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.
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.
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.
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. […]
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