Early Career Scientists Need Mental Health Support

 In PhD/Postdoc Blog, wellness
This is what we do

Figure 1: Scientists

When you imagine someone facing mental health issues what do you see? It’s probably not a graduate student struggling to complete the experiment they need to publish a paper or a newly minted doctor hoping to get a grant they need to start their academic career. Yet, nearly half of early career scientists (ECS) experience depression or clinical anxiety, six times higher than the general population.

To many people, scientist seems like a secure, low-stress career. You arrive in the morning, put on your white lab coat, peek at the microscope, hold a beaker up to the light, and go home. In truth, we spend a lot of our day writing grants to obtain that equipment (and pay our salaries) and figuring out our next career step. This is doubly stressful for the ECS just starting to build their resume and facing a job market that increasingly favors adjunct professorships (i.e., temp) over tenured positions. Add to this a less-than-stellar mentor and it becomes clear why half of the graduate students don’t complete their doctorate.


Improving conditions

Fortunately, there are a few things that we can do to improve conditions for ECS:

  1. Increase research funding, especially for early career scientists
  2. Promote good mentorship practices at universities
  3. Move faculty structure back toward tenure and away from low-paid adjunct faculty
  4. Improve access to mental health services at and before university

There is no quick fix to this problem, but these four actions would be a big step.

1. Increase research funding

Supporting research leads to many positive outcomes. [ASBMB]

The federal government is the primary funding agent for research. The legislature determines both the total funding level and how those funds are allocated. Federal funding declined dramatically in the mid-2000s and again between 2012 and 2015. Although private funding is increasing, and federal funding has slowly recovered over the past three years, the limited resources mean that grants more often go to established researchers with safe outcomes.  ECS with thin resumes and novel ideas often struggle to get a foothold in this cut-throat environment

Policy initiatives in recent years have tried to address the specific issue of early career funding. In particular, the Next Generation of Researchers Initiative would limit the number of grants awarded to a single lab and reserve a portion of NIH budget for ECS. Unfortunately, this policy removed money from existing funds rather than allocated new funds for ECS causing many senior researchers and universities to oppose it. A new version is currently under consideration for December 2018, giving scientists and science advocates an opportunity to get involved and support ECS. One way to support this effort is to make your comments with ASBMB here.

2. Promote good mentorship at universities

Nearly every graduate student has experienced a bad mentor at some point in their academic career. While overt abuse is rare (though far less rare than it should be), many graduate students don’t get the support they need from their advisors. Mentoring is rarely considered part of the business of academia and therefore gets forgotten in the pressure to publish and obtain funding.

Part of earning a doctorate is learning to work independently, but we still rely on our advisors for guidance and lab support. The Council of Graduate Schools identified poor mentorship as a major source of ECS stress and attrition but most of us don’t get any mentor training before we graduate and find faculty positions. University administrators have the power to make mentorship part of faculty evaluations and provide training through organizations like the National Research Mentoring Network. Legislators can help by creating state grants to improve mentorship and direct government funding agencies to include mentorship in their grant evaluations.

3.Increase stable university jobs

Anticipating an uneventful summer day, the grad student is blindsided by an email about the upcoming job market. [photo credit: Lego Grad Student, used with permission]

I’ve heard old-timer academics refer to a Ph.D. as a “union card” that all but guaranteed a tenure-track position. Cuts to university funding and ballooning administrative roles have driven universities to shift away from these reliable positions toward adjunct faculty jobs with low pay and little security. Between 2003 and 2013 the share of adjunct faculty rose from 45 to 62 percent at public bachelor’s degree-granting institutions. Facing the prospect of graduating 24th grade only to work the academic equivalent of a temp job, drives many promising ECS away from research and isn’t good for students. Fixing this problem will likely require increasing university funding, but some of it can be relieved by encouraging university regents to change their hiring practices. In Colorado, we have the opportunity to elect regents who will improve university faculty conditions.

4. Improve mental health services

Considering all the challenges facing ECS, it is no wonder we have higher rates of depression and anxiety, yet many universities fail to provide adequate mental health services. As mental health has captured the national conversation, accesses to these services has started to improve. One of the most important federal bills is the Affordable Care Act, which required that insurance companies cover mental health costs. Here in Colorado, several recent bills have helped to improve students’ access to healthcare. Many of these bills focus on early childhood and adolescent mental health. As the conversation continues, we must make sure these bills do not forget our graduate students and ECS.


What can we do to help?

Last week I met with the leader of a campaign for better mental health services in Denver. She had no idea that ECS shared these challenges. The fact that even mental health campaigns are unaware of ECS struggles shows that we in the scientific community need to do a better job of communicating what it’s like to be a scientist. Science supporters can advocate for better conditions for ECS to their friends and legislators. Improving the mental health will save many promising ECS from leaving research and will lead to more scientific discoveries across the country so get out there and share your story.


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