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Are true friendships possible in academia?: Pandemic cheers

Alliances with university colleagues can be inspiring and life-affirming but may also be grounded in little more than ambition or survival instinct. Six writers reflect on the joys and challenges of having friends in academia

· Times Higher Education

This piece was originally published by Times Higher Education on April 27, 2023. It is freely available at their website, and my contribution is included below.

More than a decade after I entered academia, my family still does not understand how peer review works.

This statement is not an indictment of them; after all, it takes years of complete immersion in this environment to fully understand the idiosyncrasies that differentiate academic research from other professions. Rather, it emphasises that friendships with colleagues are a vital lifeline for academics, particularly trainees and early-career PIs.

This was especially so for me personally during the pandemic. As a computational scientist, I was fortunate to be able to work from home during the most challenging periods of the past three years. But this was also an isolating experience, as I was cut off from all face-to-face (or, more accurately, mask-to-mask) interactions with my colleagues. Maintaining the lines of communication necessary for my collaborations faced additional hurdles, as did obtaining feedback and mentorship from my supervisors.

Having a support system of friends within academia was invaluable. My friends outside research could empathise with my postdoctoral anxieties, such as the inherently transient nature of year-to-year contracts, up to a point. But it was through my academic friends that I not only confirmed that these feelings were valid and universal but found the necessary support to overcome them.

Ironically, my most valuable academic friend during this period was a traditional experimentalist who was spending time in the lab. Despite our different pandemic experiences, our constant text messaging and video calls provided us both with an invaluable confidant. It helped that we became each other’s biggest cheerleaders: I find their research to be some of the most fascinating, challenging and impactful work I have ever seen, and they reciprocate those feelings about mine. When I experienced impostor syndrome following a fellowship or paper rejection, they were there to build me back up, a favour I was all too happy to return when the tables were turned.

As I progressed in my postdoc and became more active on the academic job market, having connections with more senior academics became vital. My network provided me with not just traditional mentors who had already founded their labs, but true friends. Having natural conversations with these individuals, flowing between traditional advice on my applications and open and honest insights into their own experiences on the job market, made me feel authentically seen and valued, validating my feelings.

At a career stage when trainees are arguably at their most vulnerable even in the absence of a pandemic, these interactions gave me the practical and emotional support I needed. I can honestly say that I may not have persevered through those challenging times without them. It is my sincere hope that the academic community places a renewed focus on fostering such relationships as we return to something like normal life.

Scott Rich is a postdoctoral research fellow at the SickKids Research Institute, which is affiliated with the University of Toronto.


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