‘Not everyone should get a PhD’ and other academic productivity fallacies

A few weeks ago I taught a workshop on academic productivity, and how self-care and perhaps counter-intuitive strategies such as shortening your workday may help. The audience were economists: PhD students, as well as a few faculty. Let’s just say it was an interesting experience! The dynamics were completely different compared to the other workshops I have taught, where the atmosphere tends to be relatively open, laid-back and sort of intimate. This time, however, that didn’t happen. Instead, there was a more challenging atmosphere, with more critical questions asked. By the supervisors, not the PhDs, I must add.

The resistance to some of what I was saying made me think: they may have gotten the impression that I was falsely portraying and underestimating what it takes to be a prolific academic in a competitive field. Maybe even worse, that I was pointing people in the wrong direction: that I would be encouraging them to be ‘too soft’ which just doesn’t cut it. The supervisors probably truly believe in the linear model of performance: that working longer hours is better, that pushing yourself is the answer to most productivity questions, that if you’re not tough enough to survive in the competitive world of academia (economics is a tough field indeed) it is too bad and simply means you are not cut out to be an academic, and that ‘self-care’ is too soft to be taken remotely seriously.

The point I was trying to make was the opposite: the ’soft stuff’ is what makes you better able to handle the pressures of academic life. It is what gives you the cutting edge. It is what allows you to perform better. It is in economist’s terms output-maximising. And wellbeing-maximising too. There is no trade-off, which is the beauty of it.

The issue: how to convince hard-nosed ‘more-is-better-you-should-be-tougher-and-push-yourself-harder-relaxation-is-for-weaklings’ economists of the value of such an approach. I don’t know whether I did or can, but I am willing to try as I really feel the paradigm needs to change for academia to become an environment that is less destructive, both in terms of the wellbeing, and in terms of academic productivity lost because people aren’t doing as well as they might, with a little different approach.

So, in a nut-shell what I propose is that the relationship between stress/ pressure/ competition and academic performance isn’t linear. If anything, it follows a concave curve, and at present academics are often situated well beyond the maximum (too much stress, sub-optimal perfromance). Empirical studies support the view that academia is a high-stress (potentially burnout-prone, low-performance) environment (See for example this study where academia is ranked the 6th most stressful profession). From a brain perspective a worsening of academic performance in these circumstances makes sense: chronic stress is just about the brain’s worst enemy, it has a real impact. And sadly the statistics support this analysis: academics suffer disproportionately with mental health problems, an indicator of a highly stressed and sub-optimal performing brain. In this scenario lowering stress levels so your brain has some space to think and actually perform is the best thing you could do for your academic career.

Unfortunately though there is still a survival-of-the-fittest mentality in universities, which considers anything to do with stress relief, especially admitting that it may be beneficial or ‘needed’ a sign of weakness. Push harder is the device, and if you can’t ‘handle it’: tough, academia is not for you. This is Neanderthal reasoning, sorry! It is true that at present the hardier ‘marathon-type’ academics are often the last ones standing, but that’s a result of the current set-up, not how it could be. And it isn’t in any way an optimal situation, either individually or collectively.

These were the main questions/ remarks/ arguments put to me by the supervisors during my talk. I’d thought I’d walk you through them:

1. “Competition is good for academic performance!” (Challenging the idea I put forward that high competition/ high stress results in a worsening of academic performance).

It depends. I’m not really worried about the intellectual challenge of pursuing a PhD contributing to chronic stress and underperformance, it is more about what I tend to refer to as ‘the rest of it’. It is important to understand: (chronic) stress which negatively impacts performance arises primarily not due to high demands or workload, but because those high demands lack matching reward structures. And academia is terrible in this regard. It doesn’t think in terms of process or support or reward, only in terms of output, often defined in a strictly linear way. And this is getting worse. There are many fears and insecurities inherent to the academic process and capability and effort do not necessarily neatly translate into ‘output’ (if only). Getting published sometimes takes years not months. The process can be messy and unpredictable and rife with uncertainty. Nothing new, but this uncertainty, specifically, is a major stressor. A culture in which destructive criticism may be the norm, instead of constructive criticism and support and mentoring and collaboration, as is often the case in more competitive departments, exacerbates the problem.

The point: You don’t want chronic stress to start interfering with people’s ability to work! This is often framed as an individual weakness, and private problem, but I disagree. It’s a collective problem, caused by structural features of academia, and should not be contributed to individual ‘failure’ or ‘weakness’. I’d argue that in the present situation where surveys show that around 37% of PhD students might be considered clinically depressed (44% for economics PhDs!), the vast majority of PhDs are suffering from the detrimental effects of chronic stress. From an academic performance perspective this is a worst case scenario! From a departmental perspective striving for ‘excellence’ it is too! The remedy of pushing people harder in this situation is counterproductive.

2. “Competition in this field will only get more intense, not less intense.” (So you’d better get used to it!)

True. The question is how to adapt and thrive in a competitive environment, and that isn’t necessarily by pushing harder longer. The best analogy I have found here is with the world of professional sports, and the role recovery plays in improving your performance. At some point you cannot train more hours a day, or you will overtrain, and your performance will be worse. Interestingly though, when you focus on improving the rate at which you recover, you can also increase the intensity of the training sessions, and your performance improves. Efficient recovery means performance gains. The exact same applies to research: in a competitive environment you have to couple intense work with intense relaxation. This means having recovery practices in place. Working in intervals, similar to athletes doing interval training, is one way of doing that and will absolutely allow you to shorten your workday with productivity gains. Sounds a bit scary, doing ‘less’, but it works. If you are performing well, it will allow you to find your competitive edge. If you are feeling ‘overtrained’, it will allow you to gradually increase your effective working hours, and allow your brain to recover and perform better.

3. “I don’t believe in this. You should just handle stress when it comes up. Making exercise, meditation, self-care part of your work day just creates more stress.”

May I roll my eyes at this one? If this is your private opinion, fine, but supervisors should hold their tongue. Stress isn’t something that ‘suddenly happens’ (academia is a chronic stress environment, not an acute stress environment) and discouraging people from looking after themselves is simply wrong. I can see why time pressure may make taking time for self-care difficult, especially when you’re stuck in a panicked mind-spin about work, or if you have an overloaded schedule already. But doing so will make a difference. Don’t take my word for it, try it. Work isn’t just about work. It is about creating the right circumstances to perform well, and that deserves some of your time and attention.

And finally my favourite:

4. “Not everyone should get a PhD” (Repeatedly.)

I have no words… I feel I should have spoken up more when a supervisor said this to the researchers during the workshop. Academia is a pressure cooker, and the supervisor says if you can’t stand the heat get out of the pot! How about we acknowledge the fact we are collectively being boiled and find strategies to deal with it, other than letting people figure it out for themselves and struggle in private. People are underperforming, not because they are not capable, but because they are not taught and mentored on how to perform well in a hyper-competitive environment. They are supposed to figure it out on their own, or else. If they feel vulnerable, they should just shut up and go away and push harder and do better. In my opinion this is a foolish stance. It doesn’t create better academics. It creates academics who are afraid they ‘aren’t good enough’ no matter how brilliant and talented they are. It creates a culture of fear and depression. It creates and sustains underperformance. Stress is a constant feature of academia, yet many of the stresses and struggles of academia remain hidden. People keep it to themselves because they are afraid of being seen as weak. Case in point: I heard after the workshop that some PhDs refrained from asking questions because of the supervisors’ presence and critical stance. That is the problem, people. It is to do with not being allowed to be seen as ‘weak’. Nothing to do with intelligence, talent or capability. Or output…

Reminds me of some of the dialogue in PhD the Movie

PhD: Sir, I’ve been meaning to tell you: I’ve been having some problems…
Supervisor: Problems? In academia we don’t use the word ‘problems’. It’s considered a sign of weakness. Call them challenges, issues if you must.
PhD: I have…issues.
Supervisor: Not my problem!

Note: If you’re someone dealing with a supervisor like this, the HappyPhD course does have a module on how to handle difficult supervisors. May come in handy…

I am creating a week of email ‘nudges’ to help shorten your workday and be more productive. Let’s try and implement some of these productivity ideas. (Not quite sure yet when: I said late July before, but I’ve had some delays… New date to be announced.) Do join us! It is free and you can sign up for it here.

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