Academia has emerged as an unassuming minefield of mental health hazards. Examples from the scholarly and lay literatures detail rampant depression, anxiety and panic symptoms among academics, especially graduate students. A recent study of over 3,000 PhD students in Belgium revealed that 32 percent were at risk of having or developing a psychiatric disorder. It was also found that compared to a highly educated general population, PhD students had 3.5 times the risk of lost self-confidence and 3.4 times the risk of feeling worthless. Family-work conflicts and a culture of closed decision-making were among the strongest independent predictors of psychiatric distress among participants.
A recent example from the news media described “the silencing effect of academia” and the “need to be thick-skinned” to progress successfully as an academic. Despite the concerning severity and omnipresence of anxiety experienced by the author and the author’s peers, a culture of silence reigned. Nature also published a series of testimonials written by doctoral students and researchers describing their experiences with mental health and suggestions to drive culture change. Establishing support systems, broadening career prospects, and accessing professional mental health services, were among the many suggestions to remain resilient in a viciously competitive, and at times, distressingly lonely work environment. As a PhD student in epidemiology, my lay review of these articles forced me to consider my own journey as a researcher and graduate student in public health.
Like most graduate students, I suffer from imposter syndrome. As such, I obsess about the quality of my work – afraid, at best, to disappoint my department and mentor, and at worst, to have my name blacklisted among the community of public health researchers. While my obsessive tendencies are arguably adaptive, they nonetheless hinder my quality of life and have questionable long-term sustainability. Therefore, like the scientist I am, I went searching for possible etiological explanations for my worsening anxiety. Paradoxically, I discovered that I frequently contribute to the very academic culture causing my own mental health challenges: the unnecessary and unacademic belittling of peer-reviewed work.
The critical appraisal and analysis of scholarly work is a fundamental skill practised by graduate students globally. Regardless of the discipline and stage of training, students are groomed to position peer-reviewed work under a microscope, scanning for flaws in concept, method, analysis and various other quality indicators. Lab meetings and journal clubs become social spaces for graduate students and faculty mentors to discuss their findings and, most importantly, learn from the limitations of previous work. However, this peer review process can be accompanied by schoolyard mockery, i.e., contorted faces, collective laughter, dismissive gesturing, and the all too common eye roll, in reference to a study’s limitations.
Wanting to be considered part of the in-group, I have personally contributed to the sophomoric ridicule of a study or grant’s limited measurement strategy or poorly specified analytical approach. It is easy and addictive to superciliously question a research team’s decisions, having no connection to the researchers or their work. Akin to “keyboard courage,” valid criticisms of scientific work can progress effortlessly into group mockery and ridicule when the authors are not sitting directly beside us.
A textbook example of when the bullied becomes the bully, academics making fun of academics is an ad hominem strategy to bolster egos and superficially assert one’s position as a critically minded scholar in the academic pecking order (perhaps temporarily warding off feelings of imposter syndrome?). While I openly encourage the critical appraisal of my own scholarly work, I have learned that my obsessive behaviors and anxieties stem from a fear of being made fun of and being delegitimized through unnecessarily cruel and unacademic attacks – a practice that I myself have participated in.
Notably, these unkind practices are not restricted to closed-door lab meetings or journal clubs. The “Reviewer #2” moniker has immediate recognition and internet fame among scientists for being overly grumpy and unhelpful in their reviews for publication in academic journals. While academics have normalized the oddly systematic harshness of Reviewer #2, an overly aggressive and hostile peer review is both unproductive and contributes to a harmful ethos. Could Reviewer #2’s stereotypically malign behaviour be a descendent of the schoolyard mockery described above? While I will leave the empirical assessment of that question to future research, a conceptual link appears to exist.
By changing the way we discuss scholarly work in lab meetings, journal clubs and classrooms throughout our training as academics, we will not only improve scholarship but also reduce the unnecessary hostility rampant in academia. Eager to become active and participating members of their respective fields, graduate students desire and yearn for a critical appraisal of their scholarly contributions by their peers, mentors and giants in the field, not words or faces of discouragement. As mentors, educators, sufferers of imposter syndrome and victims of Reviewer #2, we all have a lesson to learn: to treat others as you would want to be treated.
The etiologies of academic hostility are more far complex than the single component discussed here, and I am by no means an expert. However, rethinking how we view and discuss our peers’ work might not only have a beneficial impact on the quality of review, but also the quality of our own mental health.
Daniel Harris is a doctoral student in the department of epidemiology at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health, University of Toronto.