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The Black Hole

2019 year in review – exploring the topics that resonated with our readers

Career planning and mental health in academe were some of the most-read topics addressed on the Black Hole in the past year.


Happy New Year to all of our readers. The Black Hole is marking its 10th year of existence and Jonathan and I are excited to be in the final stages of compiling our first book on the core issues facing academic science today – we are targeting a 2020 release and will keep readers informed of any and all progress. Anniversaries and the welcoming of a new calendar year are often a time for reflection and one of the most striking things that I’ve noticed is how many of the articles we wrote five to 10 years ago still resonate (and are still major problems affecting scientists). We hope that the compilation of ideas and discussion in book format will help consolidate thinking and provide recommendations to address some of these problems by sharing best practices to improve the academic environment. For now, we reflect on the top 10 most read entries of 2019 which converge on two major themes – mental health and academic career planning.

Particularly telling is that the entire University Affairs readership (and writers?) seems to be drifting toward articles on these two topics with the seven “most read” articles at the time of writing this article being:

  1. Advice to keep you feeling well throughout the year
  2. How the medical school admissions process is skewed
  3. Productivity isn’t possible without well-being
  4. Beware! Academics are getting reeled in by scam journals
  5. 10 steps to map out a strategic plan for your career
  6. The Canadian revival of psychedelic drug research
  7. Why are so many students struggling with their mental health?

Make no mistake – career battles and mental health are interlinked when it comes to academic progression with Imposter Syndrome running rampant and high stakes pressure lurking around every corner in a publish or perish environment. The Wellcome Trust (one of the U.K.’s largest funders of biomedical research) has picked up on this trend, advocating for dramatic change in how research is undertaken in the biomedical sciences and recognizing that the quest for individual success and glory may compromise the overall goal of delivering world-changing research. The next few years promise to be interesting if organizations like Wellcome put their substantial resources behind changing academic culture.

For our own 2019 list, the most read entry of the year was actually not intended to be about either of these topics, but in hindsight it seems that it concerned both. The article, on my transition from the University of Cambridge to the University of York, reflected on the current system of hiring young scientific group leaders on effectively fixed-term contracts to begin their labs at leading research institutions without a clear future career path. Whether or not this is a sustainable path forward is unclear, but it is certainly the case that newly minted group leaders need to enter such situations with their eyes wide open.

Career planning

Following on from the need to manage one’s career, it is perhaps unsurprising that some of our most popular entries again this year were around the academic job hunt and other career choices. Jonathan’s articles on When should I take the next (career) step?, preparing your application package for an academic job, and You are not a failure for wanting to leave academia were all popular and resonated with readers looking to make a significant change in their career situation. To help facilitate this process, I chimed in with an article on Leveling the playing field: a career-readiness assessment tool for academics which focused on a systematic review of hiring practices at different types of universities.  Over the last decade, these sorts of practical articles have always attracted a wide readership and will continue to be a focus of our conversations.

Mental health

An area not so trodden for us has been the recently emerging discussion around mental health in academic circles. The first indication that this was a topic of great interest to our readers was actually driven by one of our readers in a series of guest posts that still sit among our top articles each year despite being written in 2017. Dr. Sabrina Zeddies detailed her story of postdoctoral burnout in an article called, Crash and burn (out): 5 stages of postdoctoral collapse. I’ve since written two articles on the topic: Research culture in biomedical science needs to change and Survivorship bias in science: is individual resilience the most important quality of a good scientist?. Importantly, both Jonathan and I have tried to shed some light on the core systems that might create unnecessary mental strain by driving inequality in medical science with my call to male scientists in 2019 – #moreXXscience and Jonathan’s Scientific publishing needs to change.

We will continue to engage these issues but, in what may seem like a broken record to our readers, we are over the moon when we get approached by guest authors to write about the issues near and dear to their heart – a desire to change something that you’ve witnessed or experienced can produce some pretty incredible articles, and we hope 2020 will unearth some more brilliant contributions. We look forward to hearing from you.

David Kent
Dr. David Kent is a principal investigator at the York Biomedical Research Institute at the University of York, York, UK. He trained at Western University and the University of British Columbia before spending 10 years at the University of Cambridge, UK where he ran his research group until 2019. His laboratory's research focuses on the fundamental biology of blood stem cells and how changes in their regulation lead to cancers. David has a long history of public engagement and outreach including the creation of The Black Hole in 2009.
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