Paper Calls Out Pressures On Postdoctoral Researchers

These graduates have added to human knowledge by completing their PhDs, but many will find themselves working in short-term contracts far from their support networks.

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.

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