The power of community while doing research
In this conversation, Ben Meuleman offers unique insights into the Swiss research context underlining community and union power in academia.
(Image: Jon Tyson)
Ben Meuleman has been working at CISA at the University of Geneva since 2011, first as a Ph.D. Student (2011–2015), then as Postdoc (2016–2019), is now a permanent statistician, and he acts as a Postdoc representative at the center. I reached him to ask about his experience, what moved him to take on this position, and the issues he is trying to solve in academia.
You are the representative of the postdoc community at CISA. Why do you think it is essential to have a representative for this community? How is your experience so far?
I have worked at CISA for a long time. As a doctoral student, I started in 2011, completed my entire Ph.D. here, and then a few years of Postdoc in 2019. Then I moved on to become a permanent statistician with the department. This actually put me in an excellent position to become the representative because not only do I have a long history at the center, I know most of the people in it—including the management—and I have a permanent position, so my job is not actively being threatened of stopping. Otherwise, as it is for postdocs, there is chronic job insecurity, limiting your practical capacity to be a representative. My job stability and seniority give me a bit more power. People at CISA take me seriously when I speak up, and as a representative, I can voice not just my opinion but of the whole post-doctoral program, so I do have the power to make an impact.
CISA has a representation for doctoral students that are quite established. The post-doctoral program is less visible or active, and it did not have any representation. I decided to talk about this with the head of education training, Cristina Soriano, underlining the lack of workforce representation, which causes management decisions to occur without hearing opinions of more senior researchers. In a way, I think that being a representative is very close to the role that a Union representative would typically fulfill. This goes a bit more into political and social aspects, maybe, but I feel that workers in science are not significantly represented. There are indeed commissions such as ACERP, and they represent doctoral students and postdocs. They can be perceived as a quasi-union where people like me can be more present at a faculty level, but they are not always well-known, or their tasks seem to be narrow in focus. The main reason why I wanted to become the Post-Doc representative was to give a voice to postdocs, teaching assistants, and researchers, at the local level of my department, where some might have complaints but no structure to voice them. As representatives—the persons for the doctoral and post-doctoral programs— we are also proposing to be present at management meetings, express our opinions, and influence decisions. That is the primary motivation. Unfortunately, so far, much has been stalled due to the pandemic.
Do you think that being the representative of the Post-doc Community gives you similar powers as being a union representative?
I have to say that, technically, there is already a union. As scientists, we are civil servants, so we probably have a representation at a civil servant level, but it is very general and not one that scientists identify with. I can act more at the department level or communicate with the university's faculty level, where the problems can be easily discussed.
As long as you are organized, you do not need to be an official union to be heard. If you are representing enough people, you have the power.
A few months ago, you designed a survey to investigate doctoral students' well-being at CISA. What was the result? Something unexpected?
It did not work out entirely the way we wanted. Part of the motivation was to expose systemic problems inside the doctoral program, and the post-doctoral program, which we know are a reality. The paradox turns out to be that you hear many complaints and things they are not happy with when you talk to people, but when you poll them with a survey, they do not communicate the same concerns. Just the most vocal researchers used the survey to voice some issues. But the majority represented things a bit better than they are.
Do you think that the reason can be found in the format of the inquiry? Perhaps narrative interviews can generate a different result?
Yes, it can be. To be fair, I do think that CISA is an excellent workplace for many aspects. At the same time, different people might have various problems. If you average things out in a survey, you might get a positive view on average. Maybe a better result could be achieved with a one-to-one interview instead of a survey.
Another issue is that in science, people have started to internalize and normalize the negative aspects of doing research to the point where they joke about it. They might not realize how bad things truly are until someone points it out for them.
“As long as you are organized, you do not need to be an official union to be heard. If you are representing enough people, you have the power.”
Ben at Campus Biotech in Geneva | Picture by: Jasmin Mahmoodi
Sometimes, I feel anonymity is a big issue. If you want your voice to be heard, you might need to speak up, which exposes you. You might feel you are compromising your future by being vocal about problems in your department.
I think that there exist serious flaws in the system. Reporting problems often require that vulnerable people need to step forward when they know perfectly well that there can be some sort of repercussions or retaliation. Speaking of flaws in the system, I would like to take the conversation in a related direction if you don't mind.
I feel that in academia, there are structural problems, on the one hand, and then there are the "symptoms" caused by those structural problems, which are affecting the workforce directly. Researchers experience a lot of anxiety, burnout, and impostor syndrome. Many people I talked with have been through therapy, so it is clear that this field has disproportionate issues with psychological problems. Of course, you can implement changes and initiatives to tackle the symptoms that will improve people's mental health, but these initiatives are not really going to help unless you tackle the structural issues which are at the root of the symptoms. Some of these structural problems are, for example, systemic job insecurity; you do not know what you will do in a few years or even if you will be living in the same country, which puts pressure on your personal life, personal relationships, and family planning. Then we have extreme competitiveness; science is a field where you cannot be overqualified for any position. You can only have a longer CV than your next competitor, more publications, more funding, more achievements. The longer CV you have, the more chances you have of survival. At the same time, the higher you climb, the more pressure to perform. All of this is a bad deal, work-wise, and it is a bit crazy that people are accepting this or not outright rebelling against it.
I do think it is good that we talk about symptomatic issues. Universities organize seminars and initiatives to discuss and be vocal about our mental health. Simultaneously, it is like putting a band-aid on a wound; nothing will happen if you do not fix the systemic issues.
The lack of praise seems to be constant. No matter the level, nobody will congratulate you on your achievement. On the contrary, judgment from peers is encouraged, and, a lot of the time, it can generate very negative consequences. Coming from a different industry, I see that there is a fundamental difference. I am used to clients over-critiquing every detail of what I did—everyone tries to find faults to have a discount. Still, the aim was always to have the best project possible. We ever reached a point when there was just constructive criticism as we both wanted to do a great job. My impression is that in academia, no-one is rooting for you. Apart from your supervisor, everyone seems to be out to get you. All the feedback is negative and, a lot of time feels personal and demeaning. It appears that the final aim is to literally crush the competition. If they crash you, there is one less competitor. I guess you are familiar with this dynamic, being a researcher yourself. How does research affect the life of researchers?
One issue is that many people are not trained in providing constructive criticism, or they may not want to offer it because of lack of time or the competition you mentioned. For example, reviewers might be under work pressure themselves and are not rewarded in any way for writing reviews, so they might provide direct feedback even if it is meant well. Sometimes they simply do not mean well, of course, and unfortunately, the anonymity of the reviewing process does afford a cover for researchers to settle personal scores with rivals. At the personal supervision level, I see first that most of the problems of a Ph.D.. Students are directly linked to their supervision. This is usually the primary source of stress and anxiety. It can make a difference if the supervisor cannot provide you with constructive criticism. Still, the flipside of this coin is that the student also has to be willing to accept criticism, even when constructive. In other words, the chemistry that you have with your supervisor can make a big difference in your Ph.D. experience. Some people need a lot of supervision, others prefer working independently, and likewise, some supervisors work hands-off, while others micromanage.
Do you know of anyone who had a bad experience and did not finish the Ph.D. or quit the Postdoc position?
Quitting at my department has been surprisingly rare, considering the general amount of unhappiness. I hear many people who intend to quit, at one point or another, but most stay, and the longer you stay, the less likely you will quit, as it becomes a bit of a cost-time investment evaluation. If you are three years into your Ph.D., you will not want to give up or quit, especially for something you feel you have made sacrifices or even suffered. Another reason is that failure is perceived as an embarrassment or a humiliation, and no-one wants to be seen as a "quitter" or "opgever", as we say in Dutch.
Are there any other things that you think are influencing the life of a young researcher?
There are many, but probably good or bad supervision is the main factor. I think a good supervisor should not only provide constructive feedback but also clearly define their relationship with the Ph.D. student (e.g., rules, expectations on both sides), make a coherent research plan, and invest in the student's potential with mentoring and career opportunities. I hear so many disappointing supervision stories that it has become hard to ignore the reality that academic supervisors are often not great managers. Especially when it comes to investing in collaborators' future, I see so much neglect, and the student is left fending for themselves by the end of their Ph.D. In the Post-doc program at CISA, we are trying to figure out how we can improve supervisors' quality of management, but it remains a complicated problem to solve.
The first step is starting a discussion and raising awareness on these issues. We are trying to do this remotely now through seminars and workshops. Once the pandemic is over, we will have a more direct conversation and make a more substantial impact.
To know more about Ben Meuleman here.