the main responsibility of a team leader. In more vulnerable situations where young researchers are facing harassment or risk of scientific integrity due to scientific misconduct by colleagues or the researcher’s own supervisor, institutional support is essential. Young researchers need to feel safe to report such behavior, which means they need to trust institutional management. Clear protocols must therefore be put in place by institutions that can be followed in order to find solutions while protecting PGRs. Research institutions must have guidelines that clearly state who to contact and what can be done in difficult situations that have a direct impact on the work and mental health of young researchers.
On a positive note, approaches and strategies for targeting mental health support for young researchers have been incorporated in some labs, institutes and universities. An interesting article published in January, 2022 summarizes and evaluates some interventions and practices implemented at the institutional level to support mental health of PGRs and lists recommendations that institutions can adopt (Watson & Turnpenny, 2022). A few examples of mental health support that can serve as inspiration include:
- An impressive effort carried out in the UK called the HEFCE Catalyst Fund dedicated £1.5 billion to 17 projects that aim for mental health support for PGRs. Durham university was one of the institutions to be awarded a grant to develop an online educational resource supporting the mental health of young researchers. The course consists of four modules which cover different aspects of PGR mental health as well as PGR supervision in the context of mental health difficulties (Durham University, 2022).
- Some doctoral schools and universities in Paris, France, launched workshops on time and stress management dedicated to PhD students to help them manage their projects while also managing the stress that a PhD candidate endures (ADUM Paris Sciences et Lettres, 2018).
- A team leader at Columbia University in New York City was inspired by the idea of lab manuals and created her own in which she explains her research and work-life balance. She also lists concerns that she expects her trainees may have and provides examples of helpful tools and resources that could be useful for them (Aly, 2018).
It’s hard to say what’s the best way management can provide mental health support, but these efforts are undoubtedly great!
If one were to imagine an academic system in the future where a majority of young researchers are guaranteed financial and career stability, will the stress of a young researcher become a concern of the past? It would be tempting to believe that resolving these significant issues would lead to healthier mental well-being among young researchers. Yet, the direct impact management has on a researcher’s mental well-being has to be recognized even in a world where researcher career precarity is radically reduced. The fact is, research work is largely independent. Clear guidelines from management and systematic approaches to complicated problems are needed if we are to save the researcher from spinning around their own axis to find a solution. PhD students, postdocs, technicians and engineers makeup the majority of employees in most research institutes. The current exodus from academia is a warning sign. While progress for improving the system is happening slowly at national and international levels, there is a major role for research institutions in managing the future of academia.
Dureen Samandar Eweis
Consultant, International Science Council,
ADUM Paris Sciences et Lettres. (2018). Time, priority and stress management. https://www.adum.fr/script/formations.pl?od=171226&site=PSL
Aly, M. (2018). The key to a happy lab life is in the manual. Nature, 561(7721), 7. https://doi.org/10.1038/d41586-018-06167-w
Durham University. (2022, December 2). Counselling and Mental Health Service - Durham University. https://www.durham.ac.uk/colleges-and-student-experience/student-support-and-wellbeing/counselling/
Watson, D., & Turnpenny, J. (2022). Interventions, practices and institutional arrangements for supporting PGR mental health and wellbeing: reviewing effectiveness and addressing barriers. Studies in Higher Education, 47(9), 1957–1979. https://doi.org/10.1080/03075079.2021.2020744