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166. Want to Improve Research Careers? Scientists Have 5,434 Suggestions.

The CACTUS Global Mental Health Survey asked valuable questions about stress, performance, and career goals for scientists.

The data revealed plenty of room for improvement, as researchers struggle with harassment, work-life balance, and limited pay.

But the study’s authors also asked more open-ended questions:

Do you have any suggestions for organizations within academia or other related stakeholders on what they can do to ensure a great work environment for researchers?

The received 5,434 ideas from the 13,000 survey respondents.

This week, we’re joined once again by Andrea Hayward, Senior Associate for Global Community Engagement at Cactus Communications.

We unpack the themes she uncovered from those responses, and identify the many ways in which Academia can foster a more supportive research environment.

Address Bullying and Harassment

Andrea Hayward, Sr. Associate for Global Community Engagement at Cactus Communications

The most prominent theme from survey responses was to implement measures to promote equality and prevent harassment, discrimination, and bullying.

For example, one respondent wrote:

Take people seriously. I experienced harassment and bullying and I was brushed off and not listened to until it got severe. Then the department said “Why didn’t you say anything?” when I had been the entire time. What seems inconsequential to some may be harmful to others. Reputation is too important to some programs.
PhD student, Europe

Some researchers talked about sexual harassment that is normalized or explained away. Others described differential treatment or favoritism based on race.

Whatever their experiences, we know that departmental policies regarding bullying and harassment are rare, and consequences for this type of behavior are practically non-existant.

To improve the work environment, Universities should establish written guidelines around inappropriate behavior, and enforce them even when it’s inconvenient.

Improve Job Security and Pay

Wanting a bigger paycheck is not unusual in the working world, but scientists experience unique challenges. Aside from lower pay in academia, they also face contract terms that make their lives unpredictable.

“Fixed-Term Contracts” are just what they sound like – a scientist is hired to work for a certain number of months or years, and then they’re done. Contrast that with most other careers where you are hired to work until you decide to move on.

And what’s truly unusual about fixed term contracts is that they might cover only 8-12 months. After that short period, the funding dries up.

Setting aside the fact that it may be impossible to complete a publishable body of research in 8 months, these short contracts add considerable stress to postdocs and technicians who are supporting themselves and their families. They may have a 12-month lease, but an 8-month job!

Foster a Work-Life Balance

Another common theme was a call for better work-life balance. Students, postdocs, and staff wanted their departments to recognize that 80-hour work weeks take a toll on mental and physical health.

Distribute the work. Don’t overburden them with various other responsibilities. Don’t pressurize them for personal gains. Keep them working only for 8 hours as per the country’s labor laws and time duration for working… It only leads to burnout.
Research fellow/post-doctoral researcher, Asia

Universities and academic departments can foster work-life balance by encouraging (or mandating!) vacation time off, tracking weekly work hours, and providing child-care options that help parents manage their work schedule.

And So Much More

With over 5,000 comments, there were many more topics and ideas in the minds of the respondents. Tune in to this week’s episode to hear more from Andrea Hayward, or download the research report to read the full slate of recommendations.

And be sure to tell us what YOU think. What would you do to improve academic research, and foster better mental health for scientists in your department? Leave a comment below!

To learn more, check out the CACTUS Mental Health Survey page, or follow them on Twitter.

They also have a powerful 4-part video series following researchers as they deal with mental health issues called “Some Days Are Better Than Others”.

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