Disclaimer: For anyone who knows me and might think they have been mentioned here, any resemblance to actual persons or actual events is purely coincidental. Especially to my supervisors: you were amazing supervisors and when I say “senior researchers” I don’t mean you!
This is the first time I am writing a post of this nature, although this is an issue that has been on my mind for a while now. The issue is the open neglect of people’s well-being in academia. When we think of success-obsessed people, we usually think of young start-up “geniuses” showing off their best capitalist know-how. However, academia does not fall short when it comes to the obsession with success. In order to explain my motivation and frustration regarding this topic, I will briefly present my own experience in academia, and issues that I found concerning my position and how that relates to what I think is a more widespread phenomenon.
I entered academia as soon as I learned what it was: you get a salary to do research on a topic of (usually) your interest in the field you always dreamed of working in! The realization that this kind of job existed was a dream come true for me. When I was starting my Masters I knew I would be pursuing an academic career and nothing could deter me. I was more ambitious than any of my colleagues, I went to conferences, and I started working on my first papers. I started applying to PhD positions and, although I went through an emotional rollercoaster, I soon got a PhD position. I was extremely motivated and the only thing bothering me was that I still had so much to learn to reach the level of senior researchers. I always somehow implicitly thought that my life would be defined by research and that no other personal goals should ever be more important. However, somewhere halfway during my PhD, I realized that there is no award big enough for all the insane effort I had put into my research. I suddenly realized that I was bothered by not having taken real holidays for several years. When I started feeling like this, I even sometimes mentioned to senior researchers how what is required from us just seems too much mentally and emotionally. Unfortunately, the most common response I got about work life balance, usually from already very successful researchers, is that they love what they do and that they don’t mind working more than 12 hours a day. As I said, I used to have the same attitude, because I thought that could be a sustainable way to live, but it’s not. Sooner or later, people burn out, and when it comes to research, good ideas need time, including free time. By now it is a well known fact that the best ideas come when you are not really working, for example in the shower or during your daily walk. It is also a well-known fact that PhD students are at high risk when it comes to mental illnesses, such as depression and anxiety.
Some time ago I participated in a career advice session by senior researchers. In this session several early career researchers expressed their concern with having to go abroad for better career opportunities, whether for family reasons of the current pandemic, and the senior researchers replied that being a researcher means having a specific kind of personality where the research is your life and you go wherever it takes you. The same researchers also mentioned that they don’t mind working whatever hours it takes, because again, they love it so much. This basically implies that you should be a kind of person who puts their career above everything else, above others in your life (when you live separately from people you love and I have done my share of that) and even above your mental health. And I ask myself: Do we want this kind of mentality to define our scientific leadership? No, we need humanity and empathy, and to allow for creativity to arise in a natural human way — not after 20 hours of staring at your screen. I urge everyone to remember this, especially senior researchers who hold the power and responsibility. We all play a role in shaping this academic system, and I will do my share to normalize the fact that I do not work 12 hours a day anymore. These are our lives, and we can choose to spend them by writing tons of scientific articles in journals with X impact factors, or having fun reflecting on life and science and propose new ways forward. New ways that will matter not only for us, but also for next generations.
Take this as you will, as a short rant, or maybe an advice for changing something for the better. For a while now, I have felt I needed to say something in this regard. I hope it can help more people in establishing a new healthier way of doing science.