I recently wrote another grant application. Apart from the usual insecurity and impostor syndrome, I had to work with a lot of demotivation and discouragement. I submitted it, because logically this is the right thing for me to do after 6 years of postdoc-ing: I should work towards starting my own research group. I would really like to do that, I love coming up with new ideas and working with people to bring them to life. The reason why I’m not very optimistic about the outcome is this: because of mental health problems in these last 6 years I have only worked 0.62 FTE (a bit under 4 years), due to sick leave and part-time contracts.
From hero to zero
After my PhD, 6 years ago, I came to Maastricht University to work as a postdoctoral researcher, feeling like the whole world was my oyster. I enthusiastically jumped into new projects, getting to know the city and making new friends. Half a year later I started coming down with depression, which ended up severe enough that I was unable to leave the house or do basic tasks, and had to go on sick leave for 4 months. I haven’t been able to work full time since. For the last two years, I’ve been working 15 hours per week, which anyone in academia will tell you is laughable. Even though I have done good work and I have some nice papers (feel free to check out my LinkedIn or Research gate profiles if you’re curious about how much can be done while living with depression), the feedback from my grant applications is always the same: not enough scientific output for this stage of my career. Sick leave or parental care is taken into account, but there is no precedent with funding bodies if you actually managed to find a sustainable balance and a working environment, which supports you working as much as you can or want to.
What`s a girl gotta do?
I’ve tried giving into this pressure and working more than I realistically can, it inevitably leads to burnout and more months of complete inability to do anything, let alone work. You’d also be wrong to think that this is much better outside of academia – I’ve applied to research jobs in industry and had the interview panel shut down when I mentioned working part time, had recruiters reach out and then not reply any more after I said that 0.5 FTE is my maximum, or been told by recruiters not to even bother applying at all. It’s hard not to get discouraged by all this. Things are not completely dire, though. I’m a scientist, I’m nothing if not resourceful. I trained myself in scientific writing and editing and that is something I can possibly do freelance, however many hours I want. However, my heart is breaking when it’s looking less and less like I will be able to do research.
Support is everything!
While mental healthcare in the Netherlands has room for improvement (this would be material for a whole new story), I have always been able to access support in some form (and I realise it’s a privilege). I’ve been in therapy on and off and I’m taking meds (and no, yoga, essential oils and exercise are not sufficient to treat mental illness). I have bad days and I have good days, the number of latter thankfully seems to be increasing, although the Covid-19 pandemic definitely hasn’t helped. On bad days I either do tasks requiring less focus or not show up to work altogether. I can’t emphasize enough what it means to have a supportive boss and colleagues and know and feel that this is ok. While most co-workers in my department seem barely aware of what the deal is with me, a few close colleagues always make it known that it’s ok to ask for help with stuff if I’m not managing.
I will never not talk about my depression
I talk about my mental health to anyone who will listen, and also try to those who won’t. I don’t launch into the story of my life and whole disease history but I need everyone to understand that depression is something that affects every aspect of my life. That a “good day” doesn’t mean everything is fine. The majority of people are still uncomfortable when I casually mention my depression, but that doesn’t silence me. I do this not to elicit pity, or to be inspiration porn about overcoming obstacles, but to normalise this – people like me are here, everywhere, you could be me at any point in your life. It’s difficult to be like this and in many ways there just isn’t enough support. Awareness campaigns are good, but not enough if not followed by actual changes. Nothing will change in academia if people are not vocal about how the system is failing us, people with mental health problems. In the meantime I will be here, waiting for yet another rejection of my grant application.
-by Gosia Furmanik