Power relations and mental health in academia

Jana Lasser     |     jana.lasser@tugraz.at     |     @janalasser

with contributions from Bryony Porter

slides available at

Who am I?

  • 2008 - 2015: Studied physics in Göttingen.

  • 2015 - 2018: PhD at MPI for Dynamics and Self-Organization.

  • Pursued PhD in a structured PhD programm (graduate school).

  • During PhD: part of Max Planck PhDnet, 2018 president of PhDnet.

  • Now: PostDoc in Computational Social Science lab at TU Graz.

  • Warm up: which academic fields do we belong to?

    Go to https://fbr.io and enter code PBYGN
    What are we going to do in this workshop?

  • Look at problems in academia through the "lens" of power relations.

  • Focus on doctoral researchers.

  • Key outcome: mental health, not good scientific practice.

  • 11:00 - 11:10 Introduction and warm up
    11:10 - 11:20 Input: Power dimensions & mental health in academia
    11:20 - 11:30 Input: Instruments to balance power
    11:30 - 12:00 Interactive: Breakout rooms
    12:00 - 12:30 Interactive: Collect & discuss results

    Prevalence of depression and anxiety


    Demographic factors of anxiety


    Relation of anxiety and depression to supervision satisfaction


    Relation of anxiety to bullying and harassment


    Satisfaction with supervision and giving up


    What can we do?


    The (working) relationship to the supervisor is a major factor for mental heal of early career researchers. It is complicated by the multiple power differentials between early career researchers and their supervisors.
    Power Relations in academia

  • Employment: Supervisors often decide over contract durations, extensions and payment level. Visas might depend on the existence of a working contact.

  • Evaluation: Supervisors supervise the daily work and evaluate the PhD thesis in the end.

  • Reputation: Reputation is necessary to secure positions. This is codified in the letter of recommendation that supervisors are often asked to provide.

  • Knowledge: Fluctuation among early career reserachers is high. They often know less about institutional mechanisms and their rights than their supervisors.

  • See Lasser et al. 2021 "Power abuse and anonymous accusations in academia – Perspectives from early career researchers and recommendations for improvement" in Beiträge zur Hochschulforschung for details.

    Where do institutions come in?

    Possible levers to re-balance power

  • Formalization and professionalization of supervision
    [supervision agreement, thesis advisory committee]

  • Accountability of supervisors for supervision quality
    [supervision agreement, institutional guidelines]

  • Managing and communicating expectations
    [supervision agreement]

  • Empowering doctoral researchers
    [institutional guidelines, PhD representation]

  • ...

  • Does this work?


    Does this work?


    Does this work?


    Does this work?


    Breakout rooms

    Q1: Which power dimensions are addressed by the supporting instruments and ow does the instrument balance power?
    Q2: Did you implement the instrument in your institution and have experiences with it that you can/would like to share?
    Q3: What difficulties could you foresee when newly implementing the instrument, and how could they be overcome?
    Room 1 empowering PhDs: https://bit.ly/unw_room_video
    Room 2 thesis advisory committee: https://bit.ly/unw_room_TAC_1
    Room 3 supervision agreement: https://bit.ly/unw_room_SA_1
    Room 4 institutional guidelines: https://bit.ly/unw_room_guidelines_1
    Room 5 thesis advisory committee: https://bit.ly/unw_room_TAC_2
    Room 6 supervision agreement: https://bit.ly/unw_room_SA_2
    Room 7 institutional guidelines: https://bit.ly/unw_room_guidelines_2

    What's next?

  • Video and additional ressources describing the Courage project (empowering PhDs).

  • COST action "researcher mental health": large-scale survey, looking for participating institutions.

  • "Netzwerk Machtmissbrauch" for the DACH-region: official start mid Oktober, looking for members.

  • Interested? Contact me at jana.lasser@tugraz.at or Twitter @janalasser.