Updating the culture of academia

Do you love science but are unhappy with the culture in academia?

As a PhD student, postdoc or lab leader (PI), do you feel like your mental health may be suffering because of problems in the system?

Do you think your lab could be managed more efficiently?

After around 12 years of working in academia in the UK, Germany, Turkey, Belgium, USA and Canada, I have been exposed to a diverse spectrum of cultures across different labs. One of the most striking things I have seen in common across most labs is the style (or lack thereof) leadership and management of people and projects.

What happened to management and leadership training in academia?

When I began to look beyond academia and into the culture of business in the commercial sector, I was truly shocked at how stark the contrast is. To be employed as any kind of manager in the commercial world, training of management and leadership related skills is the norm, but in academia, this is a rarity. Unfortunately, this not only affects the trainees, but also their supervisors. Due to poor access to resources, supervisors are unable to give more attention to training, they also underestimate the value of these skills, and lack time due to institutional pressures. 

The actual training part of a PhD or postdoc position is often sadly forgotten

Are doctoral students and postdocs really in training?

The actual training part of a PhD or postdoc position is often sadly forgotten. This ends up being at the expense of the trainee, the supervisor, the institution and society as a whole as the majority of PhD students graduate with a critical lack of soft skills required for career progression, academic or not. Here, I want to encourage a shift in terminology, where doctoral students and postdoctoral researchers are referred to specifically as “trainees”, in the hope that this will create a reminder to all about the importance of professional development in academia.

A survey of 50,000 graduate students showed that 86% reported levels of anxiety

Mind the gap

The issue of mental health in academia has been gaining more attention, particularly for students. A recent survey of 50,000 graduate students in the UK showed that 86% reported significant levels of anxiety. In addition, there have been multiple recent reports of bullyingharassment and exploitation, not only from scientific staff, but also scientific support staff.

There is no shortage of media out there highlighting problems in the culture of academia. It is undeniable that the poor mental health of trainees and numerous cases of bad supervision are not unrelated. Moreover, all faculty members were also once trainees, so it would follow that mental health issues are also rife at higher levels.

Filling the gap

As a result of the increased discussion of these problems, there has been a growth of initiatives aiming to improve the training experience and mental health of trainees. A couple of examples include the N2 network of Doctoral Researchers in Germany, which consists of the Max Planck PhDnetHelmholtz Juniors and Leibniz PhD Network. The N2 Network is active at the political level and has explicitly expressed its goals in political and constitutional letters, and a position paper addressing power abuse and conflict resolution. Another organization tackling some of these issues is the German Scholars Organization, offering career support, leadership training and a broad network of peers in academia.

An alarming 0.45% of people with PhDs go on to become professors

Nowhere to go

Trainees often find themselves believing that their only career option is a traditional academic path, partly due to a lack of career-related resources, but also largely due to the culture embedded in academia. However, we now know that an alarming 0.45% of people with PhDs in the UK go on to become professors. With these kinds of prospects, it is no wonder trainees’ mental health is in crisis. A recalibration of resources is clearly needed to allow for PhD graduates to shift their perspectives and expectations, to accept that tenure is actually the “alternative path”, and to know there are indeed countless other feasible career options out there. On a positive note, a report by the World Economic Forum indicated that the skills most sought after by employers will include problem solving, creative thinking, emotional intelligence and interpersonal skills by 2020, all of which are thoroughly developed during a PhD.

For a longer version of this article, see this page.

By Elliot C. Brown, Ph.D., Neuroscientist

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.