#Ukraine: providing and receiving support

Interview with Joeri Tijdink on How to Survive and Stay Happy in Academia

Joeri Tijdink

Joeri Tijdink
Assistant Professor/PI at VUmc, the Netherlands

As the author of the recently published book on academic happiness, how would you define the subject? What does it mean to be happy in academia in your opinion?

I would say that being happy in academia is fluctuating constantly and is determined by several factors. It all starts with working on a topic that is important enough for you to dedicate so much of your precious time to.

Among the other important factors are having fun in your work, working with people that you like and trust, and that you have the feeling that you can explore your genuine interests. Also, it helps to have the autonomy to start research that you believe is valuable, important and will give you a sense of meaning in live.

What are the three biggest challenges for early-career researchers that prevent them to pursue a happy academic life? Are they mostly internal or external?

I think one of the key challenges early in your career is that you feel pressured to do something that you don’t want to do. Of course, doing chores (like bureaucracy or mandatory tasks) is also part of academic life, but it should not outweigh the part that gets you inspired, that makes you feel valuable and gives you energy and fulfilment. Another important one is that you are collaborating with people that are not nice, (e.g. detrimental to your mental welfare, toxic, undermining, harmful, self-centered)

Working with people that are unfriendly, egocentric and narcissistic is something that will cost you heaps of energy. I believe that life is simply too short to work with people that you dislike. Besides, the academic community is full of energetic, creative people that are fun to collaborate with. So please, find them and start collaborating.

A final element is the internal and external pressure that is put on and experienced by ECRs. They have to stick to deadlines, PhD candidates have to finish their thesis on time and if they want to stay in academia, they have to secure a job position post-PhD that often consists of temporary contracts. Those are all challenging aspects. 

What is the role of a doctoral supervisor in helping researchers early in their careers to cope with stress and anxiety?

Supervisors play a pivotal role in the wellbeing of early career researchers. Mind, responsible supervision is one of my hobby horses that I like to talk about and research. It is exemplary that insufficient supervision is considered one of the most impactful research misbehaviors that affect a lot of elements in the research process.

Bad supervisors have bad influence on their students. And bad supervision does come in many forms, such as unavailability, lack of communication and other bad behaviours. This puts mental pressure on their supervisees.

Yet, this undesirable behaviour is not solely the responsibility of supervisors. The supervisees have a significant influence on this relation and it takes two to tango so they are also responsible for building, connecting and maintaining a relation with their supervisors. Besides, supervisors often do not have the proper training to become a good supervisor. And unfortunately, it is not one of those academic tasks that is rewarded in current evaluation and performance criteria at institutions and funders. 

I often compare supervision with parenting. Good parents learn their kids to behave and reflect on themselves. The same goes for doctoral supervision. You need someone that teaches you what good research practices are and what good and bad behaviour is. 

They also have a task in monitoring someone’s mental health. This does not mean that they should become the therapist of the PhD student, definitely not. But they can become good role models that can talk and share experiences how themselves deal with stress and anxiety in the academic enterprise.

Do you think that academics are less happy than people building careers in non-academic labor markets? Do we need to prepare doctoral candidates for such careers during their studies?

I think a lot of academics are very happy. Don’t forget that being an academic comes also with a lot of liberty and autonomy. We can decide what we want to study, answer relevant research question, apply for funding that funds research that you want to do, work with very active and intelligent people. It is not without reason that the academic labour market is still very active and a lot of people still want to work in academia because of the attractiveness of the work mentioned above.

Since this labour market is overburdened and more than half of PhD candidates do not end up working in academia, more focus on transferable skills is essential. They have to learn skills that are valuable in non-academic settings such as industry, consultancy, governmental bodies, etc.

What advice would you give to a younger yourself, who is about to enter academia, which could help to be happier there?

I was very lucky to start my research on a topic (publication pressure and questionable research practices) that was very close to my personal interests. However, inherent with doing research, I could have improved a lot in terms of methods etc. This also brings me to my answer, I first thought that research was the most boring thing that you could do, but that was not the case. It is the opposite. Having more interest in research when I was younger could have sparked my interest earlier. But I would also give myself some advices from my own book that would have helped me a lot, such as normalizing to change opinion, or steer clear of workplace politics. That would have given me more rest, joy and less stress.