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Research Culture and its Impact on Diversity, Wellbeing and Mental Health in Academia

Opinion by Simone Lackner, Ph.D.

April 29th, 2022

Since the onset of the COVID19 pandemic a public focus and awareness finally went to mental health and wellbeing. Unfortunately, still mental health issues are mainly treated as individual problems and not necessarily addressed as a result of a societal system that is dysfunctional in terms of diversity, inclusion, equality and probably most important equity. Sadly, the same can be said about the academic system. There is increasing evidence through numerous social surveys at different institutions around the globe, that there is a mental health crisis in academia[1-10]. Evans et al 2018 reported that graduate students worldwide are more than six times as likely to experience anxiety and depression as compared to the general population[3]. Of course, correlation is not causation.

Science attracts self-motivated, curious, creative, brilliant and successful thinkers that are highly trained in dedicating an expansive focus and attention to detail, to get to the bottom of important questions, finding solutions and generating knowledge as the main driver of developments that should make life more comfortable and healthy globally. It’s possible that people prone to anxiety and depression are just six times more likely than other people to pursue PhDs. But that seems implausible, especially when we have a closer look at the already available data that tries to explain the causes of the mental health crisis in academia.

Since 2011 the Journal Nature runs a biennial worldwide survey across 7 continents and in 6 different languages on early career researchers to investigate goals, challenges, sources of satisfaction, career development, quality of life and more recently also on experiences with supervisors, mental health, incidents of harassment and discrimination as well as attitudes and experiences related to diversity[2,4,7-10]. Survey answers, free text columns and follow up interviews with selected respondents, illuminate that despite the precarity of job opportunities 56% of graduate students are “still” believing in “the Academic Dream”[4], but incidents of reported anxiety, depression, imposter syndrome, burn-out and even suicidal intentions are on the rise[5].

Most scientists probably agree that the beauty of doing research is to discover the unknown and find solutions for yet unsolved problems. Those challenges, especially within cutting-edge science and high-risk/high-gain projects, can be extremely inspiring and self-motivating to work obsessively long hours, weekends and even holidays with the downside that work-life balance and wellbeing is not always cared for. As a consequence frustrations might accumulate, stress cycles can not be completed, balanced nutrition is not cared for, coffein, nicotine and alcohol consumption may be increased, in total leading to the perfect conditions for anxiety and insomnia taking over cognitive and physical capabilities.

Of course, it is in the responsibility of each individual researcher to become increasingly aware of what oneself can do to keep their life balanced and to sustain wellbeing. However, there is only so much one individual can do for their own wellbeing if on the institutional level, not only researchers themselves but also faculty and stakeholders are lacking awareness of how their own behavior, attitude and leadership impacts other individuals' wellbeing at the workplace. Bullying, sexual harassments, discrimination, all forms of microaggression, lack of supervision, lack of social support system especially for international students, lack of inclusion of diversity, the competitive research landscape (“publish or perish” culture - often dysfunctional and biased[11]) in combination with financial instability and uncertainty due to precarity of contracts and the high competition for subsequent academic jobs are already understood to be good predictors for wellbeing and mental health issues for specific groups within academia[1-10,12]; affecting historically marginalized groups, (referred to as the minorities of academia in the progression of this proposal) such as women, people of color, disabled individuals, students from poorer socioeconomic backgrounds, first generation academics and members of the LGBT+ community the most[5].

Data shows that it takes on average 8 years to seek help[13]. A long time during which self-degrading and self-harming neural patterns manifest in the brain and behavior, that ultimately can jeopardize the career progression of an individual because of negative thinking loops, toxic behavior, imposter syndrome and worst case scenario burnout. As a consequence people suffering under the impact of mental health issues fostered by the nature of our research culture are more prone to leave academia[3,5,10].

Without evidence-based targeted interventions to change and improve cultural structures and organizational policies of academia, the concept of the “leaky pipeline” will be sustained. Ultimately, leading to loss of highly-trained talent and, most importantly, culturally diverse thinkers that are essential to guarantee inclusive scientific discourse to identify and address global scientific challenges that will lead to more equality and equity in the world[14]. Therefore, academic mental health should not only matter as a public health concern but also for research policy and society as a whole.

Fortunately, some advances have been made and most institutions have already reacted by offering access to coaches and psychologists to address individual issues of mental health. But that is not enough! This bottom-up approach is treating anxiety and depression induced by the nature of research culture as an individual health issue rather than a systemic health issue. It’s time to take a top-down approach and ask the uncomfortable question of how our academic system and culture contributes but could prevent these issues, because

When one person has asthma, that person should see a doctor. But when 40% of people have asthma, and 80% of people have breathing problems, something is wrong with the air.” Quote by Barbara W. Sarnecka[15]

Further, not only faculty but also science policy makers should pay close attention to academic related mental health problems. First, because scientific advancement and technology development depends on diverse, creative, physically and mentally healthy deep thinkers that are free of existential fears. Second, mental health issues can lead to toxic behaviors that can propagate and jeopardize scientific teamwork locally as well as globally, with the risk of long-term impact on the academic society and culture. Third, when highly-trained academic researchers are discouraged to pursue their research career because of associated mental health issues, the consequence is not only an increase of financial costs but also loss of investment in intellectual resources that can affect both supply and entrance of the research industry as well[1].

Academia urgently needs top-down interventions that systematically monitor and promote wellbeing and mental health. Due to the nature of the voluntary design of most already existing surveys (i.e. Nature Graduate School Surveys), few studies are properly controlled and representative for the Ph.D. population of one entire research institution[1]. Generating institution-wide quantitative data in addition to anecdotal information will 1) help to predict mental health issues for specific groups, such as minorities in academia, 2) inform the design of evidence-based targeted interventions to improve overall wellbeing and finally 3) enable the adjustment of organizational policies to sustain excellence in research by preserving highly-trained and diverse talent that is in danger to drop-out of their science career due to system-induced mental health issues.


[1]Levecque et al., (2017) Work organization and mental health problems in PhD students. Res. Policy ,

[2]Woolston et al (2017) Graduate survey: A love–hurt relationship. Nature, 550(7677), 549–552. 797 798

[3]Evans et al (2018) Evidence for a mental health crisis in graduate education. Nature Biotechnology, 36(3), 282–284.

[4]Woolston, C. (2019) PhD poll reveals fear and joy, contentment and anguish. Nature, 575, 403–406 doi:

[5]Satinsky et al (2021) Systematic review and meta-analysis of depression, anxiety, and suicidal ideation among Ph.D. students. Scientific Reports, 11(1), 1–12.

[6]Naumann et al.(2022) Update on the Mental Health Crisis in Academia: Effects of the COVID-19 Pandemic on Early Career Researchers’ Mental Health and Satisfaction with Phd Training. PsyArXiv,

[7]Russo, G. (2011) Graduate students: Aspirations and anxieties. Nature 475, 533–535.

[8]Russo, G. (2013) Education: Financial burden. Nature 501, 579–581.

[9]Woolston, C. (2015) Graduate survey: Uncertain futures. Nature 526, 597–600 .

[10]Woolston, C. (2021) How burnout and imposter syndrome blight scientific careers. Nature 599, 703-705

[11]Rawat S and Meena S. (2014) Publish or perish: Where are we heading?. J Res Med Sci. 2014;19(2):87-89.

[12]J. C. Limas et al (2022) Chem. Eur. J., 28, e202102957.

[13]Research by Irrsinnig Menschlich e.V.

[14]Mori, A. S. (2022). “Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in Academia to Guide Society.” Trends in Ecology & Evolution 37(1), 1–4.

[15]Barbara W. Sarnecka in “The Writing Workshop: Write More, Write Better, Be Happier in Academia”


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