Woman holding a piece of paper with a laughing mouth over her sad face.

Mental health of doctoral students

Supervisors: a blessing or curse?
Woman holding a piece of paper with a laughing mouth over her sad face.
Image: Sydney Sims

Published: 23 September 2021, 14:10

Supervisors: a blessing or curse?

An elaborate story of how aspiring scientists are often exploited, harassed, humiliated was recently published in German magazine “Der Spiegel”. (https://www.spiegel.de/panorama/bildung/max-planck-gesellschaft-ein-oekologie-professor-soll-ueber-jahre-nachwuchsforscher-drangsaliert-haben-a-f7029a39-0002-0001-0000-000177879099). The article covered power abuse of a well accomplished professor Ian Baldwin in chemical ecology at Jena, Max Planck Institute (MPI). Other cases, such as that of Heike Egner, a geographer at the Institute of Carinthian University, Austria (2020), Marcella Carollo at ETH Zürich (2019) (https://www.republik.ch/2019/03/28/power-and-impotence) and Tania Singer, professor in psychology, MPI (2018) were briefly mentioned in a similar context.

What all these cases have in common? Bullying of young scientists and doctoral students for over a decade. These cases involved constant humiliation, stressful conditions, and sometimes even sexual harassment and discrimination. Such a toxic environment had and has led to affecting mental health of several scientists [pdf, 132 kb] de. However, these are just a few extreme cases in academia that get reported and represent just the tip of the iceberg, as there are many more still suffering in silence. This is neither healthy, nor okay and it happens to far too many. If this is what we have come to call normal in research, then then let’s make individual and collective effort to form a new normal. These cases demonstrate how the academic system invites abuse of power and demands change for a better mental health of students.

There are also scientists who do not abuse their academic power and instead use it righteously by mentoring young curious minds. Neta Erez, Tal Pupko and Hanah Margalit, researchers in Israel, were recognized and awarded by Nature research (2020) for their mentoring abilities in science (https://doi.org/10.1038/d41586-021-00081-4).

At the end, it’s our responsibility and choice as young scientists to foster and leave behind an academic environment which either discusses more research ideas or experiences of toxic power abuse. To this end, we encourage you to identify your working environment and take steps to inform yourself about possible options, seek help and guidance if need be and most importantly be kind to yourself.

Inspired by the article “Er kocht sie ganz langsam” by Kristin Haug, published in Der Spiegel, 24/2021

If you have problems with your superiors and need help, please contact us at dr.fsu@uni-jena.de.

Share this page
Friedrich Schiller University on social media:
Studying amid excellence:
Top of the page