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The Scientist: Master of All Trades...Except One

By Kate Horner

Photo credit: Pixabay

Mental health seems to be becoming more topical in the media every day. For example, soon after Jeremy Corbyn took leadership of the UK Labour Party in September, 2015, he created a dedicated Minister for Mental Health in his shadow cabinet. But despite this growing interest, mental health issues still darken the doors of huge sections of the population. And academia is not immune.

Stress in Higher Education

A survey of stress amongst staff in Higher Education published by the University and College Union in July, 2013 found that almost 75 % of staff described their job as stressful. [1] Over half said that they had high or very high levels of stress and over a third said that they often or always experience unacceptable levels of stress. In comparison, only 2 % of staff said that they never experienced unacceptable levels of stress in their jobs. In fact, a quick internet search for “mental health in academia” reveals a plethora of recent articles on the topic, including from names like the Guardian newspaper and New Scientist. The latter reported that the prevalence of mental illness in academia in the UK could be as high as 53 % (compared to around 20 % in the normal population). [2]

Image credit: Pixabay

There are lots of suggestions for reasons why stress and mental health problems in academia are such an issue, but I think that part of the problem is the inherent nature of the job. Every career can be stressful in its own way, but to understand why science can be stressful, you first have to understand what an academic science career involves. Being a member of the academic science community myself, here is my perspective on what the job entails.

What You Need to be a Modern Scientist

Sadly, it is no longer just scientific talent and dazzling ideas which are required for a career as a Research Scientist (though obviously that’s part of it).

Research- Clearly your actual research is a key part. The ability to perform high quality, innovative science and the luck to make exciting findings are essential. You also have to be able to explore the huge mountains of already published literature to make sure you aren’t duplicating work (and to be sure that you understand the current state-of-the-art in your area). That involves a lot of reading and head-scratching, believe me. When I finished my PhD, I became a Postdoctoral Researcher in a totally different field. This meant my first year was spent simply trying to catch up and learn a whole host of new skills. To be honest, that’s not limited to just the first year. Scientists are constantly checking what else is going on and trying to understand new concepts and ideas from their peers. An everlasting learning curve really.

Language- The universal language of science tends to be English. The biggest science journals and international conferences are all conducted in English (some journals also offer translations). This means that the majority of the science population have to know some degree of English. But it’s trickier than that. They need to be able to write formal English in journal papers, but also be able to speak English in a confident, fluent and less formal manner for the purpose of giving presentations of their work. These are two quite different language skills. Every time I attend a science conference, particularly international conferences, I feel incredibly lucky to be a native English speaker but also completely in awe of the thousands of scientists I meet who speak multiple languages fluently. Imagine- you’re a young scientist at a big international conference. You’re stood in front of maybe 300/400 people, all experts in your area of science from all around the world. You have to give a 20 minute presentation. You’re nervous about whether they will like your research, if they will agree with your conclusions and methods or if you will meet resistance. But on top of that, you have to worry about whether your English is good enough- whether you will forget the words you need, whether you will conjugate your verbs correctly or whether, in your struggles with a foreign language, your enthusiasm for your work will be able to show. Stressful!

Image credit: Pixabay

Presenting- While we’re on the topic of giving presentations, that’s another major skill for a scientist! The ability to present your work to audiences ranging from small to large, in a variety of countries, to a variety of different types of scientist, with enough energy and enthusiasm to keep people engaged but not so much that you devalue your science or look unprofessional. You may have to present in the form of a talk or in the form of a poster. Both require your design skills to make your work visually appealing and interesting. Really, you could do with an art degree on the side. Your artistic talents are also needed for making figures and diagrams, including those that go into journal papers and those that advertise your article in the Table of Contents. You also need charisma and confidence to convince people that you believe in your work and that your conclusions are sound. You also need these things to tempt people to visit your poster or listen to your talk rather than play card games on their phones.

Writing- Scientists need excellent writing skills. Not only for writing journal papers, which is really a fine art, but also for writing letters to journal editors begging them to publish your work, writing fair and persuasive rebuttals to sometimes vicious reviews of your work, writing to potential collaborators asking them for help and, most importantly, writing funding proposals, begging people to give you money so that you can stay in your job. Within science fields there is the well-known adage “publish or die” which basically means that you need to churn out papers and funding proposals regularly or your career will come to a swift end. *Gulp*.

Teaching & Organisation- Another big part of being an academic is teaching. No-one ever teaches you how to lecture or teach workshops or give tutorials, but we all end up doing them and just have to make the best of it. We might teach subjects that are not in our own field and have to pass them off as being within our comfort zone (I did this for 3 years during my PhD- I learnt many sneaky tricks for getting away with this). We might teach groups of 4 students, or 12, or 200 in an office or a lecture theatre or in a laboratory. Each type of teaching is a different skill and being able to do all of them well is a real challenge. Along with teaching you have to be hyper-organised to fit everything in alongside other admin work and your research. And don’t forget the marking and feedback, oh, and the students within your own research group.

The All-Round Scientist

As well as being a master of languages, theatrical performer, expert teacher, artist and talented author, you also have to cope with jet-setting around the world, being a social butterfly who is able to network with anyone at any conference/event and a manager. Moreover, not only do you need to know your own subject, you also need to know a lot of other subjects, like related sciences, maths and IT. Depending on your field you might need to become a mechanic (to invent, build and maintain your own instruments and machines), a cook (to brew up experimental delicacies) or an expert programmer (perhaps in multiple computer languages). Or if you’re like me, you need a mixture of those skills.

Image credit: Pixabay

The other vital skill every scientist needs, which no-one ever teaches, is mental resilience. That includes the ability to receive criticism and rejection without throwing yourself out of your office window. Every scientist will have his/her work criticised, pulled apart, smirked at and rejected. Reviewers of paper manuscripts can be quite cruel…wait…no…they can be really cruel. I think that if I put some of the nasty reviewer comments I’ve seen next to excerpts from internet trolls, you probably wouldn’t know which was which! Some reviews are fair and balanced, but every so often you get feedback that is unnecessarily harsh and even personal. The joys of anonymity, eh? But as the recipient you must learn to receive those comments, take anything useful and constructive and let the rest wash over you. To be honest, this is probably the hardest skill of all. To read (or hear in person if it’s feedback on a talk or poster) such reports of work that you have put blood, sweat and tears into for several years can feel like your insides are being torn apart. Even worse when it’s a rejection of your funding proposal because, without money, you might be out of a job!

So alongside this enormous array of extra-curricular skills that you need and the inevitable stream of rejections and professional trolling, there is also the inherent job instability that academia offers. You finish your PhD and then you spend the next 8-10 years fighting for short, temporary contracts and funding. With that in mind I’ll refer you to our original question- why are mental health problems so prevalent in academia?


References

  1. G. Kinman & S. Wray, “Higher Stress- A Survey of Stress and Well-Being Among Staff in Higher Education”, University and College Union, July 2013
  2. https://www.newscientist.com/article/dn26365-lighting-dark-fixing-academias-mental-health-problem/ [Accessed 28/09/15]

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