On Mentorship and Ownership

A postdoc’s funding typically lasts 2-4 years: just enough time to start and finish a project and push it through to get published. In an ideal world, the postdoc who wants to become independent would then write a grant on what they have become an expert on. This, presumably, would be based on their most recent publication. However, it is rare that supervisors let postdocs take their projects with them, an issue which is most often not openly discussed before the start of the project. Here, a comment by Professor Ben A. Barres on what PIs, funding agencies, and young scientists should do to support a culture of good mentorship that enables young scientists to choose the right lab and to flourish in their chosen field.

Join the Sisterhood

In the UK, men hold 90% of senior positions in STEM. This means in a committee meeting of ten professors, at any given university in the UK, it is likely that only one female professor will be present in the room. Professor Arnold, who holds the Crum Brown chair of Chemistry at Edinburgh University, knows this tale too well. As recently highlighted by the BBC, to strike a balance, she has formed the Sci Sisters . Being part of this network, or ‘Scientific sisterhood’ means you can easily find nearby peers who are in similar positions and ready to talk about the issues you experience – even if it is just over coffee.

Gender bias in STEM

Reaching high academic ranks is difficult in science, given the scarcity of research funding and competitive pressure for high-impact publications. Some scientists however are born with a privilege that will make it relatively easier for them to reach those highest ranks.

Being a man in STEM means you are more likely to get an answer from your prospective PhD supervisor, to get this fellowship you applied for, and to be chosen based on a resume that is equally as good as that of your female peer. For women in STEM, as in many other fields, breaking the glass ceiling also means breaking into a male-dominated culture, in which the objectivity of even a scientist is blinded by gender.

This article describes how gender bias in STEM has manifested itself and is still rife in institutes and companies, as shown by two recent examples making the headlines.

Academia Incompatible with Family Life

Here is yet another article pointing to the larger issue in academia of increasing competitiveness and a focus and glorification of an unhealthy lifestyle. While social scientists continue to correlate mental well-being and balanced time spent with loved ones with creativity and productivity, our culture continues to push us away from these things. How long before we realize that this is going to have repercussions at the systemic level?

Mentors and Online Dating

People have compared choosing a mentor and project to a marriage, even if it’s only one that lasts less time (though sometimes PhDs can be long, and marriages short…). For a long time now, people have been using sites like match.com that use different algorithms to match people based on compatibility. It seems like academia might get a similar networking tool for pairing mentors and trainees. It would be interesting to see how some of the features on dating sites are tweaked to fit the mentor/mentee culture. Check out the small article in nature here.

Sexual Harassment of Students by University Staff Hidden by Non-Disclosure Agreements

In our continued fight against lab bullying and harassment, it is a welcome sight to see that others are pointing out the discrepancy between the incidence, reporting, and effective dealing with instances of harassment (sexual or not) and bullying in academia. We can only hope that through our combined efforts and other grassroots movements and organizations, such as the 1752 group, we can collectively begin to dismantle the culture of abuse that is all too prevalent in many institutes.

Academics Anonymous: Why I’m Leaving Academia

The Guardian Higher Education section is constantly publishing interesting and well-written articles about the issues surrounding academic life. In one of their particular sections, titled Academics Anonymous, different academics give their opinions and perspectives on what can sometimes be quite a frustrating topic, especially for those who feel unable to voice their feelings or trapped in cycles of unhappiness.

I recently stumbled on one of their older articles, written by someone about to leave the academic scene after a stressful time in their Postdoc.  The author gives a more negative view on the entire academic process and career progression, but in doing so brings insight into some of the more pertinent issues.

Like Academics Anonymous, we continue encouraging the sharing of personal stories anonymously as a powerful tool for discussing important issues and bringing about cultural change.

Thrish Lab Blog – A Personal Note on Mental Health

Dr. Thrishantha Nanayakkara of King’s College is an incredibly successful researcher who runs a great lab. He also happens to practice Buddhism too. In this incredibly insightful blog post for PhD students, he explains how the philosophies of equanimity and responsibility can be applied to a PhD (or any academic career) and therefore find peace within oneself despite the incredible amount of external pressure creating stress and inner turmoil.

In the post, he describes the difference between achievement and accomplishment as applied to publication in a journal, and how one can use rejection from a journal for learning, growth, and ultimately, satisfaction and peace.

We at Labmosphere tip our hats to Dr. Nanayakkara, who, despite the pressures of being an academic, finds the time to work on his inner growth and peace and strives to help students do the same.

Overcoming a Sense of Academic Failure – Event Notes

Two of us on the Labmosphere team recently attended an event here at Oxford University titled, “Overcoming a Sense of Academic Failure.” It was a great discussion with graduates from many fields discussing their feelings of inadequacy and/or failure with highly successful academics at Oxford who, believe it or not, have also experienced these same feelings. Notes were gathered and compiled by Emily Troscianko, who organized the event, and are available for download here. Hopefully some of the thoughts, quotes, and resources that came out of the discussion can be useful to those who couldn’t attend the event, both within and outside of the Oxford graduate community.

Why Do So Many Graduate Students Quit?

Two different people have recently pointed out this article on the Atlantic to us, adding to our growing list of articles addressing problems in the environments graduate students and academics need to survive in. Burnout, mental health issues, and toxic relationships are but a few of these problems:

“Many students are convinced the doctoral experience sets them up to fail.”

As we develop a new generation of faculty and trainers, as well as department heads, we should ask ourselves: Is this really the type of environment we want to develop our brightest minds in? Is the goal of a university ultimately its research and the funds that it attracts, or to train people to develop the capacity to question and perform successful and independent research?