What is the mental toll of science? Guest recap by Ian Street.

#DiversityJC this week was about mental health in academia. For help on this topic, Ian Street was gracious enough to co-host. Ian has been outspoken about his own battles with depression in academia and science, and is an open and welcoming voice on social media on these topics. We were very happy to have him – and have him help out with the recap this week. Here are his thoughts on what was an insightful and importance conversation…


Why does mental health matter in STEM? We rely on our brains in STEM (and other creative/tournament style disciplines) and perhaps more importantly, we prize a good, well functioning mind to dive deeply into our fields of study. Mental illness is under-recognized, not talked about much, and certainly takes a toll on an academic’s productivity and life if not treated.

Major Depression (see Andrew Solomon’s Talk here if you’re not sure what depression is/feels like) ground me to a halt several years ago. I’m moving again, but it’s a long road to recovery. I don’t wish my experience on anyone, but the good news is that depression, anxiety, and many other mental health disorders are now treatable/manageable.

One of the themes that came up in our discussion was the mental health in academia specifically. The long hours, the culture of expectation of always working, just figuring it out and feeling like we can’t talk about our mental health while we’re always at work (and with depression, our own brains tell us to isolate ourselves– that keeps the depression going):

And how the culture (at least in the United States) prioritizes work over people and just how that can affect early career worker’s mindset about “succeeding” in academia:


A lot of us got into science as kids, before any work-life integration issues became apparent. Most of us still love science, but the structural issues in academia that seem to be exacerbated in recent years do take a toll on our minds and bodies. Working harder is not the answer. And things that start out as impostor syndrome, perfectionism, and burn-out that are problems, but manageable ones, can morph into full blown mental illness if left unaddressed.

There does seem to be a combination of work environment plus some traits like sensitivity, keen observation skills, and deep focus/obsessiveness can turn into a sense of weakness, anxiety, and excessive rumination.


One of the biggest things is a sense of not being alone in our experience. And several people said just that in the discussion. It is a really good first step to end the stigma and open up a safe space to talk about these things.

Asking for help is not weakness. And functioning with depression takes great strength. It’s like operating while carrying a huge rock on your back.

Faculty, staff, everyone needs to be made more aware of the resources that are available if you think you have a problem with your mental health, or you are concerned about a friend.

While structural and cultural changes will help, the discussion also brought up things individuals can do, besides seeking out counseling and more mindset changes like

And talked about making time for ourselves and things we enjoy beyond science. Perhaps things that have a shorter term payoff than research at the bench can have.

Not isolating ourselves, getting too wrapped up in our h-index score and all the other trappings of narrowly measured success, at least some of the time, is important as well:

The uncertainty of academia that is pervasive (and may be felt in other professions) may be the biggest factor of all contributing to the rising tide of mental health issues. That may not go away anytime soon.


Experimenting with what works to alleviate or better manage under the pressures of academia, careers, our lives and sharing that with friends or colleagues can foster a community and help drive change that needs to happen. It won’t be easy. At least we’re not alone, there is an ear out there to listen (I’ll listen! Direct Message me).


When I started to really manage depression better, I had to take my uber-skeptic (maybe cynical?) scientist hat off and found some ideas that really worked for me. None are easy, simple solutions, but I offer them here in short form in hopes they may help someone reading this:

Celebrate other’s successes, be kind to each other, be self-compassionate, adopt a growth mindset, practice gratitude, and dare greatly.


Ian Street is a postdoc in plant biology,a  science and postdoc life blogger, and twitterphile.

 

Thank you to Ian for helping out with #DiveristyJC this week, and thank you to everyone who joined us. Mental health is a major concern in STEM and academia (among other fields of course) so please keep the dialogue going – leave your thoughts,  questions, and resources in the comments!

Tips for Handling Career Anxiety guest post by @wandsci

Last week’s Diversity Journal Club was about handling anxiety, and not surprisingly, there was a lot of talk about career uncertainty, career change, and the anxiety these things can produce.

I tweeted a few things that have helped me handle my anxiety in this regard, and the journal club organizers asked if I’d be willing to expand on them in a guest post.

Before I get started, I want to note that I am making my comments as someone who does not have an anxiety disorder or depression. People with those sorts of diseases will surely have additional challenges in handling anxiety, which I am not at all qualified to address. However, even as someone whose only chronic illness is asthma, I have used counseling services several times in my past, and have always found them to be extremely useful. If you are struggling with anxiety for whatever reason, please do consider seeking some professional advice and support.

I’ve recently undertaken a rather large career change myself: I quit my full time job and set up shop as an independent contractor and consultant. Working as a contractor is going reasonably well, but it is full of sources of uncertainty- the most obvious being where I will find my next contract. I’m also trying to use some of the time freed up by this change to bootstrap a company that makes things for people who love to learn. That is going according to my plan, but that plan was to go really slowly, at least at first.  In a climate that celebrates venture-backed start ups, it is easy to start feeling like my company is failing before it has even really gotten started, even though I made a conscious decision to do things differently.

If you’d like to see where I’m at, here is my company website. I am actually a little further along than shown on the website. I decided that my first area of focus would be publishing short ebooks (you can also read more about that decision if you’d like), and have one book under contract at out with an editor right now and am close to signing a contract on another book.

There is A LOT of uncertainty and anxiety around the products aspect of my company. I would be lying if I said that all of this uncertainty and the anxiety it produces don’t occasionally make me wonder if I’m doing the wrong thing with my life. My husband can attest that I sometimes have a beer or two or three and whine about it all.

But I also know that I am unbelievably lucky to have the chance to try this out, and I don’t want anxiety to keep me from giving it my best shot. That means I have to keep my anxiety under control. Here’s how I do it.

 

I remind myself about how much time I have.

I am 42. I plan to work in some capacity until I’m at least 65, assuming my health holds and I don’t strike it so rich that “travel the world living a life of adventure” becomes an actual option. I got my PhD and entered the workforce 15 years ago. I expect to work for 23 more years or longer. I’m not even halfway done yet! So I have plenty of time left, and I can afford to take a few years to try to make my current plan work. If it doesn’t work, I have plenty of time to do something different.

Yes, this ignores the very real problem of age discrimination, but as someone who’s spent her entire career dealing with the very real problem of gender discrimination my approach is to acknowledge it exists and assume that I will find a way to do interesting things, anyway.

I keep my eye on my own definition of success.

I spent far too much of my 20s and early 30s chasing someone else’s definition of success. I have finally learned to at least try to judge myself only by my own metrics. This can be hard to do: I am not immune to the effects of peer pressure. But when I feel myself worrying that I’m “failing,” I try to take a step back and ask if that is really true, or if I’m just aiming for a different prize.

I also find it helpful to remind myself that the only thing I actually must do with my career is make enough money to support myself and my family. All other aspects of success are up to me to define.

It is natural for us to absorb the definition of success that is common in the environment in which we work- but we don’t really have to accept that definition. We can choose a different definition, more in line with our own goals. If you choose to aim for a different goal, though, don’t be surprised if some of the people around you are not supportive. Watching a friend make a large change in goals can cause people to question their own choices, and that can be uncomfortable. Some people will lash out at the person whose new direction initiated the confusion. Just remember that your choices and goals are not actually a commentary on their choices and goals, and try not to let them derail you.

I try to understand the root of my anxiety and work to mitigate that.

I can feel anxious for a lot of different reasons. A few years ago, I had a tremendous bout of anxiety that I eventually tracked back to a feeling that my technical skills were getting stale, which would limit my career options. I decided to start working on a personal side project to alleviate that feeling, and that led me to launch Tungsten Hippo, a website about short ebooks. I have done everything on that website myself, and seeing it take shape reminded me that I am perfectly capable of learning new technical skills when I need them, and quieted that particular bout of anxiety.

More recently, I’ve been stressing about money. My husband and I checked our budget before I decided to quit my full time job, and we can accommodate a less predictable income. There is no rational reason for me to be stressing about money, but there is also no denying that I was stressing about money. When I examined my anxiety a bit more, I realized that what I actually need to stop worrying is a reliable income that covers a certain percentage of our monthly expenses. That amount is a small fraction of the amount I actually bring in each month, but it is apparently really important to me. Therefore, I recently signed on to do some work that pays much less than my usual sort of work, but is reliable and can flex around my other commitments. This makes it worth doing, even though by a straight analysis of the hourly rate, it might not be.

This example also feeds back into the point about knowing what success means to me. By most objective measures, the contract I just signed is a “step down” from my usual work. Some people might consider that an indication of failure. But in fact, it is allowing me to continue to pursue my larger goals, so to me, it is part of my attempt to succeed.

Everyone has their own definition of success and their own anxiety triggers. It can be hard to see those through the fog of society’s expectations for us, though. Perhaps the first step towards combating career-related anxiety is to spend some time learning about what really matters to you. This has been an iterative process for me, and it is ongoing. However, as I learn more about what matters to me, my enjoyment of my own life continues to grow. So I think it is worth the effort.

HIRING SUCCESS STORY guest post by @AlyciaPhD

I knew pretty early on in graduate school that I wanted to pursue a career in academic administration. When I was a second-year Ph.D. student a friend who was the Graduate Student Association representative for our program suggested that I serve on a University-wide committee, since I am “the kind of person who has opinions about things.” I joined the Chancellor’s Advisory Committee on the Status of Women. The main benefit of this experience was exposure to all of the different constituencies that make a university run. It is a common experience for graduate students to be isolated within the environment of their individual departments or programs, such that they have no idea what provosts, vice chancellors and the like actually do, or why they should care. Serving on this committee gave me a view into the other side, beyond research and teaching, and I found it really fascinating to see the nuts and bolts of how the administration tries, sometimes unsuccessfully, to serve it’s students, faculty and staff. At about the same time I joined the newly formed Diversity Recruitment Committee for my program, and participated in the diversity recruitment efforts of the Office of Graduate Studies.

My first Ph.D. advisor was not a good match as a mentor, and my research project was languishing as a result, so it was important for me to find avenues outside of the lab where I felt competent and that I was making a contribution. In addition to my committee service, I acted as a mentor for an undergraduate summer program, and did as much informal science outreach as I could. Eventually I got to the point where I found more personal fulfillment out of my “extracurricular” activities than my research, so I tried to find models for how other people had turned these types of interests into a career.

During graduate school I went to every panel discussion on non-academic/non-traditional careers for scientists available to me both on my campus, and at any conference that I attended. My main goal was to identify how people who have successfully moved away from the bench got their start. It was very frustrating to find out that there was no real answer, and that there were no pre-existing models that I could follow.

At first it seemed like most of these folks found their positions by sheer luck. They would say, “well I was doing my post-doc and someone called up and said would you like to do this other thing” and they accepted the offer. Take-home message: stay on the academic path and wait for someone to call you out of the blue. This was not the advice that I was hoping to find. In retrospect I think the answer is that luck favors the prepared, or that if you take the effort to build a broad base of skills, and make sure that a wide spectrum of people know about you and your skills, you will be in the position to create opportunities for yourself. Fortunately I was already doing just that. I didn’t seek these experiences out with a plan that they would help my career, but in the end it worked out to be a tremendous advantage.

The institution where I went to graduate school was approximately 3000 miles away from where my husband and I grew up, so I knew that I wanted to find a job closer to our families. I had a very small and very specific geographic location in mind, and my goal was get a non-faculty job at a university. Consequently there was a very short list of universities that I targeted in my job search. For years I had been searching job listings just to get an idea of what types of positions I could possibly do, and I started getting in touch with contacts at those universities in 2009, about a year before I planned to defend my dissertation. By this time I had a new advisor and a new research project, which was going very well with his guidance. He was not only supportive of my research, but also of my plans to pursue a non-research career.

One contact was a woman I met at a conference in 2007. She let me know that she had left for maternity leave and decided not to come back. Her position had not yet been posted, and had been unfilled for some time, but they were interested in eventually hiring a replacement. As luck would have it, I was going to be in the area for a wedding, so I took the proactive step of sending a resume and cover letter and letting them know the dates that I would be available if they wanted to meet with me. Even though there was no job ad. I knew they needed someone who could recruit and provide support to underrepresented Ph.D. students in STEM fields, so I tailored my document to show that I had those skills.

My CV highlights my research experience and doesn’t mention any of my administrative or outreach activities. In contrast, my resume puts my university service at the forefront, to show that I was familiar with the process of graduate student recruitment and professional development, and that I was comfortable working with students, faculty, and senior academic administrators. I included several bullets points for each item so that it was clear exactly what I had accomplished and what skills I had developed. For example, if I had just listed the names of the committees that I served on, the people reading my resume could think I had just gone to a bunch of on-campus meetings and was not an active participant. It was important to use my resume convey to that I also helped to shape university policy, plan and implement events, and travel to national conferences to recruit students.

For the cover letter I chose to take this idea further by structuring it around three experiences that I had in university service, and describing the skills that I developed in each that would prove valuable in this position. I also made a point of giving a specific example of my contribution to a successful outcome, in this case planning a focus group with the founder of MentorNet. This example allowed me to show that I was able to take action on information that I gained by directly engaging with a university administrator, showing my ability to identify a problem and work with various campus constituents to implement a solution.

As I mentioned, when I contacted them the job had not yet been posted. I sent them my resume and cover letter in May of 2009, and they responded immediately to let me know that they had not yet updated the position description but that they intended to hire someone and would keep me in mind. Within a few weeks they got back to me to schedule an interview in June on one of the dates I had suggested in my letter. I found as much information as I could about the university by searching Google, and went into the interview with a plan to explain to them that I had all of the skills and experience that they were looking for, even if they didn’t yet know what they wanted.

All of the interviewers that I spoke with that day asked the same question, which was why I wanted to do this job when I was in a position to have a successful research career. Because I had been thinking about this for several years at that point, I had a very well crafted answer that called back to all of the experiences that I mentioned in my cover letter and resume. The interview went very well, and they kept me informed as they went through the process of getting the job approved by Human Resources so that they could officially open the search. It was not until August 31, over two months later, that I actually saw the job description. I will let you the reader decide if there were any similarities between what was posted and what I listed on my resume. They interviewed a few additional candidates in October, and I also had phone interviews with members of the search committee that I had not met in June. I don’t remember how long it was until they offered me the position, but I think it was late November or early December. It is a union position so the salary range is fixed, but I negotiated to get the maximum, plus an allowance for moving expenses.

My mentors were very supportive of my decision to pursue this career path, but they were confused as to why I would choose a university that was not in the same tier of prestige as any other institution in my background. I felt that this position provided me with an opportunity to make a real contribution to an effort towards institutional change, which was very exciting. If I had gone to a more elite university I think it would be harder to feel as if I were having an impact, being a little fish in a big pond. It was also a work-life balance decision, since I was planning on starting a family.

Once in the position I was thrilled to be able to use both my administrative and research skills to help recruit a more diverse pool of graduate students. Similar to my volunteer experiences in graduate school, I now travel nationally to recruit prospective students, represent the Graduate School on various university committees, and advise faculty and staff on best practices in recruitment and diversity. My academic background comes in handy when I must collect and analyze data on graduate admissions and enrollment, or give presentations for audiences as diverse as the Council of Deans, or groups of undergraduates thinking about applying graduate school. One of the things that I like most about working on the administrative side of the university is that I get to interact with both students and faculty from a variety of disciplines, rather than remain isolated in a sub-niche of a my chosen field.

Another great benefit of my position is that I get the chance to demystify graduate school for so many people struggling like I did with the fact that there are so many unwritten rules of academia. I tell them that it is important not to ignore all of the networking advice that is out there. My trajectory shows that it works. I never would have known about this position if I hadn’t sent a random email to a woman I’d met at a conference two years prior. Make contacts before you know you need them. Even if you don’t end up going to someone for help, you may be in a position to help them one day, which is just as important. I also tell my students something that I mentioned earlier, which is to make sure your network has contacts that can vouch for your non-research skills. Many students look to their advisors and committee members to serve as references for academic jobs, but if you are looking for a non-traditional career that may not be sufficient. In addition to my advisor, I obtained letters of recommendation from a faculty member that I worked closely with on two committees over the course of four years, and from the coordinator of the mentoring program that I worked with for two summers. They were able to speak to aspects of my character that were relevant to my desired position, but may not have been obvious to my research collaborators because they knew me in a different context.

A final piece of advice is to be open to all possibilities, and to be proactive about finding them. Don’t wait for a job to find you. Many jobs that go to newly minted PhDs never get posted at all, so if you are not out there asking questions, you have already missed out.

Alycia Mosley Austin

Ph.D., Neuroscience, 2010

Director of Graduate Recruitment and Diversity Initiatives at University of Rhode Island