Less is More: Why Working Shorter Hours Is a Better Idea

I have just finished ‘The Slow Professor’ by Maggie Berg and Barbara Seeber. It reflects on time pressure and stress in academia, and on how academic life has sped up to such a degree that quality of research, teaching and life suffers. (It was a present from prof. Hein de Haas – do check out our ‘How to Write a PhD’ interview with his tips on productivity and self-care). At one point in the book my jaw dropped: it is the chapter on time management, where a number of books and approaches to the academic schedule are discussed. This part would be funny, if it weren’t so serious.

They note that most academic time management literature will not leave you reassured and comforted, but rather leave you ‘feel like you’re not working hard enough’. Ten-hour days are considered ‘more than adequate’, 55-hour work weeks the norm to strive for, working for 12 hours on Sundays ‘realistic’, multitasking smart, and getting up at 4 in the morning to write before the rest of the world wakes up a strategic way to avoid stress and increase your productivity. ‘With some trepidation,’ Berg and Seeber write, ‘we confess that these models of time management and productivity strike us as unrealistic and simply not sustainable over the long haul for most people.’ Alright, so that made me laugh.

I have issues with the counting hours approach in academia. A much better way to approach productivity is to work with your mental energy, and align your day according to how it waxes and wanes. It is depth and quality we are seeking. And if you use your best hours well (doing research/ writing) all the rest becomes doable and less overwhelming. It will take less time, too… Time isn’t linear, because energy and attention aren’t linear. Instead of focusing on how we might expand the number of hours we work so we can fit everything that needs to be done in, might we not be better of asking how we might increase focus and attention, so we can reduce that number of hours? What if we can let go of the counting altogether?

I went for a coffee with a HappyPhD course participant of several years back who finished her PhD cum laude (she has become a friend – she is doing really interesting work on how to live fearlessly), and she mentioned that ‘less is more’ was the insight that had helped her most during the time she was finishing her PhD. It is unfortunate that academic culture leans the other way!

Circumstances, work loads, energy levels, habits, preferences, and personalities differ, but I believe that the ‘less is more’ approach is useful regardless. It is practical and it is realistic. And it is a more intelligent way of working with your resources than maximising hours and ‘managing’ every minute of your day. (Which kind of feels like the walls closing in on you!)

A few points on how and why strategically working fewer hours leads to increased productivity:

Mental Energy – Not All Hours Are Equal

Your brain cannot do challenging mental work in a focused way for more than so many hours a day. One of the books quoted by Berg and Seeber state that an ‘approximately 10-hour day is more than adequate especially since we really can work for most of this time.’ (As opposed to the general workforce which according to this author ‘waste a tremendous amount of time chit-chatting at the water cooler and lunching for a full hour.’)… Errr, no. You cannot focus for ten hours a day. And you cannot conceive of your day as a monolithic ten-hour block. It isn’t efficient, and it sets you up for mental exhaustion. It’s much better to distinguish between the hours you realistically can and want to focus intensely (say 2-3 hours, in approximately 45 minute segments), and reserve them exclusively for your intellectually most challenging work. The rest of your workday (3-4 hours in similar or longer segments) can be spent on less demanding tasks. In really busy times you may add extra work sessions, but you will realise that they are only suitable for certain types of low-intensity work (answering email etc.). Focus matters, not time. Match your mental energy and focus to the demands of the task at hand. An occasional ten-hour day may be warranted, but as a model of productivity it is ridiculous. (Strong feelings!)

Mental Energy – Recovery Matters in the Short Run

Mental energy is your currency. How to keep it high? How to keep your mind sharp and present? In this context you have to think about intensity and recovery. Working in shorter, more intense segments, with recovery breaks, allows you to focus as well as recover from that intense work every hour, or more often, thereby keeping your mental energy high. You will be less likely to find yourself staring at the blank screen for hours, feeling bad because you ‘should be more productive’, while actually you are just tired. Shorter work sessions, regular short breaks, and not working past your natural limits will take care of that. Self-care isn’t at odds with productivity; they are mutually reinforcing. It is finding that right balance, which means being honest about the intensity of mental energy you can muster. Taking more breaks and stopping when we are tired (before is even better) may be uncomfortable, but it is more efficient than plodding along, putting the hours in past the point of diminishing returns. For me, when I started applying this model, it meant cutting my work days back from 8-ish hours to 4-5 hours a day. Much better idea.

Mental Energy – Recovery Matters in the Long Run

Feeling stressed? Academia is a high-risk environment when it comes to stress-related physical and mental health problems. In my opinion the culture of overwork contributes to these problems. And guess what stress-related health problems do: they diminish your ability to focus. They diminish your capacity for doing demanding intellectual work. They diminish your capacity to think. Cue even longer days, more guilt, and so the self-destructive cycle continues. A focus on recovery is essential to sustain a positive self-reinforcing cycle, in which focus, productivity and wellbeing coexist. From this perspective, advocating for ten-hour days is simply harmful. A few lucky individuals may have the energy to work endless days with no negative repercussions, but for most of us it is unrealistic… In fact, I witness even ‘limitless energy’ academics hit a wall at some point, though this is not much openly discussed. Instead, a focus on working more intensely some of the time; while appreciating the necessity of recovery and renewal, is a better way of approaching your workday and week. Being exhausted/ frazzled is a sign this balance is off.

Mental Creativity – Better Ideas

A relaxed mental space is essential for creativity. It is how new ideas form and pop up, unlike the process of analysis which is strictly logical. You need both: the focused attention of analytical thought, and the mind-wandering that is conducive to creativity and aha-moments. To foster innovative ideas time away from the intellectual problem you’re working on is essential. In other words: down-time is an essential part of your workday. It is the non-active, non-doing part of work. It is when you allow ideas to come to you. Cultivating this space is an investment in your quality of thought. (Feels good too.)

Think about this: what if intensity and depth can only be achieved with high mental energy, which makes taking care of yourself a priority? What if focus is only realised within limits and boundaries? What if relaxation is a requirement to make intellectual achievement (and emotional balance) sustainable over time? And what if mental relaxation is intrinsically valuable? What if you are not a machine??

We need to flip the script and start saying no to the story that tells us we should be ‘working always, everywhere’.

The HappyPhD course will show you exactly how to create an optimal (for you) and sustainable work schedule, combining intense work with recovery. I am currently updating the course: the updated course will be out some time this autumn. The price will go up, so now is a good time to sign up! You will get access to the old school course (ah, I am already feeling nostalgic!), and you will automatically be upgraded to the new course when it is launched! Best of both worlds, and a good way to start the academic year.

How Many Top Publications Do You Have? or The Curse of Performance Metrics

“I don’t really believe in citations myself. I don’t really count citations. I don’t value anybody’s work by the number of citations they have. I think it’s a mistake.”

A quote by Nobel Prize winner James Heckman, uttered at an unusual panel at the 2017 American Economic Association meeting. It was titled ‘Publishing and promotion in Economics: The curse of the top five’, a reference to the top five journals dominating the Economics field. One of the anecdotes told was about graduate students endlessly deferring their ‘entry to the job market’ until they were sure of a top five publication. Waiting, waiting, waiting, then shooting for the stars, for better or worse. It is up or out. Jump though the elusive hoop to have a shot at a life in the academy.

The rigid (sometimes crazy) ways academics’ performances are assessed has negative consequences for science itself, that was the main message of the panel. It negatively affects the quality of knowledge generated and published, it causes rivalries between camps and tunnel vision within disciplines, and it leads to a culture of counting, over content. Oh, and it is really bad for young researchers, who are increasingly ‘writing to the test’, aiming at achieving within the system, no matter the costs.

Heckman showed a graph of how much more difficult it has become to land a publication in a top journal. The field has grown, submissions have increased, and acceptance rates have plunged. The golden tip of the academic pyramid is increasingly out of reach. Yet entering it, even only once, is increasingly seen as as necessary for building a reputation and a career.

Screenshot 2017-04-05 12.26.33

All of this made me scratch my head. Why is it no surprise that life in academia feels like a rat race? (Because it is!!) Why is it no surprise that so many researchers are stressed to the limit? In Economics it is the top five, but it seems every field has its own version. Always running to meet that next measure of performance. We’re never there. There’s always a new metric looming around the corner.

There are no immediate solutions for this conundrum, if there were I am sure the Nobel prize winner and co would have come up with something! Seems academia is stuck with systems that are not necessarily good for science, or academics, for now. At a personal level I feel it asks for a certain resolve to live and work (and ‘perform’) well no matter the rules set by the system. Rules that are often unfair, arbitrary, and rigged against you. Lots of fun!

Some thoughts:

Know the ‘rules’

It’s important to understand the pressures you are subject to. Study them, so you know where they start and end, and to avoid becoming trapped by them. Whatever the performance metrics are in your field and situation, whether it is the deadline for the first draft of your thesis, or getting that top publication to get tenure, get to know how the system works. Look at the structure of it. How exactly is ‘performance’ measured? What counts and what doesn’t? What is expected of people? How realistic are these expectations? Be aware of the rules of the game, seeing it for what it is: a system, a set of concepts, nothing that can ultimately validate or invalidate you. It will allow you to play the academic game with your eyes wide open. (Personally, I wish I’d been more savvy about this in my PhD years. I wish I’d asked my supervisor for more help in figuring out what the written and unwritten rules of the game were.)

Don’t internalise the rules

This is the difficult part. It is all right for professor Heckman to say he doesn’t believe in citations, but what if your evaluations, and whether you have a job at all, depend on it? I really believe that a rebel mindset is the only thing that can save us! (The alternative: internalising the system, but in that case if you lose, what are you going to do? Consider yourself a failure until the end of days? Hm.) Playing along with the rules to the degree you feel you have to is important, but so is remaining fiercely aware it is an impersonal, often arbitrary system. It’s vital to not let it near the way you value yourself. Don’t let anyone tell you lies about how competition or metrics create the best science or researchers. (Maybe refer them to Heckman’s talk!) Resist the oversimplifications. Resist the tendency to measure yourself by your institution’s yardstick. (This often happens without you noticing. All of a sudden you care too much about that dreaded deadline!!!)

Your own terms of success

I read a Camus quote the other day: “The only way to deal with an unfree world is to become so absolutely free that your very existence is an act of rebellion.” I liked it. You don’t want your mind loops to start mirroring those of your institution. Nope. Not allowing that to happen. What would be the alternative? What are your own terms of success? What is your own value and reward system? Make sure it is kinder than that of your university. How would you live if you didn’t care about citations or deadlines? (So free!!! This is the part I like.)

Intrinsic motivation

Remind yourself of why you do the work you do. What makes you light up? What is the story you need to tell? What are the data you need to present? Why do you care? What paper is yours to write? What’s your argument? Where does the excitement live? Nurture it. Keep it alive. One of the participants in the EASA panel noted: ‘We don’t want to shrink our world. This I think is shrinking our world.’ Once you get lost in the meta-world of races and achievement, you lose what is so powerful: content, intrinsic value, and intrinsic motivation. Don’t let the system shrink your world. (Here you get to live your ‘romance’ with your work. This is it.)

Focus on habits, not goals

If goals are increasingly arbitrary, increasingly elusive, but meeting these goals increasingly important, how to handle the pressure? One way is to shift from focusing on goals, to focusing on the habits you have in place to achieve those goals. You have no control over whether your paper will be published or where, but you do have control over how you write that paper (more control, at least). Focusing on your small achievements every day really helps. (I have written lots about working in waves, and other ways to enhance your productivity before, see the productivity tag)

The good life

What, in or outside of work, gives you joy, pleasure, fulfilment? It is impossible to not get dragged down by the pressure, the measuring and the rejections, from time to time. You need copious antidotes in your life. A shield of them! Small pleasures, and bigger ones. What makes you come alive? What are you grateful for? What makes you forget about the stresses of work for a bit? Who are your friends outside of academic life? Do those things. Notice those things. Be with these people. Wellbeing is a skill (to a degree). If you are attuned to the good in your life, the negative holds less power. (Very true. Small shift in perception makes for a very different life.)

What are your experiences with performance metrics? Do you have a way of working with the system without losing yourself? For more support: The HappyPhD Course will help you create a productivity system in which you set the rules, not your university. It will help you bounce back faster, and stay on track, also when you’re faced with deadlines, pressure, and inevitable rejection along the way. If you enjoyed this post, could you share it? I appreciate it!

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How Are You Unwilling to Support Yourself? (And a story about Trump)

How are you unwilling to support yourself?

Answering this question (and changing my habits accordingly) was fundamental in getting my PhD process (and much else) to a better place. The question popped up in one of my feeds: it was a timely reminder. Sometimes I feel academics wear their unwillingness to support themselves as a badge of honour: how much we endure, the long hours we work, how stressed we are, seems to somehow reinforce the idea of how ‘tough’ academia is, and how ‘tough’ we are if we can ‘handle it’. It is a little like the starving artist myth. Suffering (though the vulnerable part of it must stay strictly private) gives us an edge, an indication we are doing it ‘right’. It is supposed to be hard. And we are supposed to do it all by ourselves.

I could skip straight to some ways you might be able to better support yourself, but I thought I’d tell a tale first. Stay with me. It is related. It is about Trump voters. (If you are sick of Trump, I am sorry!!)

I read a book, and since I read it I understand Trump voters.
True.
You should read it.

It is: ‘Strangers in Their Own Land, Anger and Mourning on the American Right’ by Arlie Hochschild. She spent five years (!) living in Louisiana, making friends with Tea Party enthusiasts, and trying her very best to get past the empathy wall, as she calls it. It is such a good read. (A concerning read also.) Hochschild’s fascination are the paradoxes, the way people applaud policies that may harm them directly or indirectly. The specific paradox she had in mind when she came to Louisiana was why people in poor, severely polluted industrial areas approve of a repeal of even a minimum of environmental and protective regulations.

Many of the folks she got to know much appreciated outdoor life: they fish, they hunt, they spend time in nature. How to understand why people actively support the poisoning of their waters, their fish, their land? How to understand why people actively support policies that allow themselves, their neighbours, their children, to get sick and even die from toxin-induced illnesses directly related to the industry on their doorstep? The stories in the book are shocking, yet people stand by their convictions. Regulation is bad. Protection is bad. We want less of it not more.

Why so reckless?
How to square this circle?

According to Hochschild, a sociologist, emotional self-interest, as opposed to rational or economic self-interest, is an important part of the answer. People care about how life feels to them, and how it makes them feel about themselves, above all else. She tells us we all have a subjective, internalised narrative that fuels how we see the world. She calls this our ‘deep story’. It is a narrative to make sense of it all. And we tend to reject facts incompatible with these narratives. (Well, that explains 2016.)

Hochschild tells one story of a safety inspector at one of the industrial plants in charge of installing air quality monitors. “To set up the monitors” he recalls, “I wore a respirator. Some of the guys started to taunt me, the corporate sissy who couldn’t tough it out like they did. But when they laughed at me, I could see their teeth were visibly eroded by exposure to sulfuric acid mist.”

Not shying away from danger is a source of honour for these guys, it is considered bravery. Not wearing protective gear says: “I’m strong, I can take it.” It doesn’t really matter whether or not their health is severely affected, whether it makes them sick. Copping to that would make them appear weak.

In her book Hochschild names this archetype The Cowboy. It relates to stoicism.

When I read the passage I felt myself retreating further and further to the liberal side of the empathy wall. How can people be so stupid?! Sure, let all your teeth fall out and in time die an entirely preventable premature death in the name of honour, why don’t you?

Yet ten minutes later I realised there are so many ways we do this in our own lives. It may be less extreme and less blatantly obvious, also because we are blind to our own emotion-based narratives.

In the big picture one way academics do this, I realised, is though the culture of overwork and over-identification with work. Rationally it makes very little sense, but don’t tell anybody! It is important to us!

On a smaller, personal, scale we may be toughing things out in true Cowboy-style, when help and (self-)protection are available.

When I was at the EUI I never used the (free) counselling service, as I thought that was for when you had ‘real’ problems. I also didn’t take the mindfulness course on offer as I didn’t really see how that related to my PhD. The academic culture was one where help was there, but only on the periphery. And you didn’t (want to) identify as being out there, I suppose. The university certainly didn’t help. Looking after yourself and performing well at work certainly weren’t overtly linked in a positive way.

What a difference compared to some of the corporate workplaces I know of where getting help and lifestyle are at the heart of what they call: high performance. Think Google. A friend of mine who works at one of the large consulting firms lent me a book from a two-day workshop they collectively attended: Sink, Float or Swim: Sustainable High Performance Doesn’t Happen by Chance — It Happens by Choice. It was all about looking after yourself, eating right, rest, mindset etc. Self-care! How un-Cowboy. (Though the narrative that it is the individual who ‘chooses’ success, is pretty Cowboy in its own right).

What is the real indicator of strength and bravery: being able to tough it out, not needing any protective gear or strategies, not needing anyone else’s advice or guidance, doing it all relying on your own strength and stamina? Or taking precautions, protecting yourself from unnecessary risk, going against the norm, being ‘smart’ about it? Which stories do we tell ourselves?

I thought it an interesting question.

How might you better support yourself, and be a little less Cowboy? Any programmes or help your university offers you might benefit from? The HappyPhD course may be exactly what you’re looking for. As always, if you liked this post could you share it? I appreciate it.

Worst Nightmare Scenario: Failing Your PhD (and How Not To)

Failing your PhD. How does it happen? I have recently been a remote witness of a behind-the-scenes-drama: a PhD candidate who received a rejection from an external examiner. Her supervisors had approved the thesis, but a member of the committee rejected it, rightfully so as far as I can gather, judging from the report that spans over a thirty pages of why the thesis is lacking and needs at least a year’s more work. It is a tragic situation. I can’t think of many things worse, as far as PhDs go.

When I was writing my PhD I never thought I’d fail, but I did always worry about whether my work was ‘good enough’. And I did fear the scenario that perhaps one of the committee members would request a million modifications that would go against my ideas, or would be diametrically opposed to comments of the other professors. As is so often the case when you have a number of academics commenting on your work, especially when you are trying to tame a multi-disciplinary project. Yet failed PhDs (not counting the cases in which people actively quit) are extremely rare.

What I have learnt about PhDs going off the rails:

Universities do not want you to fail your PhD. Supervisors don’t want you to fail your PhD. Committee members don’t want you to fail your PhD.

It isn’t about you. It is about them. (Of course!) It reflects badly on them. It reflects badly on the university. It reflects badly on everyone involved. (Though naturally, they will put most of the burden for failing, if the project does need more work, on you if they can. So very classy!)

Also, it is a hell of a lot of work to prove the thesis isn’t where it should be, and committee members are hesitant to take this route… They have other priorities: their own research, most notably.

Take this to heart. It is not in their interest to make you fail.

“Don’t worry too much about your PhD. If you stick around long enough at one point they’ll give it to you.”

This is something a professor said to me, only half-jokingly, when I was in my second year and still very much wrestling with my subject, trying to wrangle it into submission. I was pretty shocked (I’m a perfectionist!), as well as amused, but over the years I have started to appreciate the truth of what he was saying.

When I returned to Florence for my PhD defence a professor complained to me about the people who received a PhD who absolutely definitely shouldn’t have passed. Yet these theses do tend to pass.

This may be a comforting idea: you will get your title. Your PhD will pass. Even if it isn’t absolutely electrifyingly brilliant from the first right through to the last paragraph. Even if there are obvious flaws (which there will be, there always are, and that is perfectly OK. But that’s a different blog post). Getting into the PhD programme is the bigger hurdle compared to finishing the thesis. You’ve already done the most difficult bit.

The disconcerting message though: your PhD may not be that much of a priority for other people. It may feel like your life work; to them, it is something they may simply want off their desk. Within deadlines, preferably. Without too much work or hassle.

Red flags everywhere!

Even if you are in a state where you just don’t care anymore and just want to finish, don’t sell yourself short. Supervisors should be invested in your work, at least to a degree! You need the dialogue, you need the feedback, you need the input, you need the debate. If you have absent supervisors who are not contributing as a mentor, and you are doing it all alone, you need to find others who will help you.

In one way my situation was similar to the one outlined above is I had no-one actively involved, due to circumstances (one of which was that one of my supervisors passed away, the other that I was finishing my PhD long-distance), and it was entirely disorienting. I didn’t know whether my work met certain standards. It did, but it would’ve been nice if someone would have been there to tell me! When I got appointed a new supervisor for the thesis defence specifically, it all turned around. I loved his comments (I really do believe love is the right word here. I was a bit intellectual-love-starved at the time) questions, and criticism, and although he wasn’t an expert in my field, the discussion helped me so much.

It also made me realise how much I had been missing out. If you don’t have much support and interaction, it has to change. Find your people. The people who will challenge and support you. They are out there. They want to hear from you. Go and find them, or let others help you find them.

The part you are responsible for, of course, is to engage with their criticism and work with their suggestions as appropriate. I was surprised by how much I enjoyed this process, defining my own choices. Creating and defending my work. It’s the part you have to do, the intellectual part, and it is (hopefully) the satisfying part. (Especially once it’s done!!)

If you skip this, because you are lazy, fed up or out of time or money, and you have supervisors who are also lazy and busy, and don’t care so much, you may end up in a situation where the external examiner gives the thumbs down. That is if you are lucky/ unlucky enough (strike through as appropriate) for them to care enough to do so.

Do you have absent supervisors, and no idea where you stand? The HappyPhD course tackles the problem of how to re-engage, once you’re in a negative spiral of avoidance and neglect. It can be done! As always, if you enjoyed this post, could you share it? I appreciate it!

The Power of the Mind

How do we prevent our inner critic from taking over?
How do we become more resilient in the face of criticism?
How do we not succumb to feeling stuck when the pressure rises?
How do we make it though a rough patch?
How do we allow more joy and curiosity in?

In the academic world the mind skills we develop and refine are our intellectual muscles, our critical capacity. The part that isn’t paid as much, or any attention to, is how to harness the power of the mind more broadly, on how work with our thoughts, and the feelings attached to those thoughts. Not at all linked to solving academic problems, but everything to do with the person who is trying to do so.

I have sometimes wondered what the academic world would look like if these aspects got more attention. Would levels of depression and anxiety be lower? Would drop-out rates in PhD programmes be lower? Would years spent on completing a PhD be lower? Would the number of publications be higher?

My guess is yes – I think it would make a real difference.

As you know my own PhD experience was not exactly completed in ideal circumstances…it was really, really hard. And the one thing I credit for allowing me to finish the thesis, apart from truly wanting to complete the project, was this: new mind skills. This involved learning how to relate to my thoughts differently, no longer completely identifying with thought all of the time, especially when facing difficulties. And also, something I have been rediscovering recently: knowing when to use the rational problem-focused mind to solve problems, and when to try something different.

Something that has helped me was starting to be more aware of thoughts and beliefs, and the emotions they trigger. I like the way Eckhart Tolle approaches it: he calls the conditioned beliefs ‘ego’, and the emotional/ physical component pain-body. (Tolle was a PhD at Cambridge when he had these insights, and decided to go down the spiritual instead of the academic path…in case you’re contemplating a career change!)

Say we’re talking about academic envy: a colleague gets published, yet your paper is rejected. This may set off a cascade of negative thoughts and feelings: academia is a status system, and if we feel we’re losing (ego) we get scared (pain-body) and resentful (pain-body). Especially so if you think your colleague who is ‘winning’ doesn’t especially deserve it!!

Something similar happened when a ‘friend’ of mine got a paper published, using the exact same title as my thesis working title. Despite being close colleagues he had managed to not mention he was working on the exact same topic as I was working on!! That coupled with my own frustration about my work being so slow and absolutely unpublished due to circumstances, and I nearly lost it! (This did end up as an interesting confrontation at a thesis defence where I bumped into him. I lost my Zen that day.)

Academia as a system is stressful – it is up or out. Publish or exit. Get funded or lose out. It is also often unpredictable and unfair. Being good at what you do is a necessary, but by no means a sufficient condition to do well. The uncertainty, the randomness, the stories we tell ourselves about meritocracy, the ways we rationalise our disappointments: it can take its toll.

To deal with the more stressful aspects of academia, meditation can be extremely helpful.

It helps us observe the thoughts we have and take them less personally:

“Ah – apparently I have so much fear about things not working out for me/ about being ‘not good enough’ (hello imposter syndrome!) / etc. Ah, maybe those are just thoughts, just beliefs. Maybe they aren’t true! Maybe I can just let them be, not pay them as much attention, not buy into the drama of it fully. Maybe there is another way to look at it… A more skillful way, a kinder way. A way in which I don’t put myself down. In which I don’t slip into feeling ‘less than’. A way that doesn’t turn any excitement I may feel about my work into fear. Yes…how about tuning back into curiosity instead.”

This isn’t a conscious process, somthing we can impose by will, it is more of an unfolding. A creating space for this to happen by sitting still, and allowing our mind to settle (or not).

And it helps us work through and ‘metabolise’ the intense emotions that come with these thoughts. It helps calm the pain-body. By sitting with it, by feeling the fear, the disappointment, the resentment, whatever it is, it eventually dissolves. And when it dissolves it stops feeding into the negative thought loop. Which means we are no longer stuck. We can move on.

Sometimes it is difficult to access that place by sitting still: we keep going over the same thoughts in our heads, and can’t seem to access the emotions directly. I have found exercise, yoga especially, very helpful in shifting out of negative states. Yoga seems to rearrange things so they make sense again, so you feel more integrated again. It is an active meditation.

Have you tried meditating? I highly recommend the meditations by Bodhipaksa (two of his meditations are part of the HappyPhD Course, the acceptance meditation is my favourite. Though some participants have noted they preferred the mediations I recorded myself), and the short ‘getting present’ and ’metabolising energy’ meditations by Michael Vladeck. I work with these quite a bit. They are really good in terms of getting out of the mind and into the feeling aspect of our life.

If you liked this post, could you share it? I appreciate it. Also: if you missed the first edition of ‘The Nudge’ on shortening your workday, it is now available as a free mini course. Sign up for it below to be treated to five days of encouragement to help shorten your workday but getting as much or more done!

Subscribe to the Nudge 5-day course




Building Your Academic Network

Disclaimer: This isn’t a post which will give you ‘Ten tips to network at academic conferences’. I don’t think it quite works like that. Building a ‘network’ isn’t the academic equivalent of cold calling. It is about building relationships with your academic peers and mentors…

Imagine your academic field as a giant global network of scholars, some of whom work together (and some of whom will absolutely not!), and all of whom together shape the current academic debate on your topic. This will include the top scholars, as well as academics in your department (your supervisors perhaps), other departments nationally and internationally, and your peers working on similar topics. Academia can sometimes feel like an increasingly competitive environment (because it is) in a way that makes you feel isolated and alone, competing for scarce resources. This network idea may help you see it from a different angle: your connections here matter. It is through these connections that academic debate takes place, and joint work or other opportunities arise.

Before I go on let me say this: you belong in this network.

This tends to be a concern in the first years of the PhD: it is common to not yet know ‘who you are’ academically, and you may feel apologetic about your still very much unformed work. Engaging with other academics seems premature, because what if you have nothing to say?

The short answer to this is: building relationships with academics is about shared interests (and I mean in terms of ideas and ‘interesting’ here – not in terms of short-term mutual gain. The gain part comes later). You don’t have to have spectacular results to discuss, your PhD ideas don’t have to be all developed and researched yet. You have four years to do all that, so don’t worry about it. The connection lies in where your interests overlap with theirs. How does your research overlap with theirs? What questions are you asking? That is how you connect.

A few places to get started:

1. Your Supervisor

Your supervisor is a key figure in introducing you to the academic field. It is his/ her connections that will help you position yourself initially. Some supervisors are great at this, and specifically foster these connections in a way that benefits their PhD candidates, others not quite as much. But even if your supervisor isn’t that helpful he/ she will have contacts that might be useful. Think in terms of what aspects of your work you’d like to discuss with someone… In my own case, my supervisor put me in touch with colleagues who gave me advice on those parts of my thesis that were not his specialty (methodological issues mainly), and also with others working on similar topics to mine. Some of these meetings were one-offs, but even so they not only provided input for my thesis, and also helped me introduce myself as a new scholar in the field.

2. The Literature

Get to know the people working in your field. Who are these people? What are their ideas and interests? All those references at the end of your chapter… they are researchers thinking (or having thought) about similar puzzles to yours. It’s an aspect of academic work I particularly love: it is never just our own work, we are building on so much thinking others have done already. Some of these conversations may go ‘live’ if you get in touch. The most viable of these relationships are not necessarily those with the ‘important figures’ in your field. Horizontal networks are more accessible, and have a better chance of developing into worthwhile work relationships.

3. Research meetings/ conferences

Are there research meetings locally you could go to? Working groups that discuss similar topics, lunch seminars? All places where you might meet like-minded researchers. Conferences also fall in this category. Might you co-organise a panel/ present a paper? Is there any way you could get involved? Take some time to think about it, and fit it into your weekly/ yearly schedule. It may be tempting to want to hide and focus solely on writing if you feel you are ‘behind’ with your work, especially if papers discussed at lunch seminars or other events are not directly relevant to what you’re doing. Go anyway. It is important to simply show up. Don’t underestimate the act of being visible. (It was one of the hardest aspects of finishing my PhD for me. You really don’t want to be stuck at home finishing your PhD in a massive solo effort. Not only in terms of feeling isolated, but also in terms of dropping out of valuable professional networks (can actually be fun!), because of your absence.)

4. Your peers/ current colleagues

The people you associate with daily are automatically part of your network, for better of for worse! Interestingly, some of these relationships may not seem to matter or even exist in the moment, but they may become important many years down the road… In some academic settings co-authorship is highly encouraged and people do collaborate. In others not so much, but there may be other ways to discuss your work. This too may go well or not – personally I had mixed results. (It was great working with one colleague on a shared presentation of our work, lots of good ideas generated; but another plagiarised practically the entire methods section of a paper in progress…ouch) Overall I don’t believe in an overly defensive attitude to academic work – it takes all the joy out of it – but make sure you share the right information with the right people!

Building your academic network has a fast and a slow part. The fast part involves actively contacting people whose work you’re interested in and who might be interested in what you do. Preferably you’ll be introduced by a third party, but if that’s not possible you can always introduce yourself, which is very much okay as long as you don’t over-impose. Be sensitive: make sure what you ask of them is proportionate, and don’t waste their time. That said, if there is indeed an overlap of research interests, if they can help you, or you can help them, they mostly will, and enthusiastically so. Case to illustrate: I worked with someone over the first half of the year who hasn’t started a PhD yet, but does have a very good idea and written outline of what she would like to do (she didn’t think it was ‘good enough’ yet, but it was!). She must be the queen of academic networking: she by now has spoken to a whole list of people who are introducing her to their networks also, and are discussing and commenting on her PhD proposal and ideas. Last I’ve heard she hadn’t yet accepted a PhD position, but I won’t be surprised if she has multiple opportunities lined up. She is the best example of how quickly your academic network can form, and of not needing to have finished a PhD to ‘belong’. She belongs already, and she hasn’t even started.

The slow part is the network that forms without you doing anything much in particular, apart from being somewhat social. Your supervisor will be in it, as will your colleagues, friends, past mentors, and academics you meet along the way. It is these networks that are invaluable. This can’t be forced, really. Some people try and strategically align, and look at every meeting and person as a ‘networking opportunity’. I don’t believe the model of focusing on your own interests in this way is the best model… You don’t really want to be involved with the person who only contacts you when he needs something from you (I have someone specific in mind – he used to be a colleague of mine, and his attitude is insufferable. Oh, you got an email from him? What did he need from you this time??). Not the best approach.

Is your academic network taking shape? Any actions you could take to make new connections? If you need advice on how to approach your supervisor about it…sign up for the HappyPhD course. It covers how to get the most out of the supervision relationship. If you found this post useful, could you share it, or like it? I appreciate it!

‘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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Back to Basics: Relax to Achieve

Relaxation may be the missing link when it comes to your academic performance. I’m interested in this phenomenon: how we sometimes work against ourselves by trying too hard, pushing too much. By internalising a work culture that says working endless hours is the key to success. When everyone is working all the time, or at the very least seems to be working all the time, how to not worry you aren’t keeping up? We lean towards overwork to compensate and somehow make things better.

But does it work? (Answer: no)

Then how to undo this? What’s the alternative?

Sometimes the answers are simple. Excruciatingly simple, like making sure you work doing ‘work hours’ and do not work outside that designated time frame. I was reminded of the ‘simple’ way of fixing the overwhelm and feeling of not-ever-achieving-enough or doing-enough by an email from one of the course participants (quoted with permission). Apparently I teach this!

“I am still exercising, meditating and taking some time off to relax. I really think these three things are crucial. While I did already exercise and meditate before I did the HappyPhD course, I think I really learned the relaxation part. I can say that after the course, for the first time (in my life?) I really took “working hours” seriously and allowed myself to also do other things with joy. The result is: I work less than ever (still quite a lot though, it’s not necessary to go into extremes I figured) but I also achieve much more (more then ever when it comes to my PhD for sure). So thank you for the insight.”

Fascinating how such a simple change of schedule (and mindset: that can be the more challenging part) can have such positive results.

So, breaking it down. Bear with me for stating the obvious:

Work hours: they are the hours you get still and do your work. For most people this would be around 3-5 hours of concentrated work a day. This is enough to achieve a LOT. Maybe add a few hours later on in the day for less demanding work.

Relaxation: these are hours you do not work. I recommend more than you currently manage. Maybe hours a day more! This may sound tempting or terrifying depending on your disposition, but it will likely require a leap of faith if you’re used to working long, long hours.

Also pay attention to how you might help yourself switch from a focus on work, with your brain in a focused analytical mode, into a more free-flowing unworried relaxation state. It can be a challenge with academic work: the mind loves to go on and on, thinking about work, or worrying about it!

Meditation and Exercise: these are sublime tools in helping you transition from work to relaxation. Both help you regulate your physiology (brain) to help you disengage from work when you choose to do so. With exercise the switch is a direct, physical one, with stress hormones and neurotransmitters involved; with meditation you do the same in a subtler way by working with the mind, your thoughts, the breath and your intention. Both are brain training in their own right, and improve your mental faculties and stamina.

The outcome:

Better focus during work hours: you will certainly get more done. Your ideas are likely to be better also: the brain comes up with new insights in a relaxed state, that is, when you are not focusing on the problem you’re trying to solve. It is one of those neat little paradoxes. Best way to solve a problem? Think about it. Then NOT think about it.

Somehow committing to doing less and letting go can be more daunting a prospect than that of doing more, keeping pushing and achieving. The pushing for many of us protects us from feelings of not doing or being enough. It protects us from guilt. Yet it is exactly this mindset we need to overcome in order to get more done. Oh yes, and to feel better! Nearly forgot about that one! Let go a little. Take your eye off the ball for a bit, regularly. Truly helpful. Give it a try.

Are you pushing too hard? Working too much? Does the idea of working less scare you (though it secretly appeals?) Why not devise a very simple structure of work and non-work, and add in a little exercise and a little meditation every (other) day? (With the course to guide you if that appeals) So simple. As always, if you found this post useful could you share it? I appreciate it!

Your Best Shot at Staying in Academia: Tips from an Economist

2016-01-03 14.05.42I spent a good week in San Francisco earlier this year, travelling with my boyfriend who, with two colleagues, was to recruit some potential assistant professors for his department. My boyfriend is an economist. If you are not familiar with the academic job market in the economics field picture this: the job market is an actual physical market where demand and supply meet. In this case the venue was a suite in a swank hotel in the financial heart of San Francisco (picked by yours truly) where three young(ish) professors spent three long days interviewing job candidates. As was happening in hotels all across the city those particular days. Why San Francisco? Because one of the largest economics conferences was held concurrently, just a block down the road. So indeed people fly halfway round the world for a few sessions and a couple of interviews, and may be lucky enough to be selected for one or more ‘fly-outs’ to present a job market interview at interested universities.

The setting is bizarre (which I don’t necessarily object to), and it is also incredibly competitive (which is why the economics case is one to pay attention to, as I am seeing other disciplines moving in the same direction). In fact it is so competitive that I heard my boyfriend mutter something along the lines of: “I would not have stood a chance in the current job market. These CVs!” Back home he had more evaluating to do. This time for grants. Again, a similar sentiment: “I’m not so sure my chances would have been as great to get a VIDI grant if I had applied now, compared to ten years ago.” Ouch. The job market is changing. And however much we hate it (and I do believe most academics aren’t too keen on this development, collectively squeezed as they are) you have to somehow work taking into account the present conditions. That or leave, which is increasingly an option to take seriously, especially right after the PhD.

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I asked Bas (pictured on the right, waiting for well-deserved best-of-San-Francisco-ramen-noodles after a long day of interviews), as he now is part of the human machinery of academic hiring and judging what he would advise current PhDs and ECRs.

How to prepare if you want to stay in academia?

This is what I’ve distilled from our conversations on the topic:

1. Publications

No surprise here. Publications are a sine qua non. Make sure you have at least one single-authored paper in the mix, and go for quality over quantity. [AD: I remember a conversation with my late supervisor in Florence who was concerned by the CVs with lists and lists of multi-authored papers, often produced without much individual say. To him this heralded the end of the profession. Some of his colleagues rather disagreed, and urged their PhDs to collaborate and ‘pool resources’ so to speak, often including themselves in the mix, at times adding themselves as first author despite little intellectual investment in the work. Depends very much on the field…]

2. Push to the frontier

The PhD and ECR years are an investment to learn all there is to learn about your field, then push to the frontier of knowledge in your field. This is very much a marathon-like pursuit: training, training, training, putting the miles in, rather than having to do with genius or superior intellect. Many academics aren’t exquisitely bright. They do well because they chose their niche well and simply were consistent and kept at it. It doesn’t matter where you start exactly, just get going. Put yourself out there.

3. Beware of ‘lamp post academics’

Imagine I’ve dropped my wallet in a dark little alley at night. Now, where do academics tend to look for the wallet? Right, you’ve guessed it – on the main road where the lamp post is. At least there they can see what is going on! In other words: avoid doing data-driven research. It doesn’t answer any interesting questions. Sure, you may be able to get a publication out of it, and some people manage to build their entire careers on data-driven research, but it’s hardly satisfying and it doesn’t impress. Try to find the wallet in a place you may actually find it, even though it might take some stumbling around in the dark.

4. Develop your idea, make it researchable and convincing

If you’re trying to get a grant for a project there are three things you’ll need to demonstrate:
1. That you’re capable. That you can perform the research proposed.
2. That whatever you are proposing to do is important. You need an idea, and you need to show that that idea will contribute to one of the important debates in the field.
3. You need to convince the evaluation committee their money will be well spent.
Don’t underestimate the second and third part. They are what gives you a competitive edge. Many people are capable, only a sub-set have interesting ideas, and only a small sub-set manage to communicate successfully how exactly the project will be set up. Many academics are great at theorising, but get stuck in the clouds. Don’t be one of them. Tell us why your research is important, and be as specific as you can regarding the details of how research will be carried out, what exactly the grant money will achieve. Many researchers fail to do so. They overestimate the importance of skill and technique and method and get caught up in showing off how clever they are. The main idea and realisation of the project are the more important parts, and is what will make your proposal stand out.

5. Get to know your field

Go to seminars regularly, and contribute. Get to know people. Pay attention. To succeed in academia you need to get involved, to show up, to engage. How does the tribe work? What are the do’s? What are the don’ts? Read between the lines. What are the important debates? What triggers the main discussions? How do people ask questions and how are they answered? Observe and learn. Engaging is an investment in your human capital, and you cannot go without.

Academia is a verb

What I have learned from observing Bas carving out an academic career for himself over the past decade is that academia is very much about doing the work, about getting engaged, about putting yourself and your work out there. Academia is a network of people with ideas, and becoming part of this network is as important as the ideas themselves. Another thing I’ve noticed, and the reason I believe he is doing well is inner drive. Depending on workload and competitiveness in your field inner drive is what will allow and motivate you to continue on the academic trail. You need abundant inner resources to overcome the obstacles and hurdles that are par for the course. Without, academia can be a tough gig, and you may be better off somewhere else…

Which of the above advice speaks to you? Should you focus in on that next publication, rewrite that grant proposal, or spend some more time getting to know people in your field? The inner drive part is addressed in the HappyPhD course. It will give you tools to uncover it, and help you work with ‘effortless effort’. As always, if you like this post, could you share it? I appreciate it!

The Lonely Academic

“Engagement predicts wellbeing above and beyond anything else.” A quote from one of Emma Seppälä’s recent articles on work cultures and wellbeing. She is the science director of the Stanford Compassion Center, and if you’re interested in the science of happiness I highly suggest you follow her.

It doesn’t surprise me in the least and it supports what I have experienced myself, and what I now observe in others’ situations. Academia tends to be awfully bad when it comes to engagement. Truly, awfully bad. And I have come to the conclusion it’s one of the worst stressors for researchers, far worse than workload. Most of our problems are not about content, but about connection and feeling valued. And it collectively makes us feel proper miserable.

I thought I’d tell a personal tale to illustrate.

When I fell ill, in 2007, and had to temporarily drop out of the PhD programme (only took me 3,5 years of sick leave!) the experience was quite literally that: of dropping far and hard. And basically no one even taking notice. The fall itself is one thing to come to terms with, and it was hard. But the no one caring was the absolute hardest bit of all.

The Fall

The fall has a beginning, a middle, and an end.

The beginning was getting out of the programme. It was settled in a number of emails with my supervisor, the head of department and the grant organisation, and can be summed up as ‘formal’. There were no real problems (unless you count losing your only source of income as a problem), although the grant organisation was a bit fussy about the last month or two I hadn’t been able to work to that date: they wrote me I was ‘lucky I wouldn’t have to pay those two months of grant money back.’ Right. My supervisor and head of department approved my unpaid sick leave, and that was it. I had explained via email about my serious mystery illness. I was no longer in the same country, and even if I had been I was in no way in a position to meet anyone in person to discuss my situation. And that’s the way it stayed… Silent. There was an ‘all my best’ in an email, but that was about it. There were no ‘get well soons’ and there were no inquiries as to how I was doing a few weeks or months down the road. I realise sending cards or flowers is a bit much to ask from academics, but there certainly were none. There was nothing. Oh, yes, the only thing that did happen was that I had to cancel my attendance at a conference, and the panel chair got very cross with me for cancelling. Being sick was not a valid reason to cancel, obviously.

The middle years saw me applying for an extension of my sick leave every six months. They were granted and I was grateful for that. Nobody, including myself, still had any idea why I was so ill. What I found the most difficult to come to terms with, though, was that beyond those few formal emails apparently hardly anyone seemed to have even noticed my absence. I heard from no one. This wasn’t entirely unexpected as I was nearing the fourth year of my PhD programme, a time where people tended to flock to their home country to finish writing their PhD. So the colleagues who were still there probably assumed I had left like so many others, and the colleagues who had indeed already left, were not there to miss me! Maybe no one indeed even noticed at all, because it was a coming and going of people all the time anyway – the flighty life of international academia, and everyone was too focused on their own life, problems, research, career and next steps to register that I had gone missing. I did exchange one or two emails and phone calls with a few academic friends at the beginning, but these communications soon went silent, too. In formal terms the university still supported me. But that was all. Perhaps it is all you can expect, I reasoned. People are busy. And universities are not into hand-holding.

After three and a half years I decided that illness or no illness, I wanted to try and finish my PhD, even if I only had an hour a day to work on it because I was so unwell. I am not exaggerating, I wish I was. Communication with my supervisors had become strained, and I felt more than guilty for my underperformance, even though I knew that seen my circumstances what I was trying to do was rather a superhero pursuit. But I was doing it alone, and no one even had the faintest idea of my situation. Explaining did not seem to help either, it was just too far out to understand I suppose. Or maybe people were too busy to register. My main supervisor was getting impatient, and sent me some curt emails. I was lucky in the sense that my other supervisor, who was no longer at the university, thankfully stepped in to help me. She texted me to say she didn’t know what was going on [behind the scenes], but that those emails were not okay. She sorted it out with him, and I was on my way back into the PhD programme…

Fast forward to the moment I actually managed to finish my chapters. The end game. I sent my newest, latest work to my supervisor, and …crickets… Nothing. It took him more than three months, and a number of reminder emails, to read it and get back to me. He probably thought that if I was taking my time, he might as well do the same! Again that sinking feeling of not mattering, of being air. When I flew to Florence months later to discuss my work, he again had not read my new material. Too busy.  Plus some communication errors on my part which didn’t help. He did get back to me with comments after that though. He finally read my new stuff, though he was surprised to learn of my progress. He thought I had lots more work to do, until he actually took the time to look at what I had done. He was shocked to learn my PhD was nearly finished!Then, that summer, he died. A heart attack. It was a tragedy, though to be honest it didn’t even register as a huge shock, as I had become quite accustomed to worst case scenarios materialising into even worse! It felt like this was what life had become: bad, worse, worst! Can’t really expect anything to turn out well now, can you?!

My co-supervisor was in charge from then on, though she too did not quite manage. When I travelled to meet her in Brussels to discuss my final draft I could not help but get the impression that she had not read it. Skimmed over it, yes. Flicked through it, sure. Read it, properly? I doubt it. She had no comments. She said it was fine and ready for defence. I suspect that when I sent my manuscript to the jury no one had ever read my work in full. It felt like a shot in the dark. When one of the jury members then actually engaged with my work, sent me questions and comments, and had intelligent things to say I cried. He had taken the time to read it. He had taken the time to acknowledge I existed. It still near makes me tear up thinking of it. Someone had made an effort. Someone, somewhere, had noticed me, had read my work! Maybe I still mattered in some small way. Maybe I still belonged.

Along the way a few former colleagues showed up. Facebook friend requests or messages mostly. They too, brought me close to tears. From a perspective in which you have never experienced true and prolonged isolation this may sound excessive. But if you’ve been there you will know: it is easy to be forgotten when you can no longer participate. Out of sight, out of mind. And it is hard. It is so hard.

Reflections

I can’t help but get emotional recalling all this. My experience is rather at the extreme end of the spectrum. It shows how difficult long-distance PhD-writing is, especially when you are dealing with health or other obstacles. But more than a simple and singular tale of woe, I believe my experience shows how academia, at its worst, works. It is all based on loose networks, and much independence. This has its advantages, but it has costs associated with it that largely go unrecognised. I believe the highest cost is that of loneliness, the feeling of ‘being on your own’ and having to fend for yourself. For me it was in putting superhuman efforts in, seen my situation, and not having those efforts acknowledged (though later, much later, when I was in Florence for my defence, the secretary confided that my supervisor had always been very positive about me: “She is very smart, and I am sure she will finish!” He had always stuck up for me in meetings. Oh, if only I had know about even a fraction of that!). To be honest it was an absolute horror the way I was treated, and I wasn’t in a position to defend myself.

But in more subtle ways waiting and disappointment and plugging away by yourself, while not having your effort acknowledged is everywhere in academia. It is there by design, and by circumstance. It is in putting all the lonely hours in. And how many of them there are! It is in the wait when you have submitted an article, and then the rejection. It is in the negative review that shows the reviewer has not made the beginning of an effort to engage with your argument. It is in rejection itself and the feeling of not-mattering period. It is in all the bureaucratic rules and regulations. It is in the arbitrary counting of publications that goes along with getting tenure. It is in the unacknowledged email, because people are too overwhelmed by email to respond. It is in the self-absorption and busyness and absentmindedness of everybody. It is in the juggling a thousand things and projects at once when you are further on in your career. It is in the having to disappoint and being disappointed. It is in disconnection. I have come to believe this is a far greater stressor than deadlines or workload per se. It drains the spirit. Academia is built on criticism and delayed gratification, and for good reasons. But somehow the human architecture, the architecture that says we are social beings with social needs tends to be overlooked. Benign neglect may be benign, but it is still neglect. Some departments are better than others. I can say mine was about the worst.

Remedies

In terms of remedies, Seppälä’s work on positive work cultures gives important insights. She mentions caring for, being interested in, and maintaining responsibility for colleagues as friends. She mentions providing support for one another. She mentions avoiding blame games. She mentions inspiring others, and emphasising the meaningfulness of work that is being done. She mentions treating one another with respect, gratitude, trust and integrity.

Your department may not be quite there yet. But there are things you can do yourself: invest in your colleagues and your peer-network. Engagement matters, and that definitely includes going for cups of coffee. Build relationships. Meet up for lunches or seminars. Co-author. Get in touch and stay in touch. (Maybe even shoot that colleague who is on sick leave an email!) Show you care. I know, very uncynical, but do it. It matters. It also means to keep a keen eye on communication if you are in a long-distance situation. It’s imperative. Skype calls may work. People seeing your face is important. More in general, in the PhD phase: invest in communication with your supervisors on a regular basis. Connect, connect, connect, even if it is against the norm, or feels uncomfortable (no need to become a stalker, but hey, they are allowed to be reminded of your existence!) I wish I had done so more, instead of coping by myself because I didn’t want to impose or be a burden. If you are an early career researcher: invest in your network. Collaborate. Show up for others. If you supervise PhD students, or others: make communication a priority, even if your time is scarce. You get the idea. A little love goes a long way.

If you are feeling really lonely and isolated right now please realise you are not really alone, even if it feels that way. You never are. People do think of you. They do. And in more positive terms than you will likely assume. (Though sometimes they are temporarily being too busy/ too much of a jerk to realise. And if this is structurally the case you may want to think about leaving…) This too is a lesson I have learnt. You matter. You are special and you are worthy. It has nothing to do with outside appearances. And it certainly has nothing to do with how well you are performing or not-performing. When it comes down to it we are never really alone. There is lots of love, always. Sometimes unexpressed, and beneath the surface, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t there. Tap into it. There is a pool of love beyond the hurried email, beyond the rules and the requirements, beyond the surface of things, if we dare to believe in it. It is a very unacademic thing to do, but I highly recommend it.

How do you deal with the loneliness of academia? Any tips? Let me know! If you are in less that great dynamics with your supervisors, as I was, have a look at the HappyPhD course. It has an entire week on supervision. There are tools that can help. As always, if you enjoyed this post, could you share it? I appreciate it!