null • hypothesis

In December 2014, IMMpress Magazine published the first of many articles on graduate mental health. At the time, I had considered using that article to call out the drinking culture that defined grad school activities; given the negative effects of alcohol on mental health, the seeming need to include it in all social interactions was troubling. Fast forward four years, and that uneasiness has been replaced by a submission to (and even enjoyment of) the status quo. Instead of nursing half a beer for the entirety of a pub night, I’ll have two or three glasses, and encourage others to do the same. And while a few beers may not seem problematic, the casual attitude towards drinking within academia is something that merits discussion.

100%• ethanol

To find hard data on the extent of drinking within academia, I turned first to PubMed, and then to Google Scholar; however, while there were numerous articles about the effects of alcohol on academic achievement or drinking habits in college, studies on alcohol consumption within academia itself were conspicuously absent. Instead, most online discussions of alcohol in academia took the form of editorial articles like this one, written by concerned members of the academic community. This seems to speak to a certain myopia amongst academics regarding their own drinking: Why research something that isn’t an issue?

Unfortunately, most of the aforementioned editorials argue that academia does have a problem when it comes to alcohol use. They cite the near-constant availability of alcohol at work events, to the point that events are framed around alcohol consumption, as evidence of a clear drinking culture amongst academics. And while having alcohol present isn’t necessarily a bad thing, there is an unnerving acceptance of overindulgence by individuals at all stages of their careers. Since academia already promotes a certain blurring of the boundaries between work and play – with long, flexible hours and minimal supervision – adding alcohol into the mix paves the way for gross ethical violations. Furthermore, it is well known that many individuals within academia struggle with mental health; being immersed in an environment where drinking is seen as second-nature can lead to self-medication, exacerbation of existing issues, or longer-term problems with addiction.

home • brewed

A common rebuttal to the claim that academics drink too much is that alcohol consumption in academia is on par with that in other fields or in the broader community. While the lack of data makes it difficult to directly compare imbibing between different careers, there have been multiple studies showing that high levels of stress, long hours, and intelligence are associated with higher rates of drinking. Other fields that fit these criteria, such as the tech industry, are also known for their tendency to incorporate alcohol into their regular work life; in fact, Silicon Valley and similar hubs of technological innovation have acquired a reputation as the “frat houses” of the working world due to their extensive, male-dominated drinking culture.

As for the bigger picture, studies of alcohol use in Canada certainly support the notion that our society as a whole likes to drink. According to the 2015 Report on Alcohol Consumption in Canada, nearly 80% of Canadians drink alcohol, with 19% of those individuals qualifying as heavy drinkers. Moreover, Canadians currently rank as the highest consumers of alcohol amongst high income countries in North and South America, surpassing even the United States at 10 litres per capita. While this high baseline may help normalize the amount of drinking in academia, it’s worth remembering that extensive alcohol consumption in any context comes with a price; in 2015 alone, alcohol was directly responsible for 77,000 hospitalizations across Canada.

sex • on • the • bench

Apart from the obvious health concerns that accompany alcohol use, there is the less frequently discussed reality that the behaviours and consequences related to alcohol often have a stark gender divide. Women have traditionally consumed less alcohol than men, and when career camaraderies are so closely tied into drinking culture, this inevitably leads to fewer opportunities for women to fit in and get ahead. While the statistics show that women are catching up in their alcohol consumption, not only can the health consequences of this shift outweigh career benefits, but alcohol-heavy environments can also breed sexual harassment, especially when there are different power dynamics in place.

bar • none

So what does this mean for academia? At the end of the day, the choice to drink is a personal one influenced by religion, health, and any number of other factors. All members of the academic community have the right to be respected and included, whether they pick up a pint or not.


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Kieran Manion

Design Director
Kieran Manion is a senior PhD student studying the breakdown of B cell tolerance in systemic lupus erythematosus in the Department of Immunology at the University of Toronto. In her spare time, she practises using digital platforms for general artwork and graphic design.
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