A narrow-focused paper on conformal algebra received attention from a far grander audience than it ought to at first glance. Referring to the functional representation of conformal algebra, Oliver Rosten wrote in a recently published paper that “this provides a concrete understanding of how conformal invariance is realized as a property of the Wilsonian effective action and the relationship to action-free formulations of conformal field theory.” What struck a chord with tens of thousands of people on Facebook who circulated the paper among their network, however, was Rosten’s candid acknowledgment section.

Photo of Oliver Rosten. Credit: Oliver Rosten.

Photo of Oliver Rosten. Credit: Oliver Rosten.

Most papers have an acknowledgment section where the authors thank the various collaborators, institutions, and supervisors that helped or funded the research. It’s the most overlooked section in a paper but in Rosten’s case, it was the most interesting part for most people who’ve opened the paper.

Inside, Rosten laments about the wretched state of the postdoc system, which he blames for the tragic death of his friend Francis Dolan.

“This paper is dedicated to the memory of my friend, Francis Dolan, who died, tragically, in 2011. It is gratifying that I have been able to honour him with work which substantially overlaps with his research interests and also that some of the inspiration came from a long dialogue with his mentor and collaborator, Hugh Osborn. In addition, I am indebted to Hugh for numerous perceptive comments on various drafts of the manuscript and for bringing to my attention gaps in my knowledge and holes in my logic. I would like to thank Yu Nakayama and Hidenori Sonoda for insightful correspondence following the appearance of the first and third versions on the arXiv, respectively. I am firmly of the conviction that the psychological brutality of the post-doctoral system played a strong underlying role in Francis’ death. I would like to take this opportunity, should anyone be listening, to urge those within academia in roles of leadership to do far more to protect members of the community suffering from mental health problems, particularly during the most vulnerable stages of their careers,” the acknowledgment section read.

Rosten told Physics Today that he and Dolan became friends in 2006 while the two were enrolled at two-year postdoctoral fellowships in theoretical physics at DIAS. Rosten later learned that his friend was suffering from severe depression. “He’d have periods of staggering creativity,” Rosten said, “followed by periods he found it difficult to do anything at all.”

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At some point, the postdoc position ended and the two hard to part ways. Rosten took another postdoctoral position at the University of Sussex in England while Doland arrived at the University of Amsterdam where he struggled alone and without a mentor. Doland, who Rosten remembers as a very creative individual, was also torn apart by the pressure of having to publish mainstream research instead of seeking more unconventional subjects.

“It was a form of hell for him,” Rosten told Physics Today. “I think he felt isolated, unsupported, and profoundly unhappy.”

In 2011, Rosten received an e-mail informing him of Dolan’s suicide.

Meanwhile, Rosten left academia and got hired at a software development firm. However, he at one point decided to recover some of his unfinished work from the Sussex days. Eventually, he had completed a paper about phrasing the renormalization group, Rosten’s specialty, in the language of Dolan’s domain, conformal field theory.

In 2014, he posted a draft on the arXiv pre-print server but later found it extremely challenging to have it published in a peer-reviewed journal. Not because of the science itself, which most editors and reviews found it was sound, but rather because of the acknowledgment section which many thought was inappropriate.

He was first rejected by the Journal of High Energy Physics, then by the Physical Review D and the Journal of Physics A. Rosten stayed steadfast, though, and refused to edit the section.

Eventually, his paper was accepted unabated in the European Physical Journal C, and finally published last month.

Rosten now hopes this short but hard-won paragraph will spur some people to change how postdocs are treated, particularly those with a history of mental health problems. His wish list includes:

  • Making post-doc position last a minimum of three years. He argues anything less than that provides a too-narrow time frame to produce meaningful results. More time for a position also reduces the risk of relocating and finding new academic support, as it often happens now.
  • Recognizing postdocs as employees rather than cheap labor. Rosten would like to see postdocs get better pay and better access to mental health professionals.