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Staying healthy in Academia

Academia can be a very difficult place.

There is a fierce competition for an ever decreasing public research budget. There will always be someone, somewhere, with better equipment, better skills, better support, with more experience, etc. Your colleagues will always have more papers published and more funding raised than you. Paper deadlines are endless, and many of them happening in the same week, sometimes even on the same day.

There will always be dozens of small tasks waiting for you at any moment. To deal with all of this, you should be in good health.

Physically

When on campus (in a pre/pos COVID era), it is essential to learn about potential physical activities you can do there.

Although any form of physical exercise is valuable, I would say that practicing sports is much better than, for instance, working out in the gym. Three reasons here:

  • First, practicing sports is fun (whereas lifting weights is very far from fun).
  • Second, you can practice in groups (which fosters friendships and creates team-building characteristics).
  • Third, you may not have to pay to practice (at least it might be easier to find a public park in which you could play soccer with your friends than finding a public gym).

Practicing sports regularly also requires practicing discipline, and building discipline is essential to one’s character. Similarly, practicing sports also reduce the levels of stress hormones while also stimulating the production of endorphins (that relaxed feeling after a workout). Got a rejection? Put on your shoes and go for a walk/run.

The next point to stay healthy is having a good night of sleep. Many of us are not getting enough sleep because we’re working too much. At the same time, we’re not working efficiently because we’re not getting enough sleep. Does that sound familiar? Not getting enough sleep can impair one’s cognitive abilities, and this will appear in your work (sooner or later). Everyone has their amount of hours required to energize fully. Figure out how many hours do you need, but research suggests that it might not be less than seven hours.

If you still think sleep is overrated, ask any professional athlete if she takes sleep seriously (don’t know any? find on Twitter!).

But I have a paper deadline by tomorrow morning; I have to finish this by then’’, one could say. That’s fine to sleep fewer hours once in a while, but you don’t want to make it the rule.

Finally, “you are what you eat’’. The food we eat affect us more than we realize. I am far from being an expert on this topic, but it is reasonably easy to understand how our diet has a direct impact on productivity levels. For instance, if you have a paper deadline Monday morning, you don’t want to overeat fatty foods in the evening before; otherwise, you may feel tired when you don’t want to be feeling tired. Likewise, it is not good to stay a long time without eating. When we are running low on glucose, we have a tough time staying focused. This is why it is hard to concentrate on an empty stomach. Fostering healthy habits is paramount to build a long-term research career.

Mentally

The culture of rejection

Academia is the place where one learns how to deal with rejections.

Every established researcher has accumulated too many rejections. From Albert Einstein to Stephen Hawking, from Nobel prize winners to your department’s colleagues. All of them have faced many rejections throughout their careers. Many of them might not even know how many times they received a letter of rejection. I myself already received more than 80 rejections.

Despite their ubiquitousness, rejections are hidden in our minds due to the way the academic game works: the outcomes of the academic game are only partially public. We know about those that had a research paper accepted, those that received the grants, the prizes, the awards, etc. But we know very little about those that did not have their work accepted. Sometimes we don’t even know how fierce was the competition. In this scenario, it may be tempting to think that only those that did a poor job were rejected.

In my research field, software engineering, some conferences/journals are so competitive (around 20% of acceptance) that many top-notch research papers are often rejected. Sometimes the only difference between a rejected paper and an accepted paper is that we don’t talk about the rejected paper.

If you stay around in academia for some time, you are very likely to collect many rejection letters as well, for instance, a college admission rejected, a paper rejected, a grant rejected, a job rejected, a promotion rejected, etc. If you persevere, however, you will collect more and more rejections 😅…., till the point you endured enough to convert a rejection into an acceptance.

The process is tough, though. Rejection hurts. And there is not much you can do about it.

The peer review system is also far from perfect. You spend countless hours working on your latest paper, only to the referee (who may have read your paper in a hurry) reject your paper because you did not cite paper X.

Sometimes the rejection is not fair. But it is also part of the process.

You don’t have to like rejections, but it’s wise to learn how to deal with them.
Train your brain to learn that rejections are part of the process, and embrace it. Most of the time, we also receive feedback on how we could improve. Take that feedback seriously and fix, if possible, all raised concerns. And try again.

Funding is particularly tricky for young scholars, not only because research funding is rather limited but also because many scholars did not receive training in writing grant proposals. However, right after we graduate we are supposed to acquire ridiculous amount of money to our departments.

Receiving research funding is easier said than done. Similarly to research papers, great applications are more likely to be rejected. If you are a student, consider showing interest in helping your supervisor with their grant applications. If you don’t feel comfortable writing a technical grant proposal yet, you could start by suggesting ideas. It is an excellent decision to start exercising this skills soon.

Build a healthy environment

Rejections would be easier to digest if you work in a healthy environment. In research, a healthy environment protects young scholars from factors that can threaten their health, while allowing them to expand their capabilities and self-reliance.

At the bare minimum, a healthy environment is a place where you could talk about your concerns and have someone to listen to you. Ideally, in a healthy environment, young scholars should feel connected with their colleagues, their advisor, and their big research plan. By understanding the big picture, young scholars could also become more confident to explore their own research paths, contributing to their research independence. A healthy environment should also encourage young scholars to share their ideas without the fear of being sharply criticized or even discriminated.

If your working environment does not have any of these characteristics, consider building them. You can start by creating a culture of getting together, either by having a weekly lunch together or by inviting your colleagues to play a game (and stay physically healthy). If you figure out you work in a toxic environment, it’s better to find another place to work.

Observe your mental health

Finally, the culture of rejection, the lack of a healthy environment, along with other factors, could contribute negatively to one’s mental illness.
Just to give the reader some perspective, in the US alone:

  • 19.1% of adults experienced mental illness;
  • 7% had chronic depression;
  • 5% had attentional disorders (ADHD/ADD);
  • 4% had post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD);
  • 3% had bipolar disorder.

If it is awful for the general population, it could be even worse for graduate students. According to a 2015 report by the University of California Berkeley:

“47% of graduate students suffer from depression, following a previous 2005% study that showed that 10% contemplated suicide’’.

If we calculate 47% (rate of depression in graduate students) divided by 7% (percentage of depression in the general population), we learn that graduate students are more than six times more likely to be depressed.

If you need, find professional help (know your institution could help).

Towards healthier research labs

Although there is a growing discussion about a better life-work balance in academia, there are few examples on how this could be achieved in practice. To close this blog post, I will share the “Ten simple rules towards healthier research labs” proposed by Fernando Maestre. The ten rules are the following:

  1. Promote the well-being of your lab members
  2. Let people set their own schedules
  3. Gratitude is the sign of noble souls
  4. Treat our lab members as your teammates
  5. Create a collaborative environment within your lab
  6. Remember that very lab member is unique
  7. Respect working hours, public holidays, and vacations
  8. Give credit where credit is due
  9. Destigmatize failure and celebrate success
  10. Promote the professional development fo your lab members

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Assistant professor @ Federal University of Pará

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Gustavo Pinto

Gustavo Pinto

Assistant professor @ Federal University of Pará

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