Calling Attention to a Postdoc's Struggles and Suicide

Author of a scientific paper fought for years to find a journal to accept his work, which has an acknowledgments section that includes a tribute to a colleague.

August 8, 2017
 
Oliver Rosten

It took almost three years, but Oliver Rosten’s paper was finally accepted by a physics journal.

It wasn’t the paper’s scientific findings that held it up. Instead, Rosten says, one paragraph -- the paper’s acknowledgments section -- was enough to prompt multiple rejections.

Rosten’s paper, “On Functional Representations of the Conformal Algebra,” published in The European Physical Journal C, is dedicated “in loving memory” to Francis A. Dolan. In the acknowledgments at the end of the paper, Rosten says, “the psychological brutality of the postdoctoral system played a strong underlying role in Francis’s death.”

Dolan, who had depression, was a friend and colleague from Rosten’s time as a postdoctoral researcher at the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies. After the stint in Ireland, Dolan was doing postdoctoral work at another institution, where “he had a very difficult time, feeling isolated and unsupported,” Rosten said in an email. In 2011, around the time Dolan had accepted a new position in Crete, he killed himself.

In 2014, when Rosten -- who has since left academe -- finished his conformal algebra paper, he decided that he would be remiss if he didn’t dedicate it to his friend and speak out on behalf of other postdocs.

“In terms of the contribution to Francis's death, I think the exceptional pressure of the postdoctoral system played a key role,” Rosten said in an email. “On top of the inherent stresses of the postdoctoral system, one must also contend with the fact that every few years your entire local support network disappears. The effects of this can be particularly bad for those suffering from mental health conditions, not least in terms of continuity of medical care.”

The acknowledgments in his paper, which he started submitting for publication in 2015, reflected that position, reading in part:

This paper is dedicated to the memory of my friend Francis Dolan, who died, tragically, in 2011 … I am firmly of the conviction that the psychological brutality of the postdoctoral system played a strong underlying role in Francis’s 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 passage -- now being hailed by some as an important conversation starter for postdocs -- proved controversial, and undesirable, in the eyes of some journal editors.

The science behind the paper was accepted by two respected physics journals, but issue was taken with the acknowledgments.

“The required corrections concern the last paragraph of the acknowledgments. We would remove it completely,” Rosten said he was told by an editor. “I guess there were more basic problems in Dolan's life than the pressure put by physics work. Certainly people, say in business, behave more brutally than in academia.”

“In a scientific paper we discuss about science, not about life.”

Rosten objected and withdrew the paper from journals that had accepted it on two separate occasions when he and the editors reached an impasse regarding the acknowledgments.

Finally, The European Physical Journal C accepted the paper, acknowledgments intact, the only change being additional thank-yous to colleagues.

A Stressful Industry

“This isn’t the norm in the postdoc world,” Julie Fabsik-Swarts, executive director of the National Postdoctoral Association, said of Dolan’s suicide. “But I do agree postdocs are under a great deal of stress.”

Fabsik-Swarts and Rosten both said that the short-term appointments, high demands and low pay of postdocs can create hyperstressful environments. A May study published in Research Policy found about half of Ph.D. students experience “psychological distress,” and one in three is at risk of a common psychiatric disorder.

“In this topic -- it’s just not been discussed enough” by the postdoc community, Fabsik-Swarts said. “But it really should be more out there. I don’t think most go to this extreme, but there are mental health issues out there.”

Additionally, a lack of standardization across the industry as a whole makes talking about the stresses on postdoctoral researchers harder to talk about. Short-term appointments are the norm -- and can add to researchers’ stress -- but wages and benefits vary greatly across the country and even within institutions themselves. A survey recently found that postdocs face extreme pressure to return to work quickly after having children -- in one instance, a postdoc who hadn't yet left the hospital said she was visited by her principal investigator, asking when she would return to the lab.

“I really benefited from my postdoc, but other postdocs aren’t equally funded,” said Victoria Reyes, who finished her postdoctoral program at the University of Michigan in July. “I thought that [Rosten] was honoring his friend and trying to shed light on an important issue, which is, ‘What are the institutional support for postdocs?’”

Rosten said both his own work as a postdoc, as well as friends’ and colleagues’ work, was done under stressful conditions.

“It is very hard as a postdoc to do things even slightly off the beaten track, as it confers a great risk to your career doing so,” Rosten said. “A double tragedy is that in recent years Francis's work has been recognized as extremely important -- but he never lived to see this.”

Reyes, who has written advice columns for Inside Higher Ed in the past, said she was surprised that Rosten had to submit to multiple journals to get his work published, but added that she hadn’t ever been a journal editor herself.

“I was surprised that they would reject a paper based on the acknowledgments, but there’s a caveat -- I’ve never seen an acknowledgment with that sort of stance,” she said.

Some took to social media to support the acknowledgments being published, sharing their own experiences as struggling postdocs.

“This is a discussion that needs to be had, and needs to be brought up frequently and loudly by as many people as possible,” one user wrote on Reddit. “The current system is untenable, unsustainable and harmful to scientific progress. It doesn't take a Ph.D. to see that.”

“If scientists can't speak frankly about this in the journals we use to communicate our most essential ideas, how will the culture change?” Robert McNees, an associate physics professor at Loyola University Chicago, wrote on Twitter.

While getting the paper published was a trying ordeal, Rosten said, he hopes his efforts could spark change. His recommendations for improving the experience for postdocs include extending the duration of appointments, increasing pay, and increasing mental-health support.

“It's clear that what I wrote has struck a raw nerve,” he said. “I hope that there is now sufficient impetus to drive real change. However, this requires those in positions of power to act.”

If you or someone you know is struggling with depression or thoughts of self-harm, please visit Samaritans or MentalHealth.gov. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is a free, confidential 24-7 service that can provide people in suicidal crisis or emotional distress, or those around them, with support, information and local resources. 1-800-273-TALK (8255).

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