This is the story of a friend of a friend, a man by name Francis who took his life at age 34. Francis had been struggling with manic depression through most of his years as a postdoc in theoretical physics.It is not a secret that short-term contracts and frequent moves are the norm in this area of research, but rarely do we spell out the toll it takes one our mental health. In fact, most of my tenured colleagues who profit from cheap and replaceable postdocs praise the virtue of the nomadic lifestyle which, so we are told, is supposed to broaden our horizon. But the truth is that moving is a necessary, though not sufficient, condition to build your network. It isn’t about broadening your horizon, it’s to make the contacts for which you are later being bought in. It’s not optional, it’s a misery you are expected to pretend enjoying.
I didn’t know Francis personally, and I would never have heard of him if it wasn’t for the acknowledgements in Oliver Roston’s recent paper:
“This paper is dedicated to the memory of my friend, Francis Dolan, who died, tragically, in 2011. It is gratifying that I have been able to honour him with work which substantially overlaps with his research interests and also that some of the inspiration came from a long dialogue with his mentor and collaborator, Hugh Osborn. In addition, I am indebted to Hugh for numerous perceptive comments on various drafts of the manuscript and for bringing to my attention gaps in my knowledge and holes in my logic. Following the appearance of the first version on the arXiv, I would like to thank Yu Nakayama for insightful correspondence.As a postdoc, Francis lived separated from his partner, and had trouble integrating in a new group. Due to difficulties with the health insurance after an international move, he couldn’t continue his therapy. And even though highly gifted, he must have known that no matter how hard he worked, a secure position in the area of research he loved was a matter of luck.
I am firmly of the conviction that the psychological brutality of the post-doctoral system played a strong underlying role in Francis’ death. I would like to take this opportunity, should anyone be listening, to urge those within academia in roles of leadership to do far more to protect members of the community suffering from mental health problems, particularly during the most vulnerable stages of their careers.”
I found myself in a very similar situation after I moved to the US for my first postdoc. I didn’t fully realize just how good the German health insurance system is until I suddenly was on a scholarship without any insurance at all. When I read the fineprint, it became pretty clear that I wouldn’t be able to afford an insurance that covered psychotherapy or medical treatment for mental disorders, certainly not when I disclosed a history of chronic depression and various cycles of previous therapy.
With my move, I had left behind literally everybody I knew, including my boyfriend who I had intended to marry. For several months, the only piece of furniture in my apartment was a mattress because thinking any further was too much. I lost 30 pounds in six months, and sometimes went weeks without talking to a human being, other than myself.
The main reason I’m still here is that I’m by nature a loner. When I wasn’t working, I was hiking in the canyons, and that was pretty much all I did for the better part of the first year. Then, when I had just found some sort of equilibrium, I had to move again to take on another position. And then another. And another. It still seems a miracle that somewhere along the line I managed to not only marry the boyfriend I had left behind, but to also produce two wonderful children.
Yes, I was lucky. But Francis wasn’t. And just statistically some of you are in that dark place right now. If so, then you, as I, have heard them talk about people who “managed to get diagnosed” as if depression was a theater performance in which successful actors win a certificate to henceforth stay in bed. You, as I, know damned well that the last thing you want is that anybody who you may have to ask for a letter sees anything but the “hard working” and “very promising” researcher who is “recommended without hesitation.” There isn’t much advice I can give, except that you don’t forget it’s in the nature of the disease to underestimate one’s chances of recovery, and that mental health is worth more than the next paper. Please ask for help if you need it.
Like Oliver, I believe that the conditions under which postdoctoral researchers must presently sell their skills are not conductive to mental health. Postdocs see friends the same age in other professions having families, working independently, getting permanent contracts, pension plans, and houses with tricycles in the yard. Postdoctoral research collects some of the most intelligent and creative people on the planet, but in the present circumstances many are unable to follow their own interests, and get little appreciation for their work, if they get feedback at all. There are lots of reasons why being a postdoc sucks, and most of them we can do little about, like those supervisors who’d rather die then say you did a good job, only once. But what we can do is improve employment conditions and lower the pressure to constantly move.
Even in the richest countries on the planet, like Germany and Sweden, it is very common to park postdocs on scholarships without benefits. These scholarships are tax-free and come, for the employer, at low cost. Since the tax evasion is regulated by law, the scholarships can typically last only one or two years. It’s not that one couldn’t hire postdocs on longer, regular contracts with social and health benefits, it’s just that in current thinking quantity counts more than quality: More postdocs produce more papers, which looks better in the statistic. That’s practiced, among many others, at my own workplace.
There are some fields of research which lend themselves to short projects and in these fields one or two year gigs work just fine. In other fields that isn’t so. What you get from people on short-term contracts is short-term thinking. It isn’t only that this situation is stressful for postdocs, it isn’t good for science either. You might be saving money with these scholarships, but there is always a price to pay.
We will probably never know exactly what Francis went through. But for me just the possibility that the isolation and financial insecurity, which are all too often part of postdoc life, may have contributed to his suffering is sufficient reason to draw attention to this.
The last time I met Francis’ friend Oliver, he was a postdoc too. He now has two children, a beautiful garden, and has left academia for a saner profession. Oliver sends the following message to our readers:
“I think maybe the best thing I can think of is advising never to be ashamed of depression and to make sure you keep talking to your friends and that you get medical help. As for academia, one thing I have discovered is that it is possible to do research as a hobby. It isn't always easy to find the time (and motivation!) but leaving academia needn't be the end of one's research career. So for people wondering whether academia will ultimately take too high a toll on their (mental) health, the decision to leave academia needn't necessarily equate with the decision to stop doing research; it's just that a different balance in one's life has to be found!”
[If you speak German or trust Google translate, the FAZ blogs also wrote about this.]