How can a researcher preserve his mental health (ripples)?

One third of postgraduate students suffer from symptoms of severe or moderate depression. Aku Visala, a standard writer at Areiopag, also suffers from them. In his view, the investigator’s work environment does not facilitate the situation. Read here his open letter to a young scientist.

It’s no secret that intellectual life requires tax on mental health. All research involves loneliness and a research chamber where the researcher sees face-to-face ignorance and inability to day-to-day. No new knowledge is created without pain: if the research results were known beforehand, ignorance and long-term work would not be needed at the border of the known and unknown. People who have not experienced this rarely understand the pressures it puts on it.

I have lived the life of a researcher without a break for 13 years and various mental harm to the fluctuations and have become all too familiar. The worst thing was that I thought everything was just about myself. All other people and the environment are fine; the fault is just me. However, this belief turned out to be untrue.

I sometimes remember sitting in the coffee room of our then plant in 2006, with enormous despair. The dissertation did not progress. I had read the sources and the material, but I didn’t know what to get out of them. I had lost faith in myself. Others do dissertations from that but. Again, I adore my own stupidity with basic problems. I didn’t really sleep and the self-accusations went along every moment. Our experienced secretary appeared on site. Through decades of accumulated wisdom, he quickly recognized my affliction. I chose to never finish my job. He replied gently: “Every professor of this institution has been sitting in the same chair at the same table in time and experienced the same despair. But only they have got their thesis done. ”

He was right: I got my doctoral thesis done. At the same time, I also learned a dark homework: anxiety and depression are part of the research process. I was not alone, but everyone had to go through the same press. I got my dissertation done, but the press did not end. It held for many years. I am only now being released about it. However, many do not succeed but leave their postgraduate studies. Often the reason is that the mind is shaken under constant pressure.

One of the key skills of the researcher is to learn how to maintain resistance to the worst effects of these problems. I had to learn these skills myself through the heel and still learn. I am writing to the doctoral dissertation (and not to the advanced researchers). I want to tell them what I would have wanted to hear 13 years ago. Your research will bring you the suffering of the mind. Remember, the fault is not in you. You can still do something about it.

A hidden global problem

A researcher will help a lot if he / she is able to see his / her own work and academic environment in a wider context. Indeed, this broader context is not beautiful to watch. The mental health problems of both undergraduate and doctoral students, especially anxiety and depression, have grown steadily since 2000. According to a broad study conducted by the University of Berkeley, over 40% of postgraduate students in life sciences suffered from depression and anxiety disorders.

Out of shock, some scientists decided to carry out a broader study measuring the depression, anxiety and experience of post-graduate students in 26 countries and 234 different institutions. All disciplines were represented, although the emphasis was on science and humanities and social sciences. The results were shocking.

First, postgraduate students have a six-fold risk of developing depression and anxiety than their average non-academic peers. For example, more than 40% of the doctoral candidates studied report anxiety symptoms in an average of 6% among people of the same age. For depression, the figures were at the same level: 39% of respondents reported symptoms that could lead to a diagnosis of moderate to severe depression.

Secondly, the study also revealed a gender gap: female students are at greater risk of developing depression than men. This as such is not a surprise because depression is more common in women than in men in general. The study also looked at the symptoms of transgender people and revealed that almost 60% of them suffered from depression and anxiety.

Thirdly, the study also revealed some key issues about the causes of depression and anxiety. For postgraduate students, the relationship with the supervisor of the dissertation is very important for the research process. It turned out that this relationship also has quite significant mental health effects. More than half of the depressed kept their relationship with their counselor at a distance and felt that the instructor did not give them enough support and did not help their career.

Dissertation among the dissidents is a global mental health crisis. What about Finland? Studies in Finland alone are hardly available. There is a study of mental health problems among undergraduate students, which, in the same way, shows a tendency for stress, anxiety and depression over the past 20 years. In addition, statistics refer to the growing brain drain of researchers and students. For example, in 2016, some 500 graduates from Finland went abroad to study in Finland, where 200 other graduates had arrived in Finland. The change is great compared to, for example, 2011, when only 270 people left Finland. However, many of those who leave have appealed to factors that cause extra pressure, such as poor working atmosphere, continuous cuts, increased bureaucracy and future gloom. As we can see, these environmental factors are also central to various mental disorders.

Anecdotal evidence should not be invoked, says a man who immediately appeals to anecdotal evidence. However, my own experiences are not just random. I have a decade of experience in Finland (University of Helsinki) and years of experience from the United Kingdom (University of Oxford) and the United States (Universities of Princeton and Notre Dame). These experiences fit the general line of research. I know many people who have interrupted their postgraduate studies and have completely switched to the field, relying on stress, anxiety and depression. The same phenomenon has been taking place among recent graduates: the search for academic work and the pressures associated with research have led many to change their careers after almost a decade of training. Unfortunately, newly graduated doctors and postdoces have no global research knowledge.

The working environment created by Sadist

Thus, depression and anxiety go beyond the life of every third doctoral candidate. Why then? One of the major symptoms of depression is the self-accusations of overflows. I know quite well how this feels. Even joy of seeing the keyboard and the research literature will cause joy of self-accusation and shame. At worst, I even got physical symptoms: some books in the source material literally started throwing me so much that I couldn’t even touch it. In such a state it is very easy to imagine that the person is guilty and responsible for his problems. The university is all well and the other researchers are all fine. Only I suffer because I’m stupid, shiftless and incompetent. If you find yourself in such a situation, it is good to remind yourself of the simple fact that the university is a very difficult working environment. There really isn’t everything right there.

Imagine being almost omnipotent, a sadist genius designed to design a work environment that maximizes employee anxiety. You can do this exercise yourself. You will probably get slightly different results than me, but my psychopath would do something like the following.

First of all, in this workplace, everyone would compete against everyone for their own survival. Man is finally a communal being. Man’s happiness and well-being are ultimately attached to his relationship with other people. Therefore, the evil genius should first and foremost design many different ways to destroy versatile, free and safe relationships. Mutual competition is a very effective tool for this. Employees must be put into competition for the same money that is enough for a few. Competition drives people apart and increases suspicion between them.

Secondly, the evil genius must create an environment where no one is ever satisfied with themselves. Self-confidence and good self-esteem are key pillars of mental health. So they should break up as soon as possible. This is achieved by imposing extremely high demands on the work, which is almost impossible to overcome. Nothing is enough: you can always do more work quantified and it can always be better. As a result, employees can never be satisfied with their work, but they are constantly developing a self-esteem. It is worth adding a few more geniuses to the story, for which the Creator has given abundant capacity. They are able to do much faster and better work than the majority of ordinary employees. For this reason, the self-esteem of all others is even worse in the downward spiral.

Thirdly, there would be no clear prospects for the future in this hell. From the point of view of mental health and meaningfulness of life, hope is of paramount importance. A happy life is directed towards goals, and individual acts are meaningful in relation to the future that a person wants to do. This vision of meaningfulness and meaning must be murdered immediately in the bud. This is best done by breaking the link between success and future opportunities. Although you do how much and how good work, your future in this workplace, the appreciation of other people and success are random.


Now, I can’t speak for your naughty genius, but my genius output is reminiscent of my job in many ways. Everyone competes against everyone. This is all the more true of human and social sciences, as well as of natural sciences, where individual researchers are still, as a rule, part of a group. In human sciences, for example, doctoral candidates usually do their own personal projects. There is much less funding than applicants and people in the same field are competing against each other. The success of a researcher writing at an adjacent table means unemployment for me. Often, a graduate student has to beg for money every year again and again.

The quality and quantity of the researcher’s work is usually very high. In order to win a competitor working at an adjacent table, I have to do a better job. And this quality and quantity do not have a ceiling: no upper limit on the number and quality of publications is set, nor set. Although the importance of publications is officially emphasized, they do not seem to have much impact on access to employment and career progression. Often, funding may be lost because the financier has made a strategic decision to direct money to new careers. I can suddenly change the priority area I have applied for, so 10 years of research that I thought qualify for this post will no longer qualify for that post.

Although it has been great to work with them, their presence is a constant source of anxiety. In no way do I want to claim that they should get rid of. Rather the opposite. However, they affect their environment in a certain way, and this must not be forgotten. The quality and quantity of their work place us in a psychologically difficult position: I have the risk of comparing the amount and quality of my work with the work of the genius. This is a way of destroying mental health because I cannot compete with genius performance.

The Academy has its own characteristics that increase the risk of mental health problems. These are the envy of our academic culture, the progressive segregation and the indifference towards the workers. I was at an event organized by the University of Notre Dame in 2014, presenting the University’s achievements to the rest of the world. I was with my manager at the cocktail party when the head of the local humanities faculty came to my stories. He roughly cheated this way:

“It’s great that you gentlemen spin right here at Notre Dame for your project! You could also be somewhere else. When you publish and talk around the world, Dame gets a good reputation at the same time. It draws us students and new projects. The faculty is grateful for your work. If you have some worries or ideas about how we could jade you, please contact me immediately. Our good is our good. ”

It is clear that at least some of this is part of the American, somewhat overwhelming expression. The hard core, however, is that this faculty leader actually passed on our project and wanted our good. Our good was also good for him. He wanted to keep good employees because he knew we could take our projects elsewhere.

I have sometimes amused myself by trying to imagine that the Finnish Professor Dean of the Faculty, or even talk to me that way. I can’t do that. Maybe it is just me but I have never experienced (or I would have said so) that my career progress and my good will be good for the Finnish Academy and my home university. I dream that someone would be grateful to get funding, go around the world in the name of the University of Helsinki and publish it. In many ways, this has left me, as it is almost all my graduate students, just a dream.

Calling work and the burden of thinking

It is important to note that a simple work environment does not explain the mental health problems of researchers. The work itself also has its own risks that increase the pressure on the researcher. One of the main reasons for this pressure is in our researchers.

I love my job. It is an invitation to me. Or at least before I loved it. Now it is sometimes a burden. I feel like I am an automaton whose task is to solve very difficult problems as quickly as possible, based on inadequate understanding. There is rarely enough time and energy to get to know things properly. The time that researchers had the opportunity to get into one problem for years without the pressure of publishing, administration and fundraising is a thing of the past. The end of each project is going to be like a train, which I try to keep going by ripping my rails in front of it. Sometimes the rails are not to be found for loading. In addition, e-mailing in a hurry produces a crushing sense of inadequacy.

I believe many postgraduate students and researchers are doing the same. This career is not started for money, rarely in Finland either because of reputation. Either way gets a lot easier, for example, by creating a vlog and working for the paper industry. For many, research is a vocation profession that becomes a huge burden, because time and attention seem to attach itself to anything other than that which led to this career, namely research.

Making a call of course naturally supports the meaning of life. If I feel like doing what I should do, this automatically creates motivation and meaning experience. However, it has an unfortunate backward side: work becomes a bigger thing than life that affects everything in my life. As work is part of me, the problems of work also become part of me. An unsuccessful project, a bad article or harsh feedback does not mean just one bad day. They mean that I have failed, I’m poor and I’m not appreciated. It’s easy to see how strong this kind of lifestyle demands.

In addition to this, there are other factors that are particularly prone to depression and anxiety. One of these factors is loneliness. At its best, research is very free. Nobody’s wearing your shoulder. Particularly in the Finnish Academy, where each leading professor has a large number of postgraduate students, the doctoral candidate is often alone with his work.

In the above-mentioned study, contact with the counselor and his support proved to be a key factor in protecting the problem. For example, in Oxford my professor of my own subject had about three to four doctoral thesis supervisors at the same time. The professor might easily have dozens of postgraduate students who come and go according to their situation. Including all the other responsibilities of the professor, it is no wonder that the professor is unable to give much support to an individual doctoral candidate. I have had instructors who have been able to give me their time and energy. I am very grateful to them. I know that most are not so lucky.

In any case, loneliness and independence are central to research. In practice, the humanities researcher does his job in solitude. Loneliness is basically a neutral thing. On the one hand, it enables concentration, dedication and deep understanding. In our present world, sociability and the crowd of other people penetrate everywhere. The loneliness of the research chamber is a great opportunity and a blessing for autonomy, self-transcendence and learning.

On the other hand, however, the loneliness of the chamber has its drawbacks, especially if one is not prepared for the pressure it brings. Assessing and guiding one’s own work in solitude requires effective metacognitive skills. I have to understand how I learned, to be able to motivate myself and to rely on my own conclusions. These skills and abilities are not self-evident, but must be constantly practiced. A person with poor self-esteem and meta-cognitive skills will easily fall into the downward spiral. Inaccurate assessment of one’s own learning ability will give rise to miscalculations of research progress, which in turn will lead to more error estimates. A vicious circle is created.

Loneliness is also associated with the lack of character of research. In practice, research is often a problem-solving situation in the absence of clear solutions. When a researcher carries out his or her engagement, problem solving creates a lot of stress, doubt and worry. Am I stupid when I didn’t come up with a solution? What did I do wrong? Am I now taking into account all the key points? Perhaps there is a solution in the literature and I could find it if I read more. All of this is part of the job picture.

The indefinite nature of the work and the lack of character of the work also mean that the calculation of working hours is not suitable for research work. Problem solving does not look at the moment, but the mind of the inviting worker cries with problems from morning to night. I know a few researchers who are able to turn their minds off while they turn off their office lights. However, we ordinary people have to admit the fact that the distinction between work and leisure is extremely difficult. I pondered my research on walking, on the bus, in the morning shower, sometimes even with other people. What else would a depressed researcher think in the morning when he was suffering from insomnia as his latest article? The unconscious mind continues to grind even in sleep. Thinking is not a computer that is turned on and off as needed. The machine is always on. Even though I would be out of work, the computer runs all kinds of programs that don’t appear on the desktop at all.