Coming from Poland, a country not necessarily famous for teetotallers, I thought that nothing could surprise me when it comes to alcohol. My confidence lasted until the first wine & cheese reception in the first week of my PhD.
I still can’t grasp the idea of serving alcohol in the workplace. And in academia it’s omnipresent: conferences, receptions, parties… “Free pizza” posters advertising academic events at my undergraduate university have been replaced by “free beer” at Imperial. Friday evening means a pint (or two) in a pub, unless the department is holding an event in the common room just next to my office.
Just to make it clear: I have nothing against alcohol, and I do occasionally drink myself. However, I believe there’s a time and a place for it; I’m not quite sure that 5 pm in the department fulfil these criteria. Too often I’ve witnessed very inappropriate behaviour of senior staff members who had one drink too many.
The academic community actively encourages alcohol consumption, often excessive. Choosing juice over beer tends to be frown upon, or even considered offensive. Quite often I accept wine just because it’s offered by someone way more senior than I am, even when I don’t feel like drinking at all. Quite often I’m almost forced to explain reasons for refusing a drink, as if such behaviour was so abnormal that I need to provide a very good reason.
If we want to make academia inclusive, we need to allow the freedom of choice. For example, I believe social events without any soft drinks shouldn’t be allowed — I still remember the one with two pregnant researchers surrounded by beer and wine, without a single bottle of coke. Drinking should be a choice, not a result of peer pressure. It goes without saying that if you want to get drunk, go ahead, but at home or in a club, not in the workplace.
I can see why alcohol is so present in academia, although surprisingly I haven’t found any reliable studies on this topic. Scientists work under pressure, often in isolation and without a good work-life balance, so of course many will gladly take advantage of any way to relax (especially when provided for free from the departmental budget). Also, drinking tends to be a social activity, but this leads back to my previous point: unwillingness to drink can isolate even more.
If you’re a wannabe researcher worried about this issue, don’t let my article discourage you. I know scientists who manage to have a great social life and respect of colleagues without even touching an alcoholic drink. However, you need to prepare for pressure, questions and sarcastic comments, and learn to deal with them. Until the academic community becomes more inclusive.