Friday, 8 December 2017

Is it possible to have a research career without being a workaholic?

Posted by Peter van der Graaf, AskFuse Research Manager, Teesside University

This was one of the burning questions that NIHR trainees put to an esteemed panel of career advisers at their annual meeting in Leeds. Every year the National Institute for Health Research brings together their trainees at a two-day event to network, share experiences, take part in workshops and generally learn more about the largest national clinical research funder in Europe. This year’s theme: Future Training for Future Health.

With all these bright minds in the room and a dedicated session on successful fellowships and grant applications, you would think ‘top tips on surviving an interview’ and ‘what mistakes to avoid in an application’ would be on the top of their list. However, after several inspiring presentations from previous and current award holders who had climbed the academic ladder - including Fuse Director Ashley Adamson a NIHR Research Professor - participants were equally, if not more, concerned about maintaining a healthy life-work balance.

Follow the yellow brick road to academic success
While Brexit questions made a brave entrance (Q: How will Brexit affect future research? A: In the long term, not all all!), they could not knock questions about mental health and wellbeing from the top spot. When Ashley included pictures of her son in a musical-inspired animation of her academic pathway (follow the yellow-brick road!) to explain that she preferred part-time work to spend more time with her family, participants immediately asked “but how do you fit family in with an academic career?”.

New gadget SLI.DO was introduced by the NIHR at the meeting this year: participants could submit questions through a mobile app, which others could vote to be answered by the panel (Bush Tucker Trial for academics). Not having to stand up in front of an audience to say who you are, might have given some participants the confidence to ask uncomfortable questions. The honest and open stories from the presenters about their own struggles and failures in academia (“my new post oscillated between agony and despair”) might also have contributed to this confidence.

Paul McGee emphasises the importance of
 looking after your mental health in academia
Experiences of stress and concerns over mental health in academic careers were acknowledged throughout the conference in various presentations and workshops. This was perhaps most evident in the closing session by Paul McGee (aka The Sumo Guy) who emphasises the importance of looking after your mental health in academia. His four key messages (be kind to yourself; get perspective; hippo time - to wallow - is ok; and keep pushing) resonated with many participants and provoked a strong response on social media.

As public health researchers, we are familiar with these messages. In our studies, we underline the link between physical and mental health, express our deep concern over the lack of mental health services and highlight the importance of resilience training from an early age in schools. However, it appears that we are not very good at applying this evidence to our own life and work.

This was recently confirmed by a systematic review of published work on researchers' well-being featured in the Times Higher Education. The review, commissioned by the Royal Society and the Wellcome Trust, found that academics face higher mental health risk than many other professions. Lack of job security, limited support from management and weight of work-related demands on time were listed as factors affecting the mental health of those who work in higher education.

Given this evidence, is it possible to have an academic career and stay healthy? Despite the questions raised at the annual event, the NIHR trainees were keen to acknowledge positive mental health messages: you can have a life and family outside academia (no need to be workaholic, although being a data geek is acceptable*); it’s ok to be different and carve your own path to develop your intellectual independence; and most of all: the key to success is self-care and not funding.

* An after-dinner presentation by @StatsJen taught us that there is a perfect correlation between eating cheese and death by entanglement in bedsheets. Will midnight cheese feasts be the next public health scare?

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