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I recently read an article about mental health in academic circles as a taboo. While this is probably true, I feel that there is another area that faces silence - a long-time unemployed academic.
The dilemma of the postdoctoral researcher and early career is not something new that has been written about over and over again. From an economic point of view, more doctoral students means more productivity. In the past, the question was: "What to do with all the postdocs" It was suggested (and in fact it is quite obvious) that having a doctoral degree is not related to long-term employment because recruitment is based on research funding, and there is no need to offer permanent positions due to the constant flow of "fresh" graduates. This means that there must be a question: "How can we help researchers who are (still) unemployed?
As a postdoc who worked for many years as a research assistant before getting my PhD, I was no stranger to the plight of the postdoc. What I was not prepared for was the emotional roller coaster I experienced with the upcoming and continuing unemployment. What I had experienced, I realized, was grief.
At the heart of the grieving process was my sudden lack of identity. As I went from denying that I would be unemployed to throwing out statements, sending emails, going to networking and career events, I began to wonder if I had ever really been a "real scientist. Have you ever seen me as a scientist? Is that why I didn't get a job? The imposter syndrome, the question of whether you know your subject and whether someone will call you, is not unknown to scientists. To tell the truth, constant doubts about our work are at the heart of the scientific process, but the inability to find a job adds to my imposter syndrome the mutilating feelings of failure, shame, and guilt. An article on understanding the pain associated with the loss of a job summed up my feelings well: "...if the loss cannot be easily integrated into the existing sense of self, it represents a significant threat to self-esteem and the sense of self in the world.
Recently, I spoke with a scientist who conducted a study (at the time of writing it had not yet been published) to understand why scientists are leaving academia. People from different disciplines and career stages responded. Overall, the research found many things in common. Respondents had problems with self-identification, the feeling of "leaving a sinking ship" or simply "giving up. Since grief is also a response to a change in self-esteem and self-worth based on perceptions of economic security and social identity, these responses are not surprising. The common wish of the people who participated in the study was that their voices would be heard to highlight the problems, as well as to give hope. Participants were aware of the emotional implications of being unemployed researchers and wanted to reassure others that this was not a reflection of their skills or their CV.
From an academic and research point of view, it is clear that there is no support system for those who suffer from persistent unemployment. I read an article by a graduate student trying to find a job saying that employment agencies are not equipped to deal with the specialized nature of academic employment. This was definitely my experience - the employment agency advised me to "keep doing what you're doing. When I asked what else I could do, the answer was "I don't know. I have never dealt with scientists before. For me, that sums up how research on the island and academic employment. How can you help someone if you don't understand how the system works?
The meeting left me with a sense of hopelessness. Added to this was "helpful advice" from friends and family who are not familiar with research, which really makes me feel like I'm not trying hard enough.
I'm not sure that I have fully accepted my situation, but I have come to the conclusion that not recognizing what is emotionally damaging is damaging. But talking to other scientists who are unemployed and trying to find work - who understand - has reduced emotional stress.
The Academy must recognize that there is emotional damage from long-term unemployment. This loss is the result of stress caused by the growing gap between publications, a feeling that your career is disappearing, a sense of shame, or that it reflects your skills as a researcher. Part of this is due to the lack of specific support services created by those who have a genuine understanding of research and development. It is time we started addressing the needs for these services.