Lakshmi Ganesan 0:01
You’re listening to IndiaBiospeaks, your one stop resource for science news and careers.
Dear Listeners, In this special episode addressing mental health in academia, IndiaBiospeaks revisits excerpts from a discussion that happened on Oct 9, 2020. This discussion addressed issues around mental health, particularly those that are relevant to early and mid-career faculty
Featuring Sandhya Visweswariah, Maitrayee DasGupta, Hansika Kapoor and Imroze Khan as panelists, this discussion was moderated by Karishma Kaushik and Mayuri Rege. Enjoy listening!
Karishma Kaushik 0:51
Another big issue with early career faculty and their mental health is research funding. I think I will start with Imroze. How have you navigated this space? How much do you look into these administrative issues? Funding is critical, we can’t go anywhere without that. How much time and energy do you spend in acquiring it? Where do you just say, it will take care of itself? I don’t need to micromanage that.
Imroze Khan 1:24
I think this is a very pertinent question. I think whenever we start our new career, it is already an unsaid mandate that you have to get your work funded very well, and as soon as possible. So this is a necessity. I don’t think everybody has a very good experience when you go through this, because pressures could come from many directions and not everybody can handle that well. In this context, I really want to highlight the fact that having a good mentor could be really helpful. Having somebody who can tell you that it’s fine to fail once, or it’s fine to relax. Those words sometimes really help.
Of course, ultimately, the funding has to be acquired. In my case, I did invest a lot of time to figure out what are the funding bodies I wanted to apply to and in strategic planning. It was all the more important for me because since I am in a University and I have responsibilities also in teaching, and in administration in addition to research. It is very difficult at times if I don’t plan properly, and without proper planning, it would be very difficult to manage three different funds.
Karishma Kaushik 2:43
Maitrayee, you were also at a university when you started out. You mentioned that poverty brought you together. Acquiring funds is one thing but spending the money, getting the paperwork done is another. How did you keep yourself sane through all of that? I am sorry for my blunt question.
Maitrayee DasGupta 3:03
Looking back, my first grant was five lakhs, second one was ten lakhs. At the same time, spending those five lakhs or ten lakhs was an exercise. I learned how to order, how to bill. I used to do biochemical purifications, or develop a biological assay, but I was not addressing a big biological problem. I set up my lab in a small way with two or three students. At the same time, I was thinking very big.
All the failures were from my big setups, where things were not working. For five or six years, nothing worked in that direction. What actually worked were small things, within a small lab, with small funding. The biggest grant that I got was 33 lakhs. You may not be able to relate to such an amount of money. Even if given the money, spending it in a state university was a challenge and we had to go through several hardships.
Still you have to be sane. You have to plan in such a way so that if things do not go as planned, you will have to have a good switch between doing something creative and being frustrated due to these administrative issues. In the daytime I used to be frustrated with some administrative issue, but at five o’clock, I would shut everything off for three hours or four hours and just do science. This is because if you let these two mingle, then you won’t be able to work. You have to have a very strong switch between these two things.
Karishma Kaushik 4:56
Absolutely, Professor Maitrayee, we identify with a lot of points that you mentioned. It must take sheer drive and passion to get everything done with little resources to begin with.
Maitrayee DasGupta 5:15
Yes, and my point is nobody is alone. Everybody went through this.
Karishma Kaushik 5:22
Hansika, here is one question for you. I feel guilty, involving my research students in administrative work related to funding. I also know that the amount of paperwork needed to spend money in our system is so much that I cannot do it alone. Where do we draw the line between our guilt saying, “oh, they have not come here to process bills”, but at the same time we need to get the work done? How do we manage our conflicting emotions when it comes to this?
Hansika Kapoor 6:00
I think it’s really important to remember that whatever legwork is required, is going to have to be shared amongst all the lab-mates. It is in a way a training for them as well when they go out and become independent scientists themselves.
They’re going to have to do all of this mundane / seemingly boring work as well or delegate it to their own team at that point in time.
I don’t think there necessarily should be a large amount of guilt associated with it, as long as you don’t brush off all of it. As long as the PI is still responsible for macro-level invoicing, or bills and things like that. But if there are smaller tasks that can be delegated, I think you can explain it to your students as this is really what we do, When you see all of those memes that say, what scientists actually do what people think scientists do — all we’re really doing is just sitting and filling out bills and forms.
Karishma Kaushik 7:23
Yes and in a way we are doing a disservice to them if we do not expose them completely to it. Otherwise, they are going to turn around and say, “hey, I never knew we had to do all of this”. At the same time, I would not damage my mental health because I feel I’m only doing all of this. So we have to take collective ownership and share responsibilities. Absolutely. Thank you, I needed that.
Mayuri Rege 7:52
Finally, we will discuss organisational culture, and how that affects mental health for early and mid career faculty. So there’s several points here. First is of course, harassment and exploitation, often by seniors, at your institution, and there’s no recourse for redressal often, or if you manage to succeed and overcome all these hurdles, they might be an unhealthy competition or peer pressure or hostility depending on where you are. How do you deal with that?
Hierarchy or the bureaucracy, which goes hand in hand with Indian academia, I think where you would like mutual respect with your senior colleagues, and you want to contribute, you want to have some impact in what you have to say, often that may not happen. Let’s start with Hansika, Imroze, Sandhya and Maitrayee.
Hansika Kapoor 8:53
Thank you, Mayuri. I think organisational culture in Indian academic institutes is as in any academic institute so important to the productivity and the job satisfaction that an individual experiences. I have not been on the receiving end of most of these things. Administratively, yes, of course, there are hurdles that all of us have to jump over as students, as postdocs and as PIs as well.
But I think it’s very important to understand the variables in this entire equation that you can control and the ones that you cannot. There’s very little that you can do in a sense to change these systemic injustices, and inequalities.I know that I sound like I’ve given up hoping for change in Indian academia, I have not. But I think it’s important to know the difference between what you can and cannot control.
If the water is going above your head, please do seek professional help. There is no shame, there is nothing wrong with trying to seek mental health resources.
I know that institutions should have counselling cells and counselling centres. I also know that given the size of the student population in these institutions, it’s difficult to sometimes even get an appointment at all those places, but seek help outward, seek help from people like me who have one foot in academia and one foot in practice. Practitioners like me can relate to things that you’re going through, and then help derive solutions. I think it’s also really, really important to try to control yourself from not getting sucked into bad academic culture, because that’s what repeats over a period of time.
If you’ve had a mentor, who has not been very kind to you, and has been texting at all odd hours, and is very, very demanding, then, to be very, very harsh, it is circular violence, in the sense where you turn out to be that mentor as well, and you don’t learn otherwise. I think that it’s important to be aware of the fact that it can happen. It’s up to us to not let that happen.
Mayuri Rege 11:24
Don’t let that overtake your life. Imroze?
Imroze Khan 11:48
I will try to pick up the first thing about harassment and exploitation. This is something I believe is a raging issue.
Mayuri Rege 11:58
It is one of the top complaints that we have got from our survey.
Imroze Khan 12:02
This is also something which doesn’t come out a lot. Until recently, these are the things that people often never talked about. However, I believe it is really important to talk about their implications and to cite the causes and consequences of harassment and exploitation, even within a lab.
I think this also becomes a part of the responsibility for a PI to point out their importance. Harassment and exploitation could be of different kinds. It could be of gender, it could be of caste, class, everything…I think this can be a part of the initial orientation when students join a group or a lab. There can also be institutional policies made that could help address and accommodate this.
The second point about unhealthy competition is also very important. It is again, where we should get some sort of mentorship, because this is where sometimes the system tries to push us towards getting into this unhealthy competition for grants, papers, and all else. However, I believe this is a very difficult topic to discuss. I would really want to hear from Sandhya and Maitrayee about the possible solution that they might have.
Mayuri Rege 13:25
Yeah, with that, let’s segway to Sandhya.
Sandhya Visweswariah 13:27
What do I say? If a large number of young people feel this way, the fault lies completely with us. We have built a culture, which puts young people at competition with each other, rather than being able to work with each other.
We provide huge administrative hurdles, which they need to overcome. Even after all this time, I am as frustrated by bureaucracy and administrative procedures in my institute, as I was perhaps 20 odd years ago, and maybe a little bit more so now, because I realized that nothing has changed even after two decades. We are still doing things the way we did them years ago.
I feel very deeply for young people who have to navigate these very difficult administrative procedures. Again, I come back to this problem and issue of talking to someone. Talk to a person who may be able to help you with navigating these administrative loopholes. There may be a quick way of managing to send a paper through or an order through which you don’t know of. Talk to people. I think what tends to happen is that if you suddenly feel that you are going to solve all your problems, and that’s going to get you ahead, you are going to get stressed, you are going to feel that you’re not able to cope.
I blame my generation completely for this problem with unhealthy competition. We should not be doing this to our young colleagues. We should not be telling them that your aim is to get this grant or that grant or this award or that award. We should not be doing that. We should let them enjoy their science and tell them that if they do good science, everything else will follow naturally. Most importantly, while you’re doing good science, you will be happy.
It is this undue pressure that we put on our younger colleagues, which again, can only be overcome by having a good senior mentor who perhaps tells you ‘come on, it’s okay, never mind, if so and so said it, you can still manage without having to worry about it’. All of these things in the organizational culture, and all the points that you mentioned, if you think about them, they depress you terribly, and so let’s move on.
Mayuri Rege 15:56
I think I was just trying to see how somebody can deal with it? You already answered that. Talk to somebody, try and find a senior mentor, who might have already found the answers to some of these questions. Maitrayee, do you have anything to add here?
Maitrayee DasGupta 16:17
Yeah, mostly as said by Sandhya, the system is wrong. We have faulted our youngsters. Personally, I want to add something — I am against competition. I don’t like this word competition. I hate competition. I like cooperation. To promote that, the first day when two of my students joined the lab, I found that they were competing with each other. I heard people say that competition is good, it makes you excel and be better than the others. However, I have completely removed this word ‘competition’ from my lab, I have successfully been able to do it.
Just cooperate and do science. Everybody depends on the other. So you have the same problem. If the same set of clones has been raised by another person, then talk to them. I group two or three students together, to collaborate and solve a problem, instead of giving it to one student. They in turn make sub groups and they discuss and they come up with good ideas, and it works. This inculcates a culture of cooperation from early on. I always tell them, don’t compete. Who are you competing with? Anyway, you’re not going to get a Nobel Prize right? Nothing will happen to you. So let us enjoy doing science.
Lakshmi Ganesan 17:45
That was part three of the conversation. Hope you enjoyed listening to it. In part four of this discussion we will talk about barriers to getting help.
Please also checkout several curated resources on mental health on the IndiaBioscience website. You will find a link to these on the description section of this podcast. Stay safe, stay informed and stay healthy. See you soon.
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