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A paper on field theory delivers a wake-up call to academics

3 August 2017

Oliver Rosten believes the postdoctoral system played a role in his friend’s suicide. Disseminating that opinion in a scientific journal took perseverance.

Oliver Rosten hasn’t received much feedback on the scientific merits of his new conformal algebra paper in the European Physical Journal C. But one paragraph, printed in small type before the references, has a lot of people talking. It’s the acknowledgments.

Most study authors reserve their acknowledgments section for a laundry list of thank-yous to colleagues and reviewers. In his paper Rosten uses the section to issue a call for change. He dedicates the paper to his friend Francis Dolan, who died by suicide five years after the two started working together as postdoctoral researchers at the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies (DIAS) in Ireland. Troubled by the toll of those years on his friend, who suffered from severe depression, Rosten writes that he is “firmly of the conviction that the psychological brutality of the post-doctoral system played a strong underlying role in Francis’ death.” He then advocates reforms to protect researchers with mental health problems. It’s a remarkably candid piece of writing for a scientific paper—so candid, in fact, that two journals refused to include it.

Rosten’s paper and the struggle to get it published illustrate a convergence of challenges facing today’s early-career scientists. Roughly half of science PhD recipients in the US and the UK start their careers in a postdoctoral position. Yet the postdoctoral population is growing faster than the number of tenure-track jobs in academia. The resulting pressure to prove oneself in a job that typically lasts two or three years exacts a cost, particularly on people who suffer from depression and other mental health issues. Although data are scarce on the mental well-being of postdocs, studies have found that nearly half of PhD students have symptoms aligning with depression (see the article by Andrea J. Welsh, Physics Today Online, 31 May 2017). The main cause is difficulty balancing work and family life, a challenge that doesn’t abate once a PhD student becomes a postdoc.

Some universities and government science agencies have taken steps to fix the problems that Rosten sees in the postdoctoral world. He told Physics Today that he hopes the attention his paper has garnered accelerates the rate of reform and wins over skeptics, including at least one editor at a prominent physics journal. “Postdocs can’t go forever being an ignored part of university life,” he says.

A friendship and a rocky road

Rosten and Dolan became friends in 2006, when they began two-year postdoctoral fellowships in theoretical physics at DIAS. Rosten was researching renormalization; Dolan was studying conformal field theory. During their early conversations Rosten learned that his friend suffered from depression. “He’d have periods of staggering creativity,” Rosten says, “followed by periods he found it difficult to do anything at all.” Rosten offered support as much as he could during Dolan’s tough stretches.

Oliver Rosten
Oliver Rosten

Life for a postdoc changes quickly, and when their fellowships were up Rosten and Dolan had to move on to new positions. Rosten took another postdoctoral position at the University of Sussex in England; Dolan landed one at the University of Amsterdam. The transition was tough on Dolan. He had to make new friends and find a new mentor. He felt pressured to pursue mainstream research rather than topics a bit off the beaten path. “It was a form of hell for him,” Rosten says. “I think he felt isolated, unsupported, and profoundly unhappy.” The two friends exchanged occasional lengthy emails, mostly about life outside of physics.

An academic career ultimately didn’t pan out for Rosten. After his postdoc at Sussex ended in 2011, he applied for a position at a software development firm in Brighton. Around the time he was starting his new job, he received an email about Dolan’s suicide. Caught up in the interview process, Rosten had put off writing to his friend in the preceding weeks. “It’s something I’ll always regret,” he says.

Rosten may have left academia, but academia didn’t leave him. Thinking back to unfinished pursuits in Sussex, he turned his attention to what he considered an intriguing research topic: phrasing the renormalization group, Rosten’s specialty, in the language of Dolan’s domain, conformal field theory. In the rare gaps between working full-time and spending time with his wife and children, Rosten began chipping away at writing a paper.

Science vs. life

When it was time to write the acknowledgments, Rosten resolved to state his view that the postdoctoral system had failed Dolan. Someone in a position of power, he hoped, perhaps a university president or department head, would read the paper and become inspired to implement meaningful reform. After blaming the postdoctoral system at least in part for Dolan’s death, he wrote, “I would like to take this opportunity, should anyone be listening, to urge those within academia in roles of leadership to do far more to protect members of the community suffering from mental health problems, particularly during the most vulnerable stages of their careers.”

Rosten completed “On functional representations of the conformal algebra” in late 2014 and posted it to the arXiv. After receiving feedback on the science and making some corrections, he submitted the paper to the Journal of High Energy Physics. The scientific meat of the paper was accepted as written. The referee had just one concern: The acknowledgments would require oversight from an editor at the journal.

The editor who reviewed the manuscript shared the referee’s unease and requested that part of the acknowledgments be removed. Rosten refused. “To have to cut the acknowledgments out was something I just couldn’t do,” he says. The editor responded to reaffirm the request, surmising that “there were more basic problems in Dolan’s life than the pressure put by physics work. Certainly people, say in business, behave more brutally than in academia.” The editor proceeded into a lecture about how JHEP was not the venue for remembrances and social commentary: “In a scientific paper we discuss about science, not about life.”

The issue was ultimately taken up to the journal’s scientific director, who supported the decision of the editor. Rosten promptly withdrew the paper.

Next he tried Physical Review D. The journal provisionally rejected it on scientific grounds without confronting the issue of the acknowledgments. It was a frustrating experience for Rosten, who had extended discussions with three referees before deciding it wasn’t worth the struggle.

Persistence pays off

On the bright side, having been picked apart by multiple referees, Rosten was more confident than ever that the paper was a good one. The Journal of Physics A, where he submitted next, agreed—the referees offered glowing reviews. Again, however, the journal refused to publish the acknowledgments. And again Rosten withdrew his work. “At that point I vowed I wouldn’t submit anywhere else ever again,” he says. “It was a really soul-destroying process.”

After taking a little time to clear his head, Rosten reconsidered. Rather than struggle through another set of grueling reviews just to call it off at the end, he contacted journal editors and asked them whether, if the paper was accepted, they would publish the acknowledgments. The third editor he emailed, from the European Physical Journal C, agreed. After what Rosten calls a minor tussle with the referee, the paper was accepted and finally published last month. With the exception of an addition to thank colleagues who provided feedback on an early draft, the acknowledgments paragraph reads exactly as it did when he first wrote it.

Rosten shared the good news on Facebook, and that’s when his admittedly narrow-focused paper on conformal algebra found an unexpectedly broad audience. The paper (or at least the acknowledgments section) has been shared on Twitter more than 3300 times. “It’s far and away the most popular thing I’ve ever done,” Rosten says. “I’ve been absolutely overwhelmed by the responses.” He is also proud of the paper’s scientific merits. With the rising popularity of the conformal bootstrap technique in recent years, the research pursued by Dolan is becoming increasingly useful. A 2001 paper coauthored by Dolan has more than 250 citations, according to INSPIRE, most of which have come in the past five years.

Making a difference

Now Rosten wants his hard-fought paragraph to translate into a serious discussion about how to improve the postdoctoral system, particularly for those with mental health problems. His wish list includes having positions last a minimum of three years. The short-term nature of postdocs today, he says, provides a too-narrow window of time to produce research good enough to put on a résumé for the next job. And moving from one position to another often involves relocating and finding a new support system. Further, Rosten wants universities to recognize postdocs as employees rather than “cheap and expendable resources.” He believes postdocs should receive better pay, training for jobs in industry, and support from mental health professionals.

Scientists and policymakers who are familiar with the postdoctoral world share many of Rosten’s concerns. A 2014 report by a committee of the US National Academies acknowledged that “there is broad recognition that something is amiss in the postdoctoral training system.” The committee called out postdocs’ insufficient compensation, recommending that “benefits should include health insurance, family and parental leave, and access to a retirement plan.”

The 2014 report also cited recent progress, at the least in the US, on the plight of postdocs. The committee recognized the advocacy-focused National Postdoctoral Association and an NSF requirement that research proposals that involve the hiring of a postdoc include a mentoring plan. Such efforts are important steps, Rosten says, but there is still a long way to go before young scientists, particularly those who struggle with mental health problems, will be able to thrive in the postdoctoral system.

Suicide is preventable. If you need support, please visit Samaritans or the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.

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