Sometimes giants need a shoulder to stand on too
Clarinda Cerejo, VP, Content & Community, CACTUS highlights that it is time to create a more conducive environment for researchers with better management and administrative support, more open acknowledgement and discussion of failures, better training for non-research responsibilities, and easily accessible support systems
If you were asked to rank professionals for whom work has gotten more intense and demanding during the pandemic, you would probably place researchers high up on the list, possibly competing only with healthcare professionals and law enforcement officials.
Researchers are a rare breed, accounting for about 7.8 million of the world’s 7.8 billion, a mere 0.1 per cent of the global population. And while they generally work silently behind the scenes to produce the science stories we see in popular media, there has never been a time when the rest of the world has been more acutely aware of the work researchers do and the value it brings to our lives.
While the world has hit pause in a way that we’ve never known in our lifetime, researchers have donned their superhero capes and burned the midnight oil, diligently attempting to find answers to all the coronavirus-related questions that have been keeping the rest of us up at night. Over 100,000 COVID-19-related academic works that have been published in 2020 alone stand testimony to this fact. 
But this form of heroism —showing up for science against all odds —is not new to researchers. Driven by passion and purpose, they embrace as par for the course physically demanding fieldwork and lab work that knows no boundaries of working hours and weekends off. Out of sheer goodwill, and with no monetary benefits, they undertake editorial roles and critique their peers’ manuscripts before publication. But they remain faceless and nameless to the layperson and are rarely if ever celebrated as the heroes they are.
In truth, many researchers live with a severe and all-pervasive feeling of inadequacy — the well-documented “imposter syndrome” that makes them feel that they are not good enough or smart enough to be among great minds. They work in a hypercompetitive environment where failure and rejection are familiar friends; three of four faculty positions in academia have no job security, four in five grant proposals are rejected , most research manuscripts are rejected several times before journal publication, most promising drugs never make it to market. Add to this all the non-research responsibilities they shoulder — teaching and mentorship, conference presentations, engaging the media, administrative work that goes into grant applications and lab operations — and 24-hour days are just not enough! It is no surprise then that academics are said to be six times more likely to experience anxiety and depression as compared to the general population.
So, while the world is looking to researchers to usher us out of the pandemic, what kind of support are researchers looking for?
Early results of a survey Cactus Communications undertook (currently under analysis) to understand joy and stress triggers in academia, in which more than 13,000 researchers globally participated, indicate that while most researchers feel a sense of purpose and fulfilment through their work and the accompanying intellectual and creative challenges, they are unhappy with the overall culture in academia. Many researchers state that they are under tremendous pressure to publish papers, secure grants, and maintain their reputation and that they frequently feel overwhelmed at work.
In a powerful and emotional quote, one of the survey respondents wrote, “….the best choice that I made for myself was to leave the academy after I finished my PhD and stay away…It is a vicious cycle [where] mentors and supervisors were overworked during their PhD studies and now are doing the same thing to their students.” And sadly, this experience is not a rare exception among researchers.
Suggestions that have come up in the survey as a way to improve the academic environment include the need for better management and administrative support, less emphasis on the number of publications, more open acknowledgement and discussion of failures, better training for non-research responsibilities, and structured and easily accessible support systems for mental health concerns.
Most corporate professionals have the luxury of structured training for technical and soft skills and an HR department tasked with ensuring their continued growth and overall wellbeing. Academics, on the other hand, are formally trained only in their technical area of expertise, but not in adjacent work areas such as publication, grant application, teaching, and mentorship, which take up a significant proportion of their time. More importantly, most academic research institutions starkly lack an HR equivalent oversight body to whom researchers can turn for support.
Everything we understand about life and the world as we know it is through the work of researchers, the giants on whose shoulders we stand to see further. If we were to lose these warriors to a harsh and unforgiving academic environment, can we even fathom what we really stand to lose? It’s about time that researchers got a supportive shoulder too.