Episode 21: A conversation with Dr Zoë Ayres on Mental Health in Academia (Part 1)

In this weeks episode of the Monday Science Podcast, listen to Dr. Bahijja Raimi-Abraham talk to research scientist Zoë Ayres — water resreach scientist, Member of the Royal Society of Chemistry Analytical Division, Chair of the Analytical Science Network and Mental Health Advocate and Co-Founder of Voices of Academia — about mental health in the world of academics.

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Check out the Voices of Academia website here.

Dr. Bahijja: To start off, could you tell us a bit about yourself?

Zoë: Sure — my name is Zoë and I am research scientist, I’ve been working in the water industry and left academia a couple years ago. I get to work on new and interesting technology to keep our water safe, which I really enjoy doing. In my spare time, I have become a mental health advocate for those in academia […].

Dr. Bahijja: What was your journey to becoming a mental health advocate?

Zoë: I would love to say I had to plan, but it really came about during my PhD when I experienced mental health difficulties for the first time and was diagnosed with depression. I found it really har to deal with, but with medication and therapy I was able to get out of that headspace.

I remember finishing my PhD and just thinking back that “that time period was terrible”. After doing some research, I realised that this wasn’t just me, [other people were experiencing the same thing].

I then joined a poster competition with the Royal Society of Chemistry in the UK — I did mine on mental health in academia and the response was overwhelming. I’ve just been continuing [raising awareness] since.

Dr. Bahijja: […] When I think back to my PhD, there wasn’t a lot of conversation about stress and mental health, how you support researchers. You are almost left completely alone.

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Zoë: Yeah, I almost wish I had someone to take me aside and just say “you deserve to be here, you have the grades, etc”. This is really what imposter syndrome is, [and it’s a real challenge for PhD students]. I also wish somebody had told me about the additional challenges that come with it — like watching your friends who are not doing PhDs buy houses, while you are struggling on a small PhD salary. There are so many little problems that eventually become a larger problem.

Dr. Bahijja: For me, I had people maybe in their 2nd or 3rd year PhD give me advice and it was always pretty positive. Later though, in my 2nd year, I suddenly got down about everything. I would just sit and try to do work, [but I couldn’t for about four weeks]. The other PhD students would say ”yeah, don’t worry that can happen”, but I didn’t know what to do.

Zoë: When you are demotivated like that, you know it happens. It can be interpreted by our supervisors that we don’t care or are disinterested — but it’s really that we don’t know what to do. It really comes down to this thing about how in education we usually have these goals like “what do I do next?”, but with a PhD it is really [unstructured] and nebulous. […].

Dr. Bahijja: With post-docs, you can also have that. With a PhD you know you have 3–4 years to complete a task, but with a post-doc, you are a member of staff but also not treated like a member of staff. There is sometimes a lack of respect. It’s like a no mans land.

Zoë: I really like that analogy of a no mans land. You get a few people that make it through [to the post-doc or PhD] because of the competitive nature, but also because we lose people due to the environment, stress and pressure. A lot of very talented people leave academia due to that environment.

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Photo of a man looking frutruated while studying by Tim Gouw.

Dr. Bahijja: It definitely is a challenge to stay in academia. There was a period where I was feeling done [with it]. When I talk to people about careers, I don’t think everyone is meant to be an academic. The environment can be very stressful. [Academia] loses a lot of people who are very skilled due to the environment and the toxicity, especially women. It’s definitely a problem.

Zoë: There is a fantastic report by the Royal Society of Chemists, outlining the diversity landscape, talking about how many women leave academia. There is that argument of women leaving because they want a family, but that’s not all that’s there — its not the sole driver. Even if it was, perhaps its a sign that academia needs to be better at accommodating people with families. We need to be serious about improving mental health for those in academia.

Dr. Bahijja: […] Definitely, I really wish there was more consideration for peoples’ mental health and well-being in academia. In terms of bullying and harassment, it’s really normalised in academia. I only realised later on even, that I experienced things that may have been bullying in academia. I once did a training exercise for a department on bullying and harassment and there was an activity where we had to look at different words and phrases and identify if we had experienced these things. I remember ticking off everything on the page. My journey of understanding this really started in 2017.

Dr. Bahijja: I think a lot of people have that, [they don’t understand that what they are experienced is harassment or bullying], because there isn’t a conversation.

Zoë: Exactly, if you had known from the start, you would’ve been able to call it out if you felt able to […].

Dr. Bahijja: Actually, would you be able to give us the definitions of bullying and harassment?

Zoë: Thinking back to my previous experiences — academic bullying can often occur at conferences, etc. For example a researcher at the beginning of their career might give a presentation and at the end there [could be comments trying to put them down], or trying to undermine the presentation. I see that quite regularly. I’m not sure exactly where the lines sit between bullying and harassment in academia, oftentimes.

There could also be a lack of respect for personal boundaries, like sexual harassment. […]

Want to learn more about this weeks guest, Zoë Ayres?

Feel free to check out her website, twitter and blog here. Come back in the next episodes to learn more about her work!

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Check out Zoë Ayres twitter page here.

Want to hear the full episode? Please check out the Monday Science podcast on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, and Stitcher.

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An engaging podcast bringing you the latest research in Science, Technology and Health.Hosted by award winning scientist Dr Bahijja Raimi-Abraham.

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