Creating a Healthier Academia

This past week I was lucky to be able to attend the Philadelphia Trans-Health Conference, which is one of the (if not the) largest gatherings of transgender and gender non-conforming people in the world. With over 3,000 attendees, it’s one of very few spaces where trans people are in the majority.

In its thirteenth year of providing space for trans people and health care providers.

In its thirteenth year of providing space for trans people and health care providers.

It’s a strange feeling, suddenly being surrounded by others like you. One that I seem to share with many other trans people in STEM, based on how few trans people raised their hands when a session chair asked, “How many of you have met another trans person in your field before this workshop?” The session was hosted by an organization called oSTEM, or Out in STEM. During the workshop, we brainstormed ways to make the fields better for trans people: ways of calling out inappropriate behavior, how academic curricula fail trans students, role models and lack of overlapping social circles, and how to create a healthier environment. I want to focus on that last one a little, because there were a lot of important points that came out of it.

Unplug Regularly

With the pressure of being constantly reachable, I often find myself forgetting that I can turn off my phone and keep my laptop in its bag. In a field where it’s expected to always be in the lab or writing papers, it’s worth remembering that more time put in doesn’t necessarily lead to higher productivity.

Scientists are People First

From what I’ve seen in my own field, the science is held to a much higher regard than the people who make it happen. When 2/3 of academics find their mental illness caused by their job, it’s a warning sign of how we need to better care for the people doing the work.

Support Networks

To address the point above, support networks need to be in place, particularly for demographics that face oppression. I’ve mentioned previously how when I first came out, there was nothing in my field for LGBT people except for people telling me that I should never talk about it. This blog acts as a support network for women academics, and efforts like it need to continue.

Funding STEM

In an age of recession and budget cuts, we could all use a bit more funding. But even as we advocate for financial support of our projects and our careers, we need to keep in mind that money isn’t a fix-all for the problems in academia.

Understanding Differences

We, as academics, seek knowledge. Our creativity is helped when we have a more diverse group of people and experiences to draw upon, but we must work on understanding the experiences that others bring to the table.

Constantly Challenge the Status Quo

When I was looking for resources as a young grad student, I asked where they were and was met with silence. Only by asking, repeatedly, why they didn’t exist did they start to form. Without challenging where our institutions are failing, we can’t hope to improve them.

Advocate that Self Care = Productivity

This ties in to some other points that were discussed repeatedly. We who build, teach, and expand the knowledge pool of humanity are human beings. By caring for ourselves and each other, we do better work, we stay healthier, and we create a more welcoming environment.

Come Out, Come Out, Wherever You Are!

Especially important for invisible minorities, things can only get better if we start addressing the problems that we face. There are always safety and career considerations to take into account before outting yourself, as it’s a brave act and should be treated as such. But only by being visible can we begin changing how people like us are treated within academic institutions.

Reach Out to Others

With resources tight and the number of academic positions small, we’re often competing with one another for resources. But along the way, each of us will need help, and if you’re able to give it you might be the support that someone needs to succeed.

This is a very brief overview of the discussions we had, and I would love your comments on how to address some of these points!

3 thoughts on “Creating a Healthier Academia

  1. I like your points about improving the healthcare milieu for academics. I feel that academia emphasizes productivity (or the illusion thereof) over self care. But its impossible to succeed if you are ill (mentally or physically) or just chronically stressed. About every 6 months or so I end up needing to take time off to deal with a chronic health issue and I always feel guilty for caring for myself rather than finishing that grant, starting that paper, etc, because I compare myself to healthy colleagues who are working hard while I’m on the couch. I think that an increased emphasis on supporting the whole person will open doors to STEM woman dealing with invisible disabilities.

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