Mind Out! How we can improve the well-being in academia by acknowledging failure and embracing setbacks

Academic life can be hard: students are constantly struggling to pass exams and to support themselves in their first experience living alone in a big city. Ph.D. students are urged to obtain results in a short amount of time and suffer often from uncertain career perspectives and poor mentoring, while Post-docs are faced with the issues of high competition and little funding. Professors are overwhelmed with the amount of administrative workload, the challenge of delivering good lectures and supervising their employees. All this may lead to burnout and other mental health situations such as depression and anxiety.

(Foto: Pixabay)

(Picture: Pixabay)


The risk of mental health disorders for academic employees

Research has been carried on the incidence of mental health disorders in academic staff. Examples for research can be found in [1,3]. It is reported how Ph.D. students are at high risk for mental health conditions, more than their peers in any other work environment.

The feeling of failure, although being so common in academia, is little spoken about. The university culture celebrates the achievements, gives prizes to those who managed, encourages those that have already arrived.

Even if there are opportunities to receive help [5,6,7], little we do to encourage students and employees to accept that help, to speak openly about their struggles, to embrace without shame the feeling of failure that inevitably crosses the path of every person in academia. It seems to me we tend to hide the failure, rather than acknowledging it. This adds more pressure on those who are struggling to meet the expectations with which they entered the university.

The path to start a dialogue

While experiencing myself years of academic struggles, it was easy to believe nobody else among my peers was feeling similarly distressed, and this enhanced a sense of alienation that was not fruitful to my well-being nor to my research. I later discovered that my state of mind was highly relatable.

Schwartz [4] observes that science makes him feel stupid. Moreover, he writes, „I actively seek out new opportunities to feel stupid“. He points out that we should make students realize how difficult it is to do research, and we should teach them how to be productively stupid. Some ways to improve the well-being of Ph.D. students is provided in [2]: these include removing the barriers to beneficial behaviors (for example, offering free opportunities of socializing or doing sport) as well as start a dialogue.

How can we improve the situation?

In my proposal, I suggest making a survey for students and employees, especially Ph.D. students, to understand better the risk of mental health disorders at the university.

Research groups should be encouraged to start a dialogue within their members and to be particularly attentive of the signs of distress shown by students and colleagues.

Increasing the advertisement of the existing counseling activities, possibly also via a newsletter every semester, would make the offers more easily accessible. Receiving constant reminders on the threats of mental health issues would make students and employees more self-aware, they would be able to detect the first signs of burnout in shorter time and they could take action to overcome it promptly. Periodic seminars, webinars, and workshops  would help maintaining a good level of exchange on the topic.

The idea for the project „MindOut!“ was one of the winners of the Academicus 2018. This TUM ideas competition invites TUM members to put forward their ideas for improving the conditions of study and teaching at the university.

Sources and Links

[1] Teresa M. Evans, Lindsay Bira, Jazmin Beltran Gastelum, L. Todd Weiss, Nathan L. Vanderford, Evidence for a mental health crisis in graduate education, Nature Biotechnology, 03-2018, vol. 36, pp. 282—284.

[2] Graduate Assembly UC Berkeley, Graduate Student Happiness and Well-Being Report, 2014, http://ga.berkeley.edu/wp-content/uploads/2015/04/wellbeingreport_2014.pdf.

[3] Katia Levecque, Frederik Anseel, Alain De Beuckelaer, Johan Van der Heyden, Lydia Gisle, Work organization and mental health problems in PhD students, Research Policy,  2017, vol. 46. Nr.4, pp. 868—879.

[4] Martin A. Schwartz, The importance of stupidity in scientific research, Journal of Cell Science, 2008, vol. 121 Nr.11, p. 1771.

[5] TUMgesund, https://portal.mytum.de/TUMgesund/index_html

[6] Psychosocial and Psychotherapeutic Advice Service of Studentenwerk München, https://www.studentenwerk-muenchen.de/en/our-advisory-network/psychosocial-and-psychotherapeutic-advice-service/

[7] Systemic Coaching, https://www.chancengleichheit.tum.de/karriere-und-weiterbildung/coaching/

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