Joeri Tijdink: “You will not be the new Einstein”

Joeri Tijdink, a researcher on integrity at the University Medical Centre in Amsterdam, and a psychiatrist, has studied mental health in academia, and especially among early career researchers.

— Le 24 avril 2024

Crédit photo : Kick Smeets

This is the English version of an interview (conducted in English but)
originally published in French in February 2024.

Why write a self-help book for young researchers?

The world of research is a beautiful place, but full of obstacles, especially for researchers at the beginning of their careers such as doctoral students, young doctors, postdoctoral fellows… How to navigate through all this? As a psychiatrist, I don’t have the magic pill, although I would love to! Becoming a happy researcher is a personal journey and there are no quick fixes. The first advice I would give is to be resilient. The rejection rate in academia – for publications [Joeri Tijdink devoted his PhD to the publish or perish phenomenon, ed.], positions, grants… – is so high that you will face a lot of failures and often be disappointed… But you have to say to yourself, “OK, I’ll be luckier next time.”

Beyond skills and merit, does luck play a big role in academia?

Success in research is a matter of luck! The brightest or smartest person will not always get the best job. Being there at the right time, getting to know the right people, or getting positive feedback for a candidacy are all important. Being aware of this helps to accept failures.

Is academia so different from what young people dream of?

As a PhD student, you probably dream of discovering something that will change the world! The reality is that academia is also about teaching, administrative burdens, and a lot of hard work… Dreaming is useful because it shows you where your passion is and that by following it, life becomes easier, lighter and more fun. But you also have to be realistic: you will not be the new Einstein. In fact, no one will be. You will just have to look to become a better version of yourself. It may sound hollow, but if you focus only on getting a job, you are likely to be disappointed. It is not so much about jobs as about long-term happiness and personal development. That’s what will get you to the job you want.

Academics are more likely than the general population to suffer from depression or anxiety – read our interview on this topic. Do researchers have predispositions from the outset? Does research appeal to more “unbalanced” persons?

That is a very good question. Competition is so strong that people are vulnerable to mental health problems. In academia, environment and culture are risk factors. The work is never finished: always a new publication to write, a new call for projects to apply, an email to answer… Researchers are thoughtful, responsible, modest and prudent people. So they work day and night, over the weekend… most likely well beyond their contract hours. This is very different from most other sectors. Working so much is often part of the unwritten rules of a research team, department or faculty. This “culture” is very difficult to change: when your coach sends you an email in the middle of the night, you think you might also have to work at night. And even if I am against working weekends, I do too.

Are you a happy researcher?

I consider myself a really happy academic; I love what I do. But I am also aware of my good fortune. We must always try to relativize your success and keep in mind the privilege of being able to immerse ourselves in a subject that is fascinating to us and satisfies our curiosity… That is the beauty of research.

Being serious without taking yourself seriously is the slogan of TMN. Is it a good antidote in the academic world?

You should not forget to have fun! The world of research is beautiful, but it is not everything. I will always remember what one of my teachers said to me: “I love my research but my children are so much more interesting! I will always give them priority, spending time with them rather than working on the weekend.” Devoting oneself to one’s friends, spouse or sporting activities is often more fulfilling and interesting than working. The right balance must therefore be found.

In the book, you mention that you yourself suffered at the beginning of your career. Why?

Talking about your weaknesses or workload is still taboo. The lack of jobs in the academic world puts a great deal of pressure on young researchers – one can even speak of hypercompetition. So we assume that by showing our “weaknesses” others will judge us and that we will not get a position or a promotion. This is why young researchers continue to remain silent [female Ph.D. students anonymously testify about their difficulties in Campus Matin, ed.].

How can things be changed?

Having good role models is a starting point: they should talk about their mental health and academic background and tell their students about the failures and difficulties they have faced. I try to become that role model for the early career researchers I mentor, showing them that I can talk about problems, encouraging them to do the same, and hoping that others will do so. It is not a matter of complaining but of reflecting on the state of our mental health and how it can be improved.

Do researchers, especially young people, receive sufficient support from institutions in this area?

I cannot judge the situation in France, but in the Netherlands researchers are not sufficiently aware of these problems. Although this is changing, thanks to studies showing that mental health problems are more serious in academia than previously thought, with up to six times higher rates of depression, burnout or anxiety than the general population. However, the selection criteria have changed radically in the Netherlands over the last five years, which is wonderful and can make a difference. More attention is also being paid to mental health: there is a need to ease the pressure on early career researchers. There is therefore a beginning of awareness, but genuine support from the institution still needs to be developed.

Do we all have to go and see a shrink?

Oh, certainly not! Psychiatric or psychological help must be available to people who really need it and have real problems – hopefully a minority. But the institutions must work on one crucial point: awareness-raising. Organize workshops or discussions on mental health, for example. We should encourage young researchers to think and identify what they like in academia in order to stay on a positive path. We must never forget that most of us are there out of idealism: we want to change the world to make it better. If you no longer feel this fire in you, take the time to look for it again.

Mental Self-Defence Manual

Exhaustion, perfectionism, an imposter’s syndrome – you were already being told about this in our columns – cynicism or narcissism (not yours a priori but that of your colleagues)… In his book, Joeri Tijdink takes a serious and humorous look at the ten biggest challenges you will face in research. The psychiatrist and researcher then offers 34 concrete tips to become a “happy academic”. On the agenda: allow yourself moments of rest – read our article on procrastination – flee toxic people and dare! Dare to talk about problems, ask silly questions or even change research topics. We hope that this will improve your mental health.

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