Past the Breaking Point: The Myth of Competition and Performance in Academia

A few weeks ago a to-remain-unnamed director of graduate studies uttered the following statement:

“Unless about 25% of your PhDs drop out, your PhD programme isn’t competitive enough.”

What? Did I hear that correctly? What did he say?!

It wasn’t a mistake. When asked again, and given a chance to perhaps come up with some nuance or disclaimers, he said: “I stand by that. I mean it! If you can’t handle it you shouldn’t be in academia.”

Right.

This is a problem in academia: people in charge talk ‘excellence’ and ‘performance’ and ‘competition’ but they don’t think it through. Instead they rely on misguided models of performance focused on pushing people beyond breaking point.

If you have a 25% drop-out rate it implies people are seriously struggling and seriously stressed (apart from a small number who simply decide academia isn’t their thing). It is in no way a good sign, and much better prevented, both in terms of performance, and in terms of wellbeing.

Let’s spell it out.

Moderate, transient stress leads to high performance. Chronic or high-level stress leads to cognitive malfunctioning and low performance (and high drop-out rates!).

A burst of stress gets you mobilised, and in the short run it helps you perform. With a little adrenalin and other stress-hormones on the go you are brighter, more alert, sharper, faster, better! Your academic performance improves. For a short while you are a supercharged version of yourself. This phenomenon has been well documented in both animals and humans.

So far, so good.

Things get sticky however, if stress either increases in intensity or when stress is prolonged. The details on how exactly this works in the brain are still being explored, but the conclusions in the brain-science literature are unequivocal: long-term stress leads to a shrinking of, and malfunctioning in the brain, which leads to reduced performance. Memory declines, as does executive function. It also opens the way for mental disorders, if you are so predisposed. In sum: there is an ‘inverse-U’ relationship between stress and performance.

Now, if you have around 25% of your PhDs struggling to the point of quitting as a result of being in your PhD programme, I would dare to predict that you have a vast majority of your PhDs in a chronic-stress state, which is shrinking their hippocampus, over-activating their amygdala and messing with their academic performance as we speak.

Not good.

You may have a few hardy, stoic individuals who are not as prone to react to stress, who are still in their zone of optimal performance, but honestly, with the set-up of academia as it is – it is a chronic-stress environment, as I have discussed before – these people will be few and far between. These effects are subtle enough in the vast majority of people to not disable them in any visible way, but that doesn’t mean their performance doesn’t suffer and their output doesn’t decrease. And that is without taking into account how everyone is feeling!

In my online course I tell the story of practically an entire year of PhDs at a world-renowned institution, selected on ‘excellence’, who more or less collectively crumbled under the pressure. Not because they were ‘soft’ but because this is what brains do when they are bombarded with too much stress for a prolonged period of time. Excellent brains malfunctioning, academic output lost, lives made miserable because of misguided ideas around competition and productivity.

Universities should be smarter than rely on this survival-of-the-fittest mentality. If you want people to excel, why not provide both the challenging environment AND tools that will help them not fall prey to the brain-compromising effects of chronic stress? If you have a significant minority of graduates and colleagues falling ill or dropping out this should be a priority! Drop-out rates should be low, not high, in high-performing departments.

How to get out of the chronic-stress state

The only antidote to the negative effects of chronic stress lie in the relaxation response. Where stress damages, relaxation heals. That is how our bodies and brains are wired. There are numerous ways this can be achieved, including:

1. Working in bursts, followed by a break (see: this post)
2. Getting regular exercise
3. Meditation (see: these posts)
4. Laughter and fun
5. Sleep

At the moment these elements aren’t part of academic culture, which focuses on working excessive long-drawn-out hours without significant breaks, works exclusively from the neck up, considers anything to do with relaxation and contemplation lightly embarrassing, unneccessary and non-rational, considers laughter frivolous, and in no way prioritises wellbeing. We don’t do this soft stuff!

I must disagree.

These components are essential for optimal brain function and sustained high academic performance. ESSENTIAL. This is what should be taught in terms of performance skills. Academia has become so competitive and stressful we are already quite pushed towards the brain-degenerative part of the inverse U-curve. To undo that, and get ourselves back into the challenged, alert, cognitively optimal state, we need to learn to relax consciously. We need to learn put our brain in a healing state. That is the challenge for academics today.

Final comment: the idea of a causal relationship between being hardy and ‘academic excellence’ is absolutely insane and deluded misguided. These are separate phenomena, and by believing otherwise you more or less dismiss an entire population of researchers who may do valuable work. I could and might write an entire blog post on this, but for now I’ll use my own case as an example: my health was severely compromised when I finished my PhD, as it is now, due to an infectious disease which affects my nervous system (and everything else). It made me stress-sensitive to the extreme, which is why I am such an expert on these issues now. Despite all that I managed to write the ‘best’ PhD of our year, the ‘best’ of 35 political science PhDs. It hardly sent shock-waves around the globe, me finishing that PhD, but I do know it made a few people quake with delight for at least a couple of seconds. I am not alone, and it would be a terrible shame if we stress-sensitive ones, the ones for whom the inverse-U-curve is even steeper, and for whom the health and life effects are acute when we push past our boundaries, are weeded out as non-competitive and unworthy of being in academia. Heaven forbid, the hardy and mediocre, and dare I say irrational will take over!

Has anyone at your university ever directly or indirectly implied that it is okay for people to fall ill as a result of working in the pressure cooker that academia has become? Let me know in the comments. If you would like some help in becoming more resilient and less prone to the negative effects of stress, check out the HappyPhD course. It is designed for this purpose. As always, if you liked this post, could you share it? I appreciate it!

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