(Trigger warning: This newsletter touches upon issues of mental illness and suicide. Please stop reading if you find these subjects distressing. Help information is provided at the end of the newsletter.)
"You know, this might have been me ... " – a research scholar after hearing about the suicide of a PhD student at one of India’s top engineering schools
"A number of years ago, there was a wave of graduate student suicides. The University’s response was to create a program where students who live off campus could get boba or hamburgers together. We don’t need more boba. We need humane policies that treat [students with mental health issues] with respect." – Stanford PhD student
"On the ground, the truth is that the system is making young people ill and they need our help." – Nature
Years ago, when I was finishing my masters in New Delhi – the first in my family to get that far – the entire Goswami (father’s side) and Mukherjee (mother’s side) clans had made it their mission to push me towards getting a PhD. "Doctorate ta kor"; literally, "do the doctorate". That was their slogan. They were plenty outraged when I chose chaakri – a job – instead.
My reason was simple. I was bored of studies. And my parents were going broke trying to fund my education. For my extended family though, my refusal to get the "Dr" prefix was a betrayal.
I could understand their dismay. According to one report, less than 0.5% of India’s 36.6 million students in higher education were enrolled in PhD programmes. How could I give up a place in this elite club for a cubicle and dog tag?
I won’t lie to you: in my 15-year-career, I’ve had a few moments when I’ve wondered if I made a mistake by choosing the chaos of the newsroom over the sobriety of the research lab. But every time I see a brilliant PhD aspirant reduced to a pathetic mess as they await the fate of their make-or-break journal submission or grant application, or read about tormented young researchers killing themselves, I thank my stars.
God knows journalism has its own nightmares. But at least no one expects us to further human civilisation (or save it from a killer virus).
Within the global research community, appalling mental health is a well-worn fact – though not talked about nearly enough. Researchers are more prone to mental health problems than the general population as well as other highly educated professionals. In fact stress levels in research are said to be on a par with those in "high-risk" occupations, such as healthcare.
This has grave implications for the profession – especially at a time when the idea of "expertise" built on rigorous research itself faces an existential challenge.
Often, the assault on scholarly knowledge is led by the highest powers in the state – remember the US president wondering aloud about injecting disinfectants to beat Covid-19? But a battery of more insidious threats comes from within the opaque world of research. From loneliness, isolation, and fear of failure to systematic abuse, institutionalised discrimination, and a deadly obsession with publishing more and more, the world’s brains trust is under siege.
The agony of research life
A recent survey of 13,000 researchers from over 160 countries presents a granular litany of what ails the community. The survey was conducted by Cactus Communications, a science communications company headquartered in Mumbai, with offices in London, Princeton, Beijing and Tokyo, among other locations. (Bonus fact: my first full-time job straight out of university was as a research editor at Cactus. I copy edited papers authored by Chinese, Japanese, and Korean researchers on subjects ranging from the sex life of chimpanzees to the favourite literary devices of James Joyce. So what if I wasn’t going to be a "doctorate" myself, I used to console myself. Without my expert enforcement of the MLA style guide, none of these highfalutin papers would pass the scrutiny of finicky journal editors.)
Some highlights from Cactus’s study, titled ‘Joy and stress triggers: a global survey on mental health among researchers’:
- 38% of the respondents say they have felt overwhelmed by work fairly or very often in the previous month.
- Researchers in rich western countries – the UK, US, and Germany – report feeling overwhelmed more frequently than their colleagues elsewhere.
- 31% say they work more than 50 hours a week.
- 57% feel unsure about their work prospects.
- 65% say they were under tremendous pressure to publish papers, secure grants, and complete projects.
- 60% of mixed-race researchers, 45% of researchers identifying as homosexual, and 42% of female researchers say they’ve experienced discrimination, harassment, or bullying at work.
- 49% say they will not discuss work-related feelings of severe stress or anxiety with relevant people/authorities in the workplace.
- 63% say they have never sought professional help to deal with work-related mental health issues.
How to fix research culture
Of all the problems listed above, the most recognised one is the ruthless "publish or perish" culture in research.
"In academia, the phrase ‘publish or perish’ is more than a pithy witticism – it reflects the reality that researchers are under immense pressure to continuously produce outputs, with career advancement dependent upon them," says an article in the Royal Society. "Yet while output has increased dramatically, increasing publication volume does not imply that the average trustworthiness of publications has improved ... Across much of experimental science from psychology to biomedical science and cancer research, there is concern over an apparent reproducibility crisis" – the phenomenon of research findings that cannot be replicated elsewhere, belying the core tenet of good, scientific research.
The article argues that the trustworthiness of research should be given as much weightage as "eye-catching ‘new’ research" – a sage recommendation that will remove the perverse incentives of mindless publishing.
But Cactus’s survey draws attention to other chronic ills. Sample this comment by an anonymous principal investigator from Africa:
"I think academia is fundamentally flawed. The work culture is unhealthy for young researchers, who rarely get opportunities for permanent employment. In my experience, early career researchers are milked of intellectual content, for which senior staff get recognition. Senior staff often act unethically, and because the community is small (at least in my discipline), taking action is complicated because it threatens your future within the discipline. These issues are widely known and discussed amongst early career researchers, but efforts to address it [are] not taken seriously."
As that comment makes clear, the problems plaguing many research institutions are identical to what you can find in any other toxic work setting. What’s the lesson there? Don’t give in to the part-romantic, part-morbid narrative that people with high IQ will always be unhappier than the rest of the world. Fixing research culture begins with sensible and compassionate decisions that would hold good in any other vocation.
A North American research technician cited by Cactus explains what those decisions look like:
"We need to do better to understand and include POC (people of colour) and other minority groups. We need to fight the stigma on mental illness and provide better resources for mental health that go beyond telling someone to take a few deep breaths to calm down. People need genuine long-term emotional support … Stress and burnout come when you give and give and get next to nothing in return and are made to feel guilty that you’re never enough."
To be sure, a career in research can be a wonderful privilege - and researchers appreciate this. In Cactus’s survey, 76% of the respondents say their work gives them a sense of purpose or fulfilment. But this feel-good urgently needs the bulwark of a healthy, safe, and sustainable work culture. And a pandemic, with its accompanying pile of gobbledygook waylaying people desperate for trustworthy guidance, is an excellent time to start that conversation.
Do you work in research or know people who do? Do you know of exemplary action taken by research organisations – whether in academia or elsewhere – to protect the mental health of their people? I’d love to hear from you. Leave a comment in the contribution section below this newsletter, or email me.
Until next week.
PS: If you have been affected by any of the issues in this article, this website provides contact details of free crisis helplines around the world.