Postdoctoral Work Stress and the Human Cost

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A friend shared this article with me recently and I thought I might post it here for discussion.

The Human Cost of the Pressures of Postdoctoral Research

While I'm not sure that academic journals are the right venue for such statements, I agree that as a community it's important for us to have these kinds of conversations. And more importantly, we need to recognize the enormous stresses that come with the demands and uncertainty of postdoctoral work.
 
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ZapperZ
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A friend shared this article with me recently and I thought I might post it here for discussion.

The Human Cost of the Pressures of Postdoctoral Research

While I'm not sure that academic journals are the right venue for such statements, I agree that as a community it's important for us to have these kinds of conversations. And more importantly, we need to recognize the enormous stresses that come with the demands and uncertainty of postdoctoral work.

I will say right off the bat that ANY academic experience is highly dependent on (i) the institution and (ii) the immediate supervisor.

Those two factors can significantly influence the environment, the productivity, and the general well-being of the students or postdoc. This means that it is difficult to generalize or "legislate" such experiences. You can have the most horrible experience, including the one that U. of Utah Physics and Astronomy dept. that resulted in a graduate student's suicide, to the most rewarding period of one's life that I've experienced during my postdoc.

Certainly, it can be a period where you want to produce as much as you can, because for the first time, your life is dedicated to academic research, and you have a limited time to do it. However, I don't see it being as any different or more demanding than the internship or residency in Medicine, and those can be even more high-pressured since someone's life may be affected by your actions and decisions.

Zz.
 
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russ_watters
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At the risk of sounding unsympathetic, I'm not seeing anything unique here. Contract work? Moving for a job? These are normal/common things. Adulting is hard and when you've never adulted before, it's jarring when you find that out. The kid who committed suicide because he was mentally ill, but that isn't directly related to stress in academia. Yes, extra stress of becoming an adult contributed. No, academia is not special in that regard. If anything, I suspect the shelter of academia makes it easier....as long as you can stay on the path.

Researchers researching researchers is actually kind of funny to me; they do it because they're there, not because they are especially worthy of study.
 
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This means that it is difficult to generalize or "legislate" such experiences. You can have the most horrible experience, including the one that U. of Utah Physics and Astronomy dept. that resulted in a graduate student's suicide...
This, to me, *is* a real/serious problem, worthy of legislation. The cloistered environment and extreme power disparity between students and the school can foster abuse. We do have some legislation on that, but it is narrowly targeted (Title 9) and broad/vague so it isn't uniformly enforced and it, itself sometimes creates abuse.
 
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At the risk of sounding unsympathetic, I'm not seeing anything unique here. Contract work? Moving for a job? These are normal/common things. Adulting is hard and when you've never adulted before, it's jarring when you find that out. The kid who committed suicide because he was mentally ill, but that isn't directly related to stress in academia. Yes, extra stress of becoming an adult contributed. No, academia is not special in that regard. If anything, I suspect the shelter of academia makes it easier....as long as you can stay on the path.

Researchers researching researchers is actually kind of funny to me; they do it because they're there, not because they are especially worthy of study.

As far as I can see, there are 2 separate issues here: the fact of (possibly untreated) mental illness, and the stress of postdoctoral work (which may or may not have contributed to the person discussed in the article committing suicide -- we can only speculate on what state of mind that individual was in).

The questions I would have are the following:

1. Is postdoctoral work (which is in essence contract work) any different from other types of contract work in terms of any additional stress that is involved or in the level of contribution? Or (as suggested by @russ_watters above), are the stresses of postdoctoral work similar to other forms of contract work?

2. What is not clear to me is whether the nature of the contract work involved made it less likely that the individual in question could seek resources to have his mental illness diagnosed and treated. I know that the people discussed in this article are from Ireland, but I'm not familiar about what access to health care is like in that country.
 
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russ_watters
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As far as I can see, there are 2 separate issues here:

The questions I would have are the following:

1. Is postdoctoral work (which is in essence contract work) any different than other types of contract work in terms of any additional stress that is involved or in the level of contribution? Or (as suggested by @russ_watters above, are the stresses of postdoctoral work similar to other forms of contract work?

2. What is not clear to me is whether the nature of the contract work involved made it less likely that the individual in question could seek resources to have his mental illness diagnosed and treated. I know that the people discussed in this article are from Ireland, but I'm not familiar about what access to health careis like in that country.
This is close to the way I'd describe the two issues, but have a couple of quibbles:

1. Contract work was specific to this example, but the issue of young adults and high streess levels is much broader. So I wouldn't limit the discussion to contract work. Entry level workers are in general paid less than they are worth, not respected, given fewer benfits, pressured to work more hours, pressured to give things up for work (move), etc., all while having additional instability at home due to moving out of their parents' homes and learning about magical new things like bills and cooking your own food, that no one told them about. For many people, it can feel like everything in their life is in chaos -- because often it is. However:

2. This one isn't about "access" it is about responsibility. And this might be in part a contract-work issue. The idea that YOU are responsible for your own well being is something many people never learn, but having your parents or your school's responsibility end when you reach adulthood will happen whether a person recognizes it or not.

I don't tell my boss what's going on in my life because he's neither my friend nor my dad, and he's not being paid to care about anything that isn't affecting my work. Now he is human, so he'll notice and ask if my work suffers, but only then. Beyond that, there's no way for him to even know.

So unless I suddenly start coming into work hung over every day and sleeping at my desk, with dark eyes and a furrrowed brow (or something), he wouldn't know if I got depressed and would have no responsibility over me killing myself if I did.

BUT, he IS somewhat more likely to notice such a thing and care than a contract job boss.
 
  • #7
StatGuy2000
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@russ_watters , I find it interesting that the discussion shifts to responsibility. Perhaps I'm unusual, but during my teen years, and certainly during my years as an university student, I have always understood that it was my responsibility to care for my own health and well-being, and I thought that was an obvious understanding. So I wonder to myself whether the individual in question in the article had that understanding himself.

The issue of access is important for me because even if I were to recognize that I had a problem and wished to seek help, that help may not be forthcoming. Access to mental health services more broadly in the community is a major issue across Canada (where I live), and among the factors include poverty, stigma associated with mental illness, lack of integration between mental health care and health services, shortage of mental health professionals, and regional disparities. See the article below.

https://cmha.ca/documents/access-to-services-2

I was curious if Ireland experiences similar issues in terms of mental health care.
 
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Vanadium 50
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We seem to be assuming that graduate students and postdocs have nigher suicide rates than the general population (corrected for age and sex). Is this known? What numbers I was able to hunt down suggest it might even be lower.
 
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StatGuy2000
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We seem to be assuming that graduate students and postdocs have nigher suicide rates than the general population (corrected for age and sex). Is this known? What numbers I was able to hunt down suggest it might even be lower.

The following article here doesn't specifically address the issue of suicide rates, but does seem to point to higher rates of both depression and anxiety among graduate students specifically across a broad spectrum of disciplines.

https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2018/03/06/new-study-says-graduate-students-mental-health-crisis

(Note: Unfortunately, the journal article cited in the link above is behind a pay wall.)
 
  • #10
russ_watters
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@russ_watters , I find it interesting that the discussion shifts to responsibility.
Maybe I read past what you meant, but, for example, the link you just posted talks about "support from supervisors", implying they should have some responsibility for the students' well-being.
Perhaps I'm unusual, but during my teen years, and certainly during my years as an university student, I have always understood that it was my responsibility to care for my own health and well-being, and I thought that was an obvious understanding.
It's good you were instilled with responsibility, but in your teen and early university years, you really mostly didn't have it (even if your parents said they were giving it to you, they were still legally responsible), so it wouldn't be obvious to everyone. There are steps and slopes in the transition from 3rd party responsibility to personal responsibility. And while I'm sure every 25 year old will say they know the responsibility is primarily theirs, a lot of them won't really know the extent to which that is true or how to deal with it. I get the impression that the person who wrote the article is such a person, who attributes more responsibility to the program than actually exists.
So I wonder to myself whether the individual in question in the article had that understanding himself.
Right: I get the feeling he didn't.
The issue of access is important for me because even if I were to recognize that I had a problem and wished to seek help, that help may not be forthcoming.
Fair enough. We don't really know the extent to which the person sought help, but one of the big problems with depression is it includes withdrawal as a feature, so many don't seek help. And even in the case where one has no health insurance, there are many free options (hotlines, support groups, churches, etc.).
 
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russ_watters
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We seem to be assuming that graduate students and postdocs have nigher suicide rates than the general population (corrected for age and sex). Is this known? What numbers I was able to hunt down suggest it might even be lower.
"They", not "we".
The following article here doesn't specifically address the issue of suicide rates, but does seem to point to higher rates of both depression and anxiety among graduate students specifically across a broad spectrum of disciplines.

https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2018/03/06/new-study-says-graduate-students-mental-health-crisis

(Note: Unfortunately, the journal article cited in the link above is behind a pay wall.)
While the article certainly does say it, the wording implies an uncontrolled study with specious conclusions: "...as compared to the general population" implies the entire population to me, not controlled for age, socioeconomic status, etc. If the problem is real and that bad (+600%!), that would be quite alarming.
 
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Academia is a competitive environment where it can be easy to feel inadequate, worthless and a failure.

That's why people should leave it if they aren't happy or doing well.
 
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Is the postdoc employed by the specific professor you are working for? Is the postdoc employed by the department or the college? Is the postdoc employed by the government? Where do you work; in a lab in a certain university? a group in some institution? How long does the contract last? How much are you paid? How much are you funded? How capable are you? Finally, how well do you manage yourself?

I just started postdoc in a certain lab this month after getting PhD last month. It's a three-year contract, funded and paid by the government for a project I proposed. That means I am effectively an independent researcher, where I only have little obligations. I get to work on some challenging but groundbreaking project that I get all the credits for if successful. But about an year ago, I literally stayed in the lab every entire week for a month to write a proposal for a funding program by the Japanese government while doing research at the same time. Now that I think about it, maybe I didn't really need to go that far, but the point is, getting a good contract takes a lot of effort and planning. Being given a three-year contract is rather rare in Japan. Most people will have a single-year contract (but one that you can renew annually depending on whom you are working for) with low pay, no independent fund, and a lot of obligations.

I've seen several people who are capable but are poorly self-managed. What I mean by this is that the guy is smart when it comes to research, but not so much when it comes to finding jobs and preparing for getting positions. To be unsympathetic, if all you can get are contracts that only last six months, then you are doing something wrong. Either you are not capable enough, or that you are not taking it seriously enough. If you are not capable enough, then you should look for different jobs. The current job is not right for you. If you are capable, then take it seriously. You can't walk without a ground beneath you. You have to provide yourself a large solid ground before you being walking. From my experience, most of those who are capable but cannot get good positions are those who decides on things at the last minute, when most of the other good positions are already taken by someone else.


That being said, to be a little more sympathetic, there are some situations where one is really unfortunate. One friend of mine was refused being written a recommendation letter by the professor, despite being capable and despite being a good person (the professor didn't really care about his own students). He ultimately got a good job in a company, which was good, but he had very hard time being accepted.
 
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Academia is a competitive environment where it can be easy to feel inadequate, worthless and a failure.
It's not just academia -- the regular workplace can be like this as well.
 
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It's not just academia -- the regular workplace can be like this as well.
True, but at least there you're payed a decent wage for your suffering.
 
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True, but at least there you're payed a decent wage for your suffering.
Until you get laid off.... A former manager of mine, had been at Intel, told me that after the annual review period each year, the employees at the bottom 10% of the scale were let go.
 
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True, but at least there you're payed a decent wage for your suffering.
No, not all first jobs pay a decent wage, and most first jobs pay substantially less than postdocs.

Rounding the corner into adulthood is not guaranteed to be straightforward or easy for anyone. Nothing about being a postdoc is uniquely difficult, and much of it is unusually easy. And we all get to make our own choices that set us up on paths of varying levels of hardship.
 
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HAYAO
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Until you get laid off.... A former manager of mine, had been at Intel, told me that after the annual review period each year, the employees at the bottom 10% of the scale were let go.
I gotta say, this is the thing about the US (that's the only country I ever lived other than the one I live in right now). The heads roll quite a lot in the US and employment is not very stable. That's okay if you can perform well, but not if you are some mediocre person.

Quite on the contrary, Japanese employment is usually permanent while the wage is low, not to mention fair portion of the employees are forced to work overtime (without additional pay). Even a low-performing workers won't get fired very easily, and well-performing workers have to compensate for that without much additional pay.

I really wonder which is better.
 
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I gotta say, this is the thing about the US (that's the only country I ever lived other than the one I live in right now). The heads roll quite a lot in the US and employment is not very stable. That's okay if you can perform well, but not if you are some mediocre person.

Quite on the contrary, Japanese employment is usually permanent while the wage is low, not to mention fair portion of the employees are forced to work overtime (without additional pay). Even a low-performing workers won't get fired very easily, and well-performing workers have to compensate for that without much additional pay.

I really wonder which is better.
I interviewed for a job in Japan as a new graduate. The pay was about 60% of my offer from the job I took in the USA. The company subsidized housing, but it was a small dwelling and had lots of strings attached (such as not allowing guests to stay overnight). Also a retirement plan that I have no control over in both contribution and investments. Also I didn’t like that everyone has the same pay scale. So the engineers get the same pay as people who work in Human Resources . Why would I go to engineering school when I could have done business or HR for same pay?

Plus as you said long hours and it’s expensive to live in Japan. And the guy at dinner was telling me what I can and can’t order in the restaurant ($), so I felt they were very chintzy. So I decided to stay in the USA.
 
  • #20
HAYAO
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I interviewed for a job in Japan as a new graduate. The pay was about 60% of my offer from the job I took in the USA. The company subsidized housing, but it was a small dwelling and had lots of strings attached (such as not allowing guests to stay overnight). Also a retirement plan that I have no control over in both contribution and investments. Also I didn’t like that everyone has the same pay scale. So the engineers get the same pay as people who work in Human Resources . Why would I go to engineering school when I could have done business or HR for same pay?

Plus as you said long hours and it’s expensive to live in Japan. And the guy at dinner was telling me what I can and can’t order in the restaurant ($), so I felt they were very chintzy. So I decided to stay in the USA.

Exactly. The pay depends on what level of education you received and not what you majored. For example, high school graduate will get around $1.6k - $1.8k/month, college graduate around $1.8k - $2.0k/month, masters graduate around $2.0-$2.4k/month, Ph.D. around $2.4-$2.7k/month. It's very flat. Japan is definitely not the best place to live if you are a capable person. You won't get paid enough, work long hours, do the work for those who don't, and get no compensation. And those useless workers aren't going to be get rid of.


In Japan, people often say that unless you really want to do research in some college or research institution, you should never get a Ph.D. because it's not worth it. Ph.D. courses in Japan usually don't get paid, and you still won't get paid much to compensate for the years you spent in Ph.D. I also wouldn't recommend going Ph.D course in Japan and go to some company.
 
  • #21
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I think we need to focus on mental illness in general more and to take it more seriously. Although the West has been trying to recognize mental illness at different levels (school, universities, workplace, ... etc), but I think the stigma and the lack of understanding is still there. Most people consider those with mental illnesses lazy or unwilling to do what they have to do or entitled. I imagine committing suicide is the hardest decision one can make, but it says how much pain a person had, that he/she decided to take his/her own life. Having a severe depression or severe anxiety can be a huge obstacle in one's life: professionally and personally. Reaching out is not easy for people with mental illnesses, because they often end disappointed of the responses they get, even from psychiatrists/therapists. For this particular situation, changing support groups and friends all the time exacerbated the situation. Finding a job in the industry is less stressful, because it usually means finding a job at least in the same country if not in the same city. For me, doing a PhD was way more stressful and anxiety-inducing than doing my postdoc (I did both in in a foreign country away from my family and friends, in a completely different culture and spoken language), because I was under the constant pressure that I need to get my degree, with all the slow progress I was making, especially the first 2 and a half years. I imagine, it wasn't easy for the friend who was writing the acknowledgment, and I understand why he is refusing to remove it for the sake of publishing the paper.
 
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russ_watters
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I think we need to focus on mental illness in general more and to take it more seriously.
I completely agree. Based on death toll alone - nevermind living with it as a chronic condition - it should get as much attention as breast cancer.
Most people consider those with mental illnesses lazy or unwilling to do what they have to do or entitled... Having a severe depression or severe anxiety can be a huge obstacle in one's life: professionally and personally...

For this particular situation, changing support groups and friends all the time exacerbated the situation. Finding a job in the industry is less stressful, because it usually means finding a job at least in the same country if not in the same city.
That's fine, but it is important to remember that this is an optional stress. It's like climbing a mountain: it's hard and dangerous, and you can work to make it easier and mitigate the danger, or you can simply choose not to do it!

People should:
1. Take responsibility for their choices.
2. Accept that not all people are suited for all jobs. (Stop telling gradeschool kids that they can do anything.)

IMO, part of the culture of sweeping these problems under the rug is the PC idea of normalizing conditions that are actually disabilities and pretending they aren't problems. Not everyone is capable of doing every job. Intellectually, physically, and yes, mentally/emotionally. To me it is similar to assuming someone with a physical disability can do a job that is physically demanding without added risk. They can't: it's a recipe for injury.
 
  • #23
StatGuy2000
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2. Accept that not all people are suited for all jobs. (Stop telling gradeschool kids that they can do anything.)

Not everyone is capable of doing every job. Intellectually, physically, and yes, mentally/emotionally.

Russ, while I understand where you are coming from (in the context of illness or disability), part of the issue as I see it is that within North America, all too often the first default is to in fact discourage grade school kids on what they can't do, and have such low expectations for the students. Therefore, students are all too readily discouraged from pursuing any interest that requires a modicum of effort (this particularly applies to the STEM fields, but also applies to other areas as well), where an expectation that a student can succeed, plus effective teaching materials and methods, can ensure success.

After all, if you believe that not everyone is capable of doing every job, then by implication certain groups of people are only capable of doing very specific types of jobs. How do you know whether an individual belongs to such a group beforehand? My contention is that for the most part, you don't.
 
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  • #24
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Russ, while I understand where you are coming from (in the context of illness or disability), part of the issue as I see it is that within North America, all too often the first default is to in fact discourage grade school kids what they can't do, and have such low expectations for the students. Therefore, students are all too readily discouraged from pursuing any interest that requires a modicum of effort (particularly the STEM field, but this applies to other areas as well), where an expectation that a student can succeed, plus effective teaching materials and methods, can ensure success.

I'm afraid Russ is pretty on point here, and much of what you're saying is somewhere between wrong and lacking evidence. The portion I underlined is awfully close to the findings of Dweck on growth mindset, which has severe replication problems.

A good review of what we currently know about gifted students, from one month ago in The Economist:

https://www.economist.com/news/inte...ture-gifted-children-how-and-why-search-young

- - -
note: the above article mentions IQ and some related ideas. People on this forum seem to not react well to such notions (e.g. jumping onto extreme statements of various sorts that are not warranted).
 
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Russ, while I understand where you are coming from (in the context of illness or disability), part of the issue as I see it is that within North America, all too often the first default is to in fact discourage grade school kids what they can't do, and have such low expectations for the students. Therefore, students are all too readily discouraged from pursuing any interest that requires a modicum of effort (particularly the STEM field, but this applies to other areas as well), where an expectation that a student can succeed, plus effective teaching materials and methods, can ensure success.
I don't think I've ever seen that be an actual accepted practice (discouragement). Can you provide some sources/context? Indeed, you might be reading the issue backwards. Constant praise for no reason seems to be the standard/accepted practice and it sets kids up for failure by making true failure hurt more instead of teaching them that failure is part of learning and that learning is hard, but that's ok. It's counter-intuitive, but the constant praise might just be what is turning kids off to STEM. And maybe that's what you're perceiving. Here's an article about it:
Too Many Kids Quit Science Because They Don't Think They're Smart
But praising their intelligence can make them feel even more insecure. A self-esteem expert offers a way out of the conundrum.
------------------
Ossola: What is a mistake that parents and teachers often make when it comes to praising kids?

Dweck: They often praise the ability, the talent, or the intelligence too much. The opposite of this is the good process praise. This is praise for the process the child engages in—their hard work, trying many strategies, their focus, their perseverance, their use of errors to learn, their improvement.
https://www.theatlantic.com/educati...-because-they-dont-think-theyre-smart/382165/
To repeat the counter-intuitive point of the article: too much or the wrong kind of praise is discouraging.

In any case, the issue of "nobody warned me" is under constant discussion in the academic and career guidance forums. Threads about "nobody says I can do it" are much more rare.
After all, if you believe that not everyone is capable of doing every job, then by implication certain groups of people are only capable of doing very specific types of jobs.
Oh, come on! "not capable of doing every job" and "only capable of doing very specific types of jobs" are practically exact opposites of each other, leaving the other 98% of jobs ignored. You're a mathematician, aren't you? You have to be able to do better reading what I'm actually saying rather than reacting to some preconception.
How do you know whether an individual belongs to such a group beforehand? My contention is that for the most part, you don't.
What is "beforehand"? Look at the context of this thread. "Beforehand" can be any time before they get evicted from their apartment at age 30 with a phd because they are broke because they can't find a job in academia and never considered that possibility before. The path to that is littered with viable off-ramps and the "punishment" for failure is a higher paying job in industry!
 

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