In July, a paper was published that some scientists had eagerly awaited, but not for its content. In the acknowledgments, Dr Oliver Rosten dedicated his work to a friend, Francis Dolan, who died by suicide, and called attention to the way career pressures can harm the health of postdoctoral researchers.
Few outside certain fields of physics will read Rosten's paper. Titled On Functional Representation of the Conformal Algebra, it's every bit as incomprehensible for non-physicists as the title suggests. It's published in The European Physical Journal C, an open-access journal respected in its field, but little known by the general public. Yet two weeks later, Rosten's paper has had 300 times the downloads of those published at the same time.
Rosten's acknowledgement reads: “This paper is dedicated to the memory of my friend, Francis Dolan, who died, tragically, in 2011."
After thanking those who assisted him, Rosten continues: “I am firmly of the conviction that the psychological brutality of the post-doctoral system played a strong underlying role in Francis’ death. I would like to take this opportunity, should anyone be listening, to urge those within academia in roles of leadership to do far more to protect members of the community suffering from mental health problems, particularly during the most vulnerable stages of their careers.”
The response demonstrates that many agree.
Popular perceptions of scientists are of towering geniuses who change the world almost single-handedly. However, the vast bulk of scientific work today comes from junior researchers struggling to build careers. Collectively, they publish millions of papers annually, with little recognition or pay.
Positions are usually short term, creating intense pressure to publish quantity over quality in the quest for job security. Job offers are often in strange locations, far from friends, family, or even familiar colleagues. As soon as they get settled, researchers may have to move again. Some institutions try to support their junior researcher's mental health, but recent sexual harrassment scandals demonstrate others do not.
Dolan took his life at 34, despite authoring 13 scientific papers, most in prestigious journals. He'd spent the nine years since his PhD at five institutions in four countries. One of these subsequently held a conference in his honor, emphasizing the scale of his loss to science, as well as to friends and family.
A blog post by Dr Sabine Hossenfelder, a physics research fellow at the Frankfurt Institute of Advanced Studies, reports that those who knew Dolan believe his movements interfered with his ability to access health care, and living so far from his partner placed him under additional stress, contributing to his death.
Rosten's paper was initially accepted for publication two years ago, but with the condition the acknowledgment be removed, as it was deemed “out of place”. Two other journals rejected it, one of them over the acknowledgment, but Rosten stood his ground, something he noted to IFLScience was made much easier because he's left academia to work as a computer developer. Eventually, Rosten submitted with pre-approval from editors that if the paper itself met their standards, they would publish the acknowledgment.
Asked for specific proposals to reduce post-docs' pressures, Rosten told IFLScience positions should have a three-year minimum and pay should be increased. Rosten also suggested: “Every institution should have members of staff, ideally with training in mental health issues, whose sole job is to support the postdoctoral community.” This role would include responsibility for those transitioning between institutions and providing retraining on leaving academia.
Rosten also believes that greater awareness of the crucial role post-docs play in science, and therefore in the benefit of humanity, might also help.