Let's not destroy our doctoral students, they are the future of science | Science

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On November 13 the magazine Nature published the results of a survey of more than 6300 doctoral students from all over the world. Among the numerous results that it produces there were several that particularly worried me: more than 20% of respondents declare to work more than 60 hours a week, 36% have had to ask for help due to anxiety and depression problems, 21 % have suffered bullying, especially from their thesis director, and the same percentage (21%) have suffered harassment based on gender, age, race, sexual orientation and religious (including sexual harassment ). Being unfortunate, these data also did not surprise me, as they add to a drip of studies and surveys conducted in countries such as Belgium, the United Kingdom or the United States that provide similar results.

What is the situation in Spain? Although there are no official studies or statistics that quantify the magnitude of the problem of workplace harassment and the mental health status of doctoral students, I fear that it is very likely that we are faced with figures very similar to those mentioned in the previous paragraph. Although the majority of harassment situations are not usually denounced for the fear of the victims of reprisals and the consequences that this may have for their future professional career, cases such as Rodrigo Pousa, which are narrated in this letter, are being made public. the harassment he has suffered during the development of his doctorate and the dire consequences for his health that this is causing, or that of Celia Arroyo-López, who has revealed the details of the harassment he suffered both during his doctoral thesis and during his post-doctoral stay. Most of those who work at the university (if not all) know some case like those of Rodrigo or Celia. If we add to this the cases that are arriving at the care offices created in the different universities (see the cases included in this database on harassment in Spanish universities), as well as the complaints that associations such as the Association for Transparency University students are picking up, we will easily conclude that we are facing a systemic problem within the academic and research world both inside and outside our borders.

Being a researcher in training today is the least stressful job. The traditional "successful" scientific model (a person who has sacrificed a good part of his personal and family life to devote to research), the generalized idea that research is not "for the lazy" (who has not heard phrases of a senior colleague in the style of “I don't know why you complain, when I did the thesis I had no funding or supervision and worked all day without weekends or vacations”) and the extreme competence to opt for research projects, space in the prestigious scientific journals and teacher / researcher positions push our doctoral students to make marathon days to be as productive as possible and thus be able to continue their research career. I don't need to explain here the health problems and the difficulties to reconcile the personal and professional life that this entails, nor do I have space to explain why working more hours does not imply greater productivity.

In case excessive pressure and strenuous working hours are not enough, doctoral students are exposed to intolerable practices such as harassment in all its forms

In case excessive pressure and strenuous working hours were not enough, doctoral students are exposed to intolerable practices such as harassment in all its forms, the traditional feeling of "possession" of thesis directors, which leads to many of them to think about the doctoral students as tools to have available based on their own needs (and not those of the doctoral student), the absence of supervision and / or unethical behavior that characterize a non-negligible number of directors of thesis (raise your hand who does not know a case of director who ignores the work done by their doctoral students, who appropriates the work done by members of their research group or who decides directly who signs and in what order a publication independently of the contribution made by each signer) or the concern about the absence of future prospects, which in our country is aggravated by the incub Systematic implementation of the basic principle of transparency and equal opportunities that should govern public tenders for the allocation of teaching positions in our universities (as exemplified in this article).

For all the above, we find that taking a doctorate is in many cases an experience that takes forward the illusions and health of many young researchers who end up abandoning research. Who can imagine the discoveries that have remained along the way due to the destruction of all these scientific careers?

Very prominent voices, like the magazine Nature and the Wellcome Trust, One of the leading biomedical science funders in the United Kingdom, they have highlighted the problems that hyper competitiveness and the focus on excellence that characterizes current scientific practice are causing in researchers, and articles and editorials are continually being published on the need to change the way in which scientific activity is done and evaluated, to eliminate all forms of discrimination and harassment in universities and research centers and to reduce the pressure to which researchers in general are subjected, and PhD students in particular.

Change The current scientific practice situation is neither easy nor fast, and requires actions at multiple levels

Change the status quo of current scientific practice is neither easy nor fast, and requires actions at multiple levels (from changes in the behavior of individuals to the modification of administrative procedures and laws at national and international level) that I cannot fully detail in this column due to lack of space. However, I would like to talk about four key measures that, together with a much-needed increase in funding for R & D & I, should be considered to improve the situation of doctoral students in Spain, which certainly would not only benefit them to them and the work they do but to the whole society.

Investigate, punish and eliminate harassment in all its forms

Harassment in the scientific field is particularly painful since the people who practice it, generally professors or researchers who are in a clear situation of superiority, have the maximum academic training that the university can provide and are also presupposed to be of high integrity and education in values ​​(which unfortunately not everyone seems to possess). This intolerable practice should simply be banished from our university campuses and research centers. In addition to conducting studies to know the real numbers of harassment in Spain, it would be necessary to enforce the anti-bullying protocols that already exist in universities and research centers, strengthen the offices for student services, both within the doctoral programs and at a more generic level (eg, offices of the student ombudsman), protect as necessary and provide all the psychological, labor and legal attention needed by people who have been harassed and punish as is due to the stalkers, denouncing justice those cases in which there are indications that a crime has been committed. It cannot be that bullies, which are usually in the majority of repeat cases when it comes to crimes such as sexual harassment, can continue to work with impunity while destroying the professional careers and lives of the people they have harassed.

Promote healthier work environments

The current scientific culture must change. We cannot allow research to involve sacrificing our health or personal / family life, since we can hardly be creative and productive when we are burned, unhappy or have health problems arising from work overload. My advice to create healthier working environments within research groups, in which the welfare of people is prioritized, collaboration is encouraged in the face of competition and professional development is prioritized, its members can be found in the article “ Ten simple rules for healthier laboratories ”(in English, a summary version in Spanish can be found here). This work has been downloaded / viewed more than 115,000 times and has been tweeted by more than 4300 people (and is still tweeted almost eight months after being published!) Which not only denotes interest on this topic, but also the need to information about it. I am convinced that the application of these rules can greatly help to improve working conditions for researchers in general, and for doctoral students in particular. That is why I would advise all those professors / researchers to think that they are only good wishes on paper or that it is impossible to have a productive and competitive group following them to give them a chance, I am convinced that they will not regret doing so. These rules have contributed significantly to generating a safe and healthy environment within my own research group, and following them has not prevented us from reaching high international standards in terms of scientific productivity, media impact, financing, dissemination of results. of our research and supervision of undergraduate, master and doctoral students.

Improve training in key aspects for the proper functioning of a research group

University professors and researchers have to perform multiple tasks, from devising an investigation and publishing the results of them to face a tangle of bureaucratic procedures to request and justify funding for our research, through dealing with numerous personal situations that affect the activity within our research groups (such as the loss of a loved one or a serious health problem of a member of our research group or director-doctoral personal conflicts or between members of our research groups). Like the vast majority of colleagues I know, I have not received specific training to address many of the situations that arise on a daily basis within my research group and I have had to learn on the fly and self-taught.

Together with the training activities carried out by the different universities, it would be very desirable for the National Agency for Quality Assessment and Accreditation to take them into account when accrediting teachers

Just as our universities put a lot of effort into the training of their professors in subjects such as new technologies and the acquisition of teaching skills, training programs should be generalized in key aspects for the proper functioning of a research group, such as the resolution of personal conflicts. , empathy, stress management, teamwork, scientific ethics and director-doctoral relationships. Although there are excellent resources online (and among them I recommend these recommendations of José Manuel Torralba to build successful doctoral-director relations), there is a real demand for training in these issues, as this recent survey of Nature conducted 3200 researchers worldwide. Together with the training activities carried out by the different universities, it would be very desirable for the National Agency for Quality Assessment and Accreditation to take them into account when accrediting teachers, which would undoubtedly make many more professors interested in the same.

Modify the evaluation criteria of the research activity

A good part of the problems suffered today by researchers in general, and doctoral students in particular, derive from the pressure they are subjected to publish the more the better (the famous "publishes or perishes") and if possible in journals with a high impact factor, an indicator that we remember was not designed to evaluate the result of the researchers' activity and that it is not a good indicator of the quality of the research. The pressure to publish a lot and in these journals is an important problem of the current scientific practice that also favors the proliferation of false positives and fraudulent results, encourages plagiarism and other unethical or very debatable practices such as "chopping" the results of a research to get as many articles as possible or the appearance of phantom authors. This not only undermines the credibility of the scientific system and squanders public money but also puts human lives at stake (as has happened with frauds like those of surgeon Paolo Macchiarini). In science, as in other areas of our life, quantity and quality do not have to be synonyms. The pressure to publish a lot and quickly goes against the peace of mind we need to develop our full creative potential, and let's not forget that creativity and scientific impact often go hand in hand. In the evaluations to which we are subjected in Spain excessive weight is given to the number of publications and the impact factor of the journal where they appear published, which together with the shortage of places offered in universities and in calls such as the Juan de Cierva and Ramón y Cajal leads to extreme competition that leaves excellent candidates outside our scientific system. How to change this dynamic? In addition to significantly increasing the budget items allocated to these calls and explicitly consider personal situations that involve a break in our research activity (such as maternity / paternity or a serious illness), an important step would be the criteria to When evaluating the result of the research activity, follow the principles outlined in the San Francisco declaration instead of the impact factor and the quartiles of the journals in which we publish. And that we do not give so much weight to these factors when hiring research staff under our research projects.

Elements that are beyond our control, such as a shortage of funds and teacher / researcher positions, will contribute to making research a highly competitive world for our doctoral students. However, we must reduce the pressure they suffer and eliminate harassment in all its forms to: i) improve their working conditions now and in the future (if they are formed under an environment of extreme pressure or think that bullying in the academic field is It is normal that they reproduce these behaviors with their future doctoral students if they form their own research group), ii) reduce the health and professional development problems of current scientific practice and iii) contribute to training researchers who enjoy of their work and be more creative and productive in the long term.

To all the colleagues who supervise doctoral students, I would like to ask the following questions: Can you do your job well and be creative when you work under pressure or are you very stressed? Are you a better scientist for having more articles in your curriculum? Would you accept that Will they bully a child of yours? Can you continue impassive in the current situation? If the answer is no, then get down to work and help improve the situation of doctoral students, technicians, students and researchers under your supervision. Discuss these issues with your colleagues and administrative managers, do your best to make your laboratory a healthy work environment, help break down stereotypes (we can have a full academic / research life without giving up our family, friends and hobbies) and Be proactive to change the situation we are experiencing right now. Science as a whole, and particularly the professors and researchers of the future, will appreciate it.

And I end here not without first remembering that our laboratories should be places where researchers are trained, not where people are destroyed.

Fernando T. Maestre He is a distinguished researcher at the University of Alicante and Professor of Ecology (on leave) at the Rey Juan Carlos University

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