Let’s talk about mental health and well-being in academia!
(posted on behalf of @Sai Kalvapalle and @Suzana Varga)
Hi! For this blog post, I have the distinct privilege to be joined by Suzana Varga, a fellow PhD Candidate and friend who studies high growth firms and business scaling. We both share a background in psychology and a deep interest in human behavior and relationships. And as innately curious people, we often muse about how we can make our work life a little bit better than the way we found it.
Suzana and I co-wrote this blog post with three ambitions: 1) to sustain conversation around mental health in academia, 2) to highlight that while there can be elements outside of our control, there might be ways we can better prioritize or estimate the impact of these elements on our own well-being, and 3) to see if these ideas that we have long discussed amongst ourselves resonate with our community.
We would also like to dedicate this post to Dr. Ivan Montiel, whose sudden and tragic passing left us shocked and with a strong sense of urgency to pull our community close and take care of each other. We keep losing brilliant and promising scholars who have so much to offer to the institution of academia and to the further advancement of knowledge, and it might be time to break the silence and be more open and realistic with ourselves and with each other.
Let’s start off by acknowledging the immensely privileged position that academia affords us. We tend to publicly talk about these perks very openly; at the same time, we are less vocal (at least publicly) about the difficulties and challenges that such work may create for our personhood, filled with psychological needs and desires outside of the realm of the academic work that we do. The number of people who decide to terminate their academic jobs and find alternative means of employment to prioritize their mental health has been steadily increasing over the years. The highly solitary, competitive, non-stop nature of academic work might perhaps have something to do with this.
The productivity culture of academia is not unique. However, while every performance-driven industry has its pressure points, the pursuit of science is closely wedded to the scientist’s identity. This makes it particularly challenging to separate our inner self from the output of our work. How many times have we been told the truisms of not to take rejections personally, that it’s all par for the course, all a number’s game… academic metaphors work to distance the individual from the outcomes of their work. The thicker skin wins. But what about the rest of us? There seems to be an inherent irony most salient during the PhD, where learning and performance are simultaneously evaluated but procedurally distinct. Within this working configuration, it is unsurprising we may feel pulled in different directions.
We would like to offer some pause here to our fellow PhDs, and acknowledge that this performance orientation from the get-go might be a siren song. We too have experienced this constant rush to fulfill ever-increasing requirements and comply with ever-higher standards in an ever-saturated profession. And while doing so, flying higher and higher on the clouds of theoretical abstraction. But while we are up there, we are also thinking about the practical impact of our work, of the pedagogical impact on our students, of how this line of thinking fits with a broader research agenda. Essentially, the multi-faceted and demanding nature of our work, while fueling us, might be burning us out. And while you cannot anticipate every psychological tension you might experience in the PhD process, you can adopt a more mindful orientation to the PhD experience itself.
In stimulating such an orientation, we outline seven considerations that we have thought about and would love for you to think about:
Nourishing the internal, distinguishing from the external. We can all admit that the institution of academia is built on external evaluation of the quality of one’s work. Advisors evaluate our work and provide feedback to us, we defend our doctoral research from critical examiners, and the papers we submit are reviewed by our peers. If you think about it, the entire enterprise of our work rests on the judgment of others. It makes it difficult, then, to see where the judgment of the work ends and where the judgment of your personhood, as the curator of the work, begins. This makes it particularly important to remind ourselves that our own self-worth is not dependent on such external evaluation but is something that is internally cultivated and nourished. Our self is worthy as it is. The output of our work, on the other hand, can always be improved and would ideally be the target of constructive feedback. If others around us cannot make this distinction, it is ever more important that we, internally, can do so. The ironic double-bind of internalizing negative feedback is that we not only diminish our sense of self but also compromise the quality of our work – the very thing to which we have committed all our time and resources.
Finding balance between guidance and autonomy. One of the ultimate purposes of engaging in a PhD program is to become an independent scholar. Reaching this outcome may be difficult to envision while in the early stages of the PhD trajectory. At this stage, it is completely expected that we will rely more on the guidance of our advisory team. This may particularly be the case if we are entering academia from a different discipline or from practice, and we need helpful pointers and nudges. Over time, however, as we gain experience in research, teaching, and service activities, we will develop our own inner compass for decision-making. As such experiences build up and we start testing our inner compass, the encouragement to trust ourselves will gradually develop, and we will feel more comfortable practicing and exercising autonomous decision-making. This will, one step at a time, lead us closer to becoming a confident independent scholar. The fear of failure is too real at the start of the PhD, but most of the time, the only way to learn does seem to be from failure (sorry). Don’t forget that a lot of the scientific discoveries we benefit from today (e.g., penicillin, x-rays, microwaves, and post-it notes) were accidental discoveries! Allow yourself the freedom to fail, and who knows, you might just find the freedom to grow.
Done is better than perfect. Relatedly, while it is certainly important to aim for high quality outcomes of our work, we have to admit that many of us may have self-selected into academia because of our perfectionistic tendencies (this one may be an ouchie to acknowledge. This might help, and so will this and this). There is nothing wrong with that! Perfectionism has fueled many of our achievements and helped us to get all the way to where we currently stand. And that is exactly what makes it so difficult to let go of it. The good news, though, is we do not have to let go of all of it. What we can do is disentangle the aspects of such perfectionistic tendencies that help us and serve us to achieve our goals within reasonable timeframes, from ones that hinder us or waste time with minimal returns. What might be important to realize is that we can still deliver high quality work without exhausting ourselves with overthinking and over-checking to make marginal improvements on what is, in reality, good enough. Again, the “good enough” metric is honed with time and with the help of our internal compass.
The craft! Similar to the perfectionistic antecedents that may have led us into academia, we believe that most of us care about the craft of academic research. But the voice of the craft is drowned in the siren song of academic success. As we write, we are realizing how much of our relationship to academia is steeped in irony. Well-crafted academic research, in most cases, tends to be work of excellence, but the quest for excellence becomes conflated with recognition. The happiest that we have felt in academic work has been when we are moving ideas around to create a flow in a text or when problem-solving with co-authors. But given the lonesome nature of writing (we discuss more below), it becomes easy to forget what you love about the work, and instead ruminate on what could go wrong with the outcome. So, friends, don’t forget the process gains along the way. Much like Gretel’s breadcrumbs, they will bring you home.
Getting our priorities “right”. We are different people with different preferences for activities that we enjoy in our work. Such differences largely stem from the value systems we build, shape, and maintain during our lives. Naturally, these personal preferences may be aligned with the requirements of an academic job to different degrees, and some (academic) jobs may allow for stronger alignment with our preferences and value system than others. It is unrealistic to expect 100% alignment, but substantial alignment can enhance our own subjective well-being, whereas considerable misalignment will most likely hinder it. Within the scope of our work as PhD candidates, it is therefore important that we prioritize tasks that bring the highest returns to our success as junior scholars, but it is equally, if not even more, important that we prioritize the activities that truly fulfill and empower us. And if, throughout the journey, we realize that there is an emergent clash between the two, we owe it to ourselves to dare to be honest and explore what this clash tells us about how we can best craft our ways into a more fulfilling and enjoyable career. Ultimately, it may be up to us not to squeeze into a mold that wasn’t built for us.
Setting clear and strong boundaries. Identifying and setting our priorities “right” is one thing, remaining truthful to them, day in and day out, is a mindful mission in itself. Navigating our work in line with our set priorities becomes easier, once we realize that we have control over setting our own boundaries. This means clearly communicating what we do and do not want to do, as well as what we do and do not have capacity for. Most people with whom we will work throughout our academic career will only value that we know ourselves and our limits well and we can clearly communicate these. Avoiding overcommitment to tasks that are simply not realistic to deliver; signaling professionalism and reliability to the people around us will only be welcomed and rewarded with respect and appreciation from our colleagues. While all of this may sound like a bite too large to chew, it is important to highlight that setting clear boundaries can start with smaller steps. For instance, answering emails within working hours (research shows recipients don’t care how quickly you respond to emails) or scheduling meetings outside of our peak performance hours (that are different for each of us). All it takes is one such small step at a time.
Finding our people. Lastly, we profoundly believe that work is about community. True: academic work is mainly solitary work. But much like we were during covid lockdowns, we are alone together! There will always be people in academia who may be dealing with similar challenges, but who, over time, may have developed more functional, healthy, and sustainable approaches toward work that we may learn from and share with. We can always seek the warmth, understanding, and support that our community can offer us and reciprocate the same. Together we can do a lot – by being there for each other and advocating for the importance of our and others’ well-being in academia, we can lead by example and create a safer and more fulfilling place to work. As the next generation of academic leadership, the future is in our hands.
We hope you find these ideas helpful. Please talk to each other about your experiences. You are not alone, and the pie is expandable – let’s help each other have a piece.
The resources in the article:
Ben-Shahar, T. (2009). The pursuit of perfect: how to stop chasing perfection and start living a richer, happier life. McGraw Hill Professional.
Bothello, J., & Roulet, T. J. (2019). The imposter syndrome, or the mis-representation of self in academic life. Journal of Management Studies, 56(4), 854-861.
Kalvapalle, S.G. "You CAN spell Dissertation without stress (I tried)." LSE Blogs, London School of Economics and Political Science, 2 August 2017, https://blogs.lse.ac.uk/studentsatlse/2017/08/02/you-can-spell-dissertation-without-stress-i-tried/.
Korica, M. (2022). A Hopeful Manifesto for a More Humane Academia. Organization Studies, 43(9), 1523-1526.