Loneliness and Early Career Researchers: An Evidence-Based Perspective

Pauline studied BSc in Biomedical Sciences - Neuroscience at King’s College London. Throughout the BSc, she worked as a Research Assistant in Global Mental Health at the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology, and Neuroscience, developing, testing, and implementing depression interventions in low- and middle- income countries. Pauline then completed a MSc in Psychological Research at the University of Oxford, researching how antidepressants impact affective learning under distinct environmental conditions. Pauline is passionate about developmental psychology and data-driven methodologies for research, as well as making data more discoverable from low- and middle- income countries.

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Introduction

Loneliness is a significant and often overlooked issue among early career researchers (ECRs). Loneliness is defined as a subjective feeling of distress, resulting from perceptions of unfulfilling or inadequate social connection (Matthews et al., 2016). This phenomenon can have profound implications for both personal well-being and professional development. Recent studies have highlighted the prevalence of loneliness among academics, particularly those in the early stages of their careers (Moran et al., 2020)(Ellard et al., 2022), suggesting that this issue warrants serious attention from both research and policy perspectives.

Wellcome Trust’s report on researchers’ experiences of research culture

The Wellcome Trust (2020) published a report in 2020 on researchers’ experiences of research culture (Moran et al., 2020). The authors conducted a literature review, followed by in-depth qualitative interviews with researchers from the United Kingdom (UK), workshops in England and Scotland, and a quantitative survey that was open worldwide of over 4,000 researchers in various stages of their careers. The report identified that ECRs often experience high levels of isolation and loneliness, which can be exacerbated by the competitive and solitary nature of academic work. For example, many early-career researchers found that they often had to prioritise their research over personal relationships, which may require leaving behind their friends or their partner. This impact on personal relationships was found to lead to social isolation and loneliness, which was most significantly felt by ECRs. “I have felt the most isolated I ever have in my life in this PhD”, confessed an anonymous interviewee.

Millennial,Indian,Girl,Sit,At,Desk,In,Living,Room,Study

“The report identified that ECRs often experience high levels of isolation and loneliness, which can be exacerbated by the competitive and solitary nature of academic work.”

Furthermore, the Wellcome study found that isolation and loneliness manifested in various ways and shifted according to the researcher’s situation. The nature of work is often structured for individual task completion, which may be more compatible with certain personality types than others. In addition, heightened competitive research environments can prevent camaraderie and reduce the sense of community in the workplace. Finally, the study highlighted that there is often a lack of agency and support for addressing issues when problems arise or where psychological well-being is concerned. This seemed particularly apparent in doctoral students, where working independently with long working hours and being unable to raise concerns with supervisors or peers lead to feelings of isolation during their PhD. To support this, the online survey revealed that 70% of junior researchers believed a research career was lonely and isolating.

These findings are supported by a study by Janta et al., (2014), where the authors investigated loneliness and social isolation in doctoral students around the world. The researchers analysed an online forum, which aimed to support previous, current, and prospective postgraduate students to exchange ideas online. Specifically, Janta et al., (2014) analysed approximately 35 threads across 122 pages that mentioned loneliness. Findings revealed that loneliness was a part of many doctoral students’ experiences. For example, one participant, a doctoral student, wrote: “I am 100% alone day and night, all the time. I am alone in my office all day.” Overall, whilst some students expressed contentment with their progression, their lack of social connection and belonging to a social group resulted in loneliness and even depression.

Strengths and Limitations of the Research

The studies mentioned above provide a robust foundation for understanding the prevalence and impact of loneliness among ECRs. Their strengths lie in large sample sizes and the comprehensive nature of the studies, which encompass a wide range of academic disciplines and geographic regions. This broad scope ensures that the findings are widely applicable and relevant to various contexts within child and adolescent mental health.

However, there are limitations to consider. The reliance on self-reported data can introduce bias, as individuals may underreport or overreport their feelings of loneliness due to social desirability or stigma associated with mental health issues. Additionally, cross-sectional designs limit the ability to infer causality; longitudinal studies would be more effective in understanding the temporal relationship between academic pressures and loneliness.

Commentary on the Evidence

The evidence suggests that loneliness among ECRs is a pressing issue that requires targeted interventions. In practice, institutions could implement structured mentorship programs and peer support groups to foster a sense of community and belonging. Some universities have begun to implement such groups where students have been trained to address mental health and well-being issues amongst their students. For example, King’s College London in the UK launched their student-led “Campus Conversations” support group, which offers free weekly in-person activities, one-to-one conversations, well-being resources, and student skills workshops.

Furthermore, policy changes should focus on reducing the pressure and competition inherent in academic environments, promoting collaborative rather than competitive research cultures. Such policies have begun to be implemented. For example, as of January 2024, there are 11 research culture initiatives in the UK focused on ensuring a supportive, healthy, and inclusive research environment for researchers (Powell et al., 2024). Initiatives such as these are the first step to building a more positive research culture and could be implemented further across the globe with a focus on early-career researchers.

Future research could explore the long-term effects of loneliness on career trajectories and mental health outcomes among ECRs. Longitudinal studies could provide deeper insights into how loneliness evolves over time and identify critical periods where interventions may be most effective.

Two,Focused,Students,Writing,Notes,Together,In,A,Classroom,Setting,

“In practice, institutions could implement structured mentorship programs and peer support groups to foster a sense of community and belonging.”

A Personal Perspective

As a research assistant in developmental psychology, I have observed firsthand the isolating effects of academic research. The solitary nature of data analysis and the pressure to publish can lead to feelings of disconnection from peers and mentors. Establishing regular check-ins with supervisors and participating in departmental social events have been crucial in mitigating these feelings. In my role, I have also seen how supportive networks can enhance productivity and well-being. Collaborative projects and informal peer discussions have not only improved my research skills but also provided a sense of camaraderie and mutual support.

Conclusion

In conclusion, addressing loneliness among ECRs is essential for fostering a healthy, productive academic environment. By leveraging evidence-based interventions and fostering a culture of support and collaboration, we can enhance the well-being and career satisfaction of ECRs.

NB this blog has been peer-reviewed

References

  • Ellard, O.B., Dennison, C. and Tuomainen, H. (2022) ‘Review: Interventions addressing loneliness amongst university students: A systematic review’, Child and Adolescent Mental Health, 28(4), pp. 512–523. doi:10.1111/camh.12614.
  • Janta, H., Lugosi, P. and Brown, L. (2014) ‘Coping with loneliness: A netnographic study of doctoral students’, Journal of Further and Higher Education, 38(4), pp. 553–571. doi:10.1080/0309877x.2012.726972.
  • Matthews, T. et al. (2016) ‘Social isolation, loneliness and depression in young adulthood: A behavioural genetic analysis’, Social Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiology, 51(3), pp. 339–348. doi:10.1007/s00127-016-1178-7.
  • Moran, H. et al. (2020) ‘Understanding research culture: What researchers think about the culture they work in’, Wellcome Open Research, 5, p. 201. doi:10.12688/wellcomeopenres.15832.1.
  • Powell, J. et al. (2024) ‘Research Culture Initiatives in the UK’, UK Research & Innovation [Preprint]. https://www.ukri.org/publications/research-initiatives-in-the-uk-report/.

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