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!

‘The Essential Guide to Turning Your PhD into a Job’ – Reflections

Karen Kelsky, of ‘The Professor Is In’ has a book out, based on her years of advising PhDs. Preparing yourself (and the range of documents that represent you) for the job market is her niche. I once thought I’d regularly feature PhD book reviews on this site, that is until I actually read some PhD advice books. Many of them didn’t appeal. This one is an exception. If you are in academia, and want to stay there: get this book. If you want to quit academia: same. It is written from a U.S. Perspective with the U.S. (humanities) job market in mind, and although the job market and reward systems aren’t quite as bad in most (North-)European countries, much advice applies equally. What I appreciate most about Kelsky’s advice is that it’s frank. She discusses many of the unwritten and unspoken rules of the academic life and job hunt, and as an (now) outsider she can speak her mind, and believe me she does. She gives advice on everything from your publications to your CV to your language to your lipstick, and in the end she swears. To me, the swearing is worth the price of the book alone. (I wonder whether I should add this, but I acted the swearing bits out. Entertaining and liberating I can tell you).

The best advice of the book – and I add some of my own:

1. The Myth of ‘The Work of the Mind’ or: Face Reality

I was so impressed with the outraged swearing bits, and I think it’s best to start there, as I believe it goes straight to the heart of it. NOBODY IS TELLING THE GODDAMNED TRUTH – is what Kelsky exclaims on page 394. Her anger is aimed at the self-delusion of academics, who insist that academia is somehow different from the corporate sector, shielded from competitive pressures, even though it has become, in fact, a highly competitive and tightly squeezed and often unfair profession. The l’art pour l’art and meritocracy mentality in academia still prevails despite all evidence to the contrary: the unwritten rules of academia are that we should be ‘above’ the vulgar drudgery of practical matters such as money. The denial of the material is seen as admirable, as way of life that is, in itself a critique and a rejection of corporate and cultural forces. No, says Kelsky, who calls this the Work of the Mind myth: denying reality when it comes to money and career prospects does the exact opposite: it reinforces those structures, as they stay obscured. So better play the system than deny it.

I agree with her (though with some ambiguity, as a bit of an unworldly flower child myself, but then this is exactly Kelsky’s point), and have come to agree more with her over the years. I have personally experienced what it is like to hit a rough patch (debilitating illness) in academia, and in my situation, as I was on a performance-based grant system, it meant my income stopped from one day to the next. I won’t go into the details, but suffice to say that I know more about precarious living than I would like. It is no joke. Nothing against living dangerously for a bit, but there is an expiration date to the precarious lifestyle. And depending on the academic job market where you live and work, this may well be glossed over for the most part. Academics can often no longer afford to buy into the Work of the Mind myth, in the most literal sense. The system – in many academic job markets – is broken. And so are young academics’ bank accounts.

Taking this seriously, and taking seriously what you can do to improve your chances within the system, or how to improve your chances by leaving the system, is what Kelsky’s book is about. Professionalisation. Oh dirty word, and how we need it!

2. Be Strategic in Building Your CV

Where professionalisation starts is by knowing your job market and preparing for it. Yes, we’re talking building your CV, and being strategic. This goes against the myth of meritocracy in which the ‘best’ scholars will automatically be rewarded with jobs after their PhD. As we all know, with all the counting publications and ticking boxes that goes along with academia these days, this is no longer the case, and Kelsky hammers this point home. I will say this: the most successful PhDs are those who COMBINE high quality work (the work of the mind, and how well you all do it!), with a professional attitude towards presenting their work (this needs some work, probably). Call it being strategic, call it marketing or self-promotion. Call it whatever you want, but the fact is, although academics don’t like to talk about it: you should be doing it. It’s not about being calculating or taking action only instrumentally. It is about being professional. The book covers this in-depth, and it is highly valuable advice.

Some specific advice Kelsky gives here is with regard to getting published. She says waste no time on low-impact work such as edited volumes. I completely agree. Be strategic with your time and effort. Please. Much of this boils down to what is valued in your field, and it is important to figure this out. I’ll add to this by saying that not all academic markets are created equal. To give you a personal example: there is no hope in hell I would have gotten a position in the more quantitative-oriented field of political science after I finished my PhD, based on my non-existent publication record. That said, two scholars in slightly more sheltered fields, independently, urged me to apply for a position with their department/ institute. They said my work had potential and whenever they look for new recruits they value quality over quantity. My health got in the way, but the point here is this: try to find out more about your job market, and the job market in adjacent fields. Be prepared.

3. Be ‘not-Yourself’

Ooooh, I like this one, though there is a lot of room for semantic discussion here… Kelsky argues that being ‘yourself’ is just about the worst advice anyone could give a PhD about to embark on the job market. No, she says – you have got to be a marketable version of yourself. A professional version of yourself. Please, do all of us – and yourself in particular – a favour by not being yourself! To start the semantic discussion: who is more ‘yourself’: the person who shows their insecurities and too many of their personal hang-ups in professional situations (Kelsky’s definition of yourself) or the person who has a more mature and confident presentation, despite feeling the same insecurities (Kelsky’s definition of not-yourself)? To stop the semantic argument: it doesn’t matter what you call it, but bring your more professional self to the job interview! Much advice on this in the book.

(In case you’d like to know my stance on self versus non-self – just to you know, re-start the argument as even former academics do – the more confident person is the ‘truer you’ in my opinion. It is who we are without the nonsense we tell ourselves. And we, women especially, do a lot of making ourselves smaller than we are. I have written about this here. I believe this true, confident self is who should show up at the job interview. This isn’t a mask or a persona, even though something like a job interview is a performance no matter how you put it. But this confident self is who you really are. Your feeling insecure has nothing to do with it.)

4. It’s OK to Quit Academia

Finally, and I love this advice: It’s OK to quit academia. Kelsky gives you permission, and she is so very right. Academia is such an insular setting, and depending on your field, you may be brainwashed into thinking that although there may be life outside of academia, it isn’t worth much! This way of viewing the world is so arrogant I don’t even know where to start. Now of course, you realise I am writing this as someone who works as a coach (the horror), one who left academia, and one who reads self-help books. Can you fall any deeper one asks? Oh yes, you can: she sells (sells!) online courses via the Internet. That include words like productivity. What a life.

But in all seriousness: check your prejudices and those of your peers. A perceived loss of status can be hard on the ego, yet in the end, who cares. It helps to know, though, that leaving academia may hurt (or not), depending on how self-identified you are as an academic and how invested you are in seeing life in academia as the only way. Kelsky shares some personal stories about her transition to being a coach, which involve lying on the couch in the fetal position, and origami (not simultaneously). I truly commend her for including these personal stories, as they show how hard it can be to let go of what we thought was our life, while building a new one that may be, in fact, a much better fit. One that properly pays the bills to boot. As you would expect, she has a lot to say about that too.

You can buy Karen’s book here. It is very good. Do yourself a favour, and invest a few dollars in your future by buying it. Of course, as we’re selling, I have something to offer as well. It is the HappyPhD course. People say it is well worth the money. As always, if you liked this post, could you share it? I appreciate it!

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How to Ease Supervision Blues: Three Perspectives

Supervision: too often the stuff of headaches. In the current academic world where research output is valued above all else and academics are stretched and stretched, and sometimes overstretched to meet their multiple obligations, supervision too often becomes an afterthought. Add to that an academic culture in which PhD projects are increasingly squeezed into impossibly linear schedules – with the emphasis again on ‘measurable output’, while academics are not in any way trained on how to coach and supervise, somehow having to figure this out for themselves (and are definitely not all innately able!), accidents happen. No fatalities, mostly, but smooth rides are the exception.

Personal story: When I was writing my PhD supervision was one of my top frustrations, and more specifically the lack of time and effort that went into reading and commenting on my work. This got especially bad when I had to finish long-distance, and was no longer around in the flesh to bug my supervisors. It sometimes took them months to get back to me when I had submitted a chapter, and it was all quite disheartening to say the least. That didn’t stop my supervisor from encouraging me to ‘work hard’ in most every interaction we had, or to in some other way to allude to deadlines or other ‘sticks’ to make me ‘work harder’. In all honesty it drove me nuts, and made me feel insecure and undeserving and it is the exact embodiment and worst outcome of the incentive structure as described above.

If you are caught up in similar frustrating interactions the first thing I’d like to say is this:

It is not personal.
Believe me.
It is not.
It’s simply the outcome of an unfortunate set-up.

Advocating for yourself is too often necessary in supervision relationships, but you’ll be more equipped to do so if you can see that it’s ‘not about you’.
You’ll already be in a much stronger position.

Using the following three perspectives may also help improve the supervision situation.
An exercise. Take your time to do this.

1. What does your supervisor need?

Let’s start from the supervisor’s perspective. Put yourself in his/her shoes. Imagine the glamorous life. Imagine the piles of work, grant applications, emails, rejection letters, admin, departmental meetings, chapters to be edited, flights, conferences and so on and so forth to deal with. Oh, and don’t forget that paper they so want to write but cannot seem to get round to… From this perspective: what does your supervisor want and need in terms of your supervision relationship? Is there any way you could make his or her life easier?

A hint: what professors tend to want is for their supervisees to succeed. They do.
Another thing they want: minimum hassle!
Is there any way you could help the cause?

It starts small, reflecting on your communication: are you sending your papers in on time, showing up on time, not bothering them with things you could sort out on your own, communicating clearly and regularly (but not too regularly), and not being last-minute with requests? (Sorry for this. I am going all head-mistress on you… a bit more to come). If they ask you to do something, do you do it? Are you not hiding?
In short: are you acting professionally? Is there anything you could improve on here?

Put yourself in your supervisors shoes, and try to see with their eyes, hear with their ears.
How does your communication come across?
Are your visible? Reasonable?

What is the state of mind they write that single-sentence email in?
What is the state of their inbox?
See their point of view.

Advanced (optional extra) – Reflect on the role your supervisor would like to have: what are his/her strong points? Maybe it is mainly knowledge or content, and a traditional mentoring role. Perhaps they have an extensive academic network they would like to introduce you to. Are there conferences they are involved in they would like you participate in? Or there may be an opportunity to co-author work. Their style could be formal, or informal…what makes this person tick? Think about it: what would make THEM feel good about their role as supervisor? You know, the proverbial ‘win-win’? How could you both benefit?

If you are thinking: “My supervisor could not care less”, (and this may be the case, though most often it really isn’t, it’s just that they are a bit lost in the supervision thing as are you), imagine what the most hassle-free interaction would look like. Start there.

2. What does your work need?

On to the next bit. This question helps separate the personal from the professional, and it is brilliant at taking the sting out of otherwise painful situations. You may be familiar with them: those where egos clash. Put your work at the centre, and the egos matter a bit less. Clarity, thank god.

So, look at your work, as it stands now.

Get inside of it.

Imagine you are it.

What does it need to get better?
What are the next steps?
What does it need from your supervisor?
(As well as: What does it need from you? You can make a list of that too)
Do parts of your work need feedback? In what way?
If you envision your work as fully finished, which parts are still missing, and which part of that needs your supervisor’s input?
I like the idea of two academics – the junior and the senior – contributing to a joint cause: your work.
Your work is the only diva allowed: what does she need?
Any institutional hurdles you need your supervisor’s help with?

Once you find out: push for it.
Make it happen (err…politely of course).
This is your job.

The difficult thing about supervision relationships is that once burned once or twice it becomes tempting to hide. To disappear, as the echoes of criticism or past conversations still hurt. To disappear because no reaction seems to be forthcoming. To disappear, as your supervisor seems to be uninterested and unresponsive. It helps to remember it’s not about you. It very seldom is. (They’re probably simply crazy busy). The key here is to not make yourself inferior or insignificant (even if your supervisor makes you feel that way).

You are not inferior, and you and your work matter.

Real or perceived failure are SO part and parcel of academia. Communication gone wrong so is too. Unfortunately it does take some effort to not let it get to you. And sometimes you won’t manage.
Top strategy: Get excited about your work, and ask for feedback from there. It is the absolute best place to engage from.
Don’t limit yourself to your supervisor either. If he/ she cannot provide the feedback you need, maybe someone else can.

3. What do you need?

And finally…what do you need? Ask yourself what you personally need.

What would you like?
What do you need?

You cannot change your supervisor (oh, if only!), but there are always ways to improve your supervision relationship. Clear and specific goals and deadlines, jointly agreed on, may help for example (no more vague ‘work hards’!, no more waiting for months for feedback, one hopes). Regular supervision meetings and communication may help (makes everyone a bit more human, real and clued up). Speaking to them in person instead of relying on email may help. Clearing the air on something that is bothering you may help (diplomatically). Or letting go of some grievances in private (rant alert!) may help as well. Maybe you need more feedback, or less. Is there any way this could be discussed and arranged?

Take yourself seriously.
If you feel like you’re being dismissed, don’t add to that by dismissing yourself.

In addition to that: it is so important to take care of yourself. Self-care is no luxury in demanding circumstances, and academia can be pretty brutal. Are there ways to be gentler with yourself with regard to the situation? Are there ways to stop making yourself small, if that is what you are doing? Ways to let off steam if you are particularly pissed off? Ways to enjoy yourself more, brighten it all up a bit? To guilt on yourself less? What do you need?

Play around with these questions. In the answers, look for the intuitive hit or ‘aha’. Mostly you want the process to be effortless, not laboured. Works better that way!

How’s supervision going? Any insights to share from doing the exercise? Let me know in the comments! If you want to take it a step further: there is a whole week on supervision in the HappyPhD Course. Also, as always, if you found this post helpful, could you share it? I appreciate it!

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Never There, Never Good Enough: How to Escape the Academic Rat Race

Are you there yet?
Is the paper you want to write finished, are your deadlines met?
Your data crunched, your analyses lucid, your argument convincing?
Are you on top of things?
What about your publication record? How many top publications can we count?
Oh – is it too early to think about publications?
It is never too early to think about publications.
You need publications.
What about the rest of your cv? Are you ticking the boxes, doing enough?

Are you. Doing. Enough?

Academia, at its worst, is a machine that runs on numbers. In an attempt to quantify the unquantifyable, academic performance is reduced to publications and citations, to deadlines met and funding secured. And you’re supposed to tag along. That is, if you want to keep your position, keep moving forward and upwards. If not: out.

It becomes a state of mind: the pushing, the reaching, the grasping, the scrambling.
We have to Get There

‘There’ is a fiction. It’s always just past the horizon. We know so, of course. We know that when this paper or chapter is done there will be a next one to write. One deadline down, many more to go. It’s a merry-go-round, we know! Yet maybe we will feel more secure, even a little, with the next milestone reached… Life will be better, easier, less stressful with the deadline behind us, the achievement achieved.

That is how we think. That is how we work.
With our eyes on the prize – the next one. Always the next one.
Going a little crazy in the process.

It always surprises me how short the moments of triumph, of satisfaction, are. Even the grand prizes, the actual publications (which you will get, somewhere down the road), the promotions, and the grants awarded. They satisfy…for about five minutes. Then once more our eyes are on the future, hurtling forwards, feeling like we have not yet done enough.

As I write this, students in Amsterdam are occupying the Maagdenhuis to protest against what they call the neoliberalisation of higher education, their main focus on democratisation and ‘de-financialisation’. One of their demands is a shift from a quantitative, output-based financial model towards qualitative forms of evaluation. It is a rebellion against the status quo. Against the bureaucratic machine. Against all the counting.

I say we couple the rebellion against the system, with an internal rebellion. A rebellion against the mind-set of ‘never-there-never-good-enough’. The ‘never-enough’ mind-set the machine cultivates. The mind-set we believe in. Does it do us any good, the kicking ourselves ahead? Does it really make us productive, or does it simply make us stressed and unhappy? Would anything change if we stopped engaging with these thoughts that bring us down, that convince us we should be better than we are? What if we stopped entertaining them every chance we get?

I am not discounting the challenges of academic life. Unfortunately, some of the pressures are real. But it’s precisely because they are real that we need to use our energy towards doing our work, and living our lives. It is too easy to get caught up in worries, to let it sap all the joy. No more, I say. No more.

What if we challenge the assumption that the prize will be delivered…tomorrow…once we’ve worked hard enough…once we are deserving?

What if the prize has been delivered already…what if our work is exactly where it should be…and what if we are already there?

Because we are.

Set your goals, but then –
Trust in an unfolding.
Where you are, right now, is far enough.
It is the only place to be.
You are going to meet the deadline.
You are going to publish, and publish well.
Your PhD/ chapter/ paper will be finished and written and published and read. It will.
Dwell in that space, of being already there.
How wonderful it is, without the stress.
How wonderful to enjoy the process.
All you have to do is your work for today.
The one next step. It’s the only and most important step there is.
It is enough.

I try to actively cultivate an attitude of being ‘already there’, of taking the more desperate edge off. In fact it’s a whole different way of seeing things, of being. Being much more open to what is already there – it is sweet. (And it may even make you excited about the work you are doing.) Can you relate? Do you take the time to enjoy what is already there? Let me know! If you’d like to cultivate such a mind-set, have a look at the HappyPhD course. It will help you become more present, more content. As always, if you enjoyed this post, please share. I appreciate it!

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‘Feeling Insecure Is Part of the PhD Process’ & How to Minimise Feeling Insecure Obsession

Feeling insecure is part of the PhD process, but it’s not the part people tend to prefer to talk about. If you have ever tried asking your peers about how they feel about their PhD, and where it stands, you’ve probably encountered one of three responses: 1. an over-exuberant exclamation of how well everything is going and how fascinating their research is (if American – and they may well be American if this is their response type – add to that that they went to the gym at 6 am this morning, before their massively productive research sessions, which all happened when you were mostly busy hitting the snooze button) 2. deathly silence. 3. head banging against the wall: “Don’t ask me about my PhD!”

What I have come to realise is that these responses share a theme: feeling insecure is most always masked, and you will be surprised at what these various masks may hide. It is never what you think!

Don’t be tricked into thinking that you are the only one who feels insecure about your work. You are not. Everybody feels insecure. Sure, some people feel more insecure than others, and the intensity of this dreaded feeling may fluctuate depending on where your project stands, but take this to heart:

Everybody feels the question marks.

Everybody.

It is part of the PhD process.

The PhD combines two challenging pursuits: that of becoming an academic, and learning the tricks of the professional trade; and that of attempting to add an ounce of original knowledge to existing scholarship. To achieve the latter, you have to be proficient at the former. Which takes time, yet in your PhD time schedule the two are conflated. So from the start you feel you should be ‘already there’. Except you’re not. And except it isn’t clear where ‘there’ is exactly. How to know when you have arrived? Becoming a scholar isn’t a linear process, nor a fixed destination.

And that is not even taking into account the insecurity-producing nature of creative work, in general. How to trust that something good will come out of your efforts? How to know whether your work will measure up? Related, and worse: how to know whether YOU measure up? Because it’s you, ultimately who has to produce this thing called a PhD. Isn’t it?

Once you start doubting not only your work, but also yourself, you enter dangerous territory. Best keep out, if you want to keep your limbs and preserve your sanity.

So, what to do instead?

First, and foremost, I repeat: know that feeling insecure goes with the territory of writing a PhD. Not feeling insecure is the exception, and in my experience so far, and I have asked many people (in private, and preferably after the PhD had been completed), feeling insecure is the norm. So far I have encountered one person (one!) who honestly could not relate whatsoever to the shaky feeling working on a PhD produces at times. Statistically he is an outlier, or if you want: he is the exception that proves the rule.

Don’t be fooled by people’s apparent confidence, and this is especially true in more competitive environments. I still find myself taken by surprise sometimes, when people tell me about their insecurities, and I really shouldn’t be, as it has been one of the more common topics I talk about and help people with!

Just last week a PhD candidate made an offhand comment during a coaching session on how the section on feeling insecure in the HappyPhD Course had helped her. For a second I was surprised, as in the coaching calls we had focused mainly on the more practical side of things: the workday, productivity, etc. She never mentioned feeling insecure, and she certainly didn’t make an insecure impression. Quite the opposite. Oh, but of course! Fooled by the mask situation: the inner and the outer, never the same. And momentarily forgotten about the to-some-degree-anxiety-producing nature of the PhD, which is universal. ‘I have become more relaxed about it,’ she told me. ‘Just knowing that it is normal has taken the pressure off.’

That’s the first tip: If you are feeling worried and insecure about your PhD, don’t worry. So is everybody else. It’s normal and only to be expected. It’s nothing that needs ‘fixing’. (Note: If you are not feeling even a hint of insecurity, you may be an extra-terrestrial. Or have megalomaniac tendencies. Just so you know.)

The second tip is to make sure you create a firm boundary between yourself and your work, when thinking about it. Reduce your worries to ‘how can I best perform this piece of research/ find the answer to this question/ run this analysis/ improve my methodology’, instead of obsessing about ‘can I do this/ what if I’m not capable/ Oh my god this is never going to work out/ I am probably not cut out for this/I am a failure/ my PhD is doomed’. You are capable. Give yourself the benefit of the doubt here, and focus on the factual work that you can improve on instead (PS You don’t need improving on. You are already pretty magnificent.)

The same goes for worrying about how your work will be received. It’s only natural to do so to a certain extent, but for the love of mercy try to stick to the factual, and keep away from the more existential questions. The fact you were selected to do a PhD means you are most likely capable of producing one, so try and keep your obsessing over your capability and worth to a minimum. Keep narrowing your questions down to answerable, figure-out-able or at the very minimum non-personal concerns.

Naturally, it may be possible that persistent fierce insecurity points towards a larger question: that of whether you want to be writing a PhD in the first place. If the answer to that question is: ‘yes, I want to be writing a PhD’, the remaining existential concerns are often not much more than smoke, distraction and illusion. Leave them be. (If the answer is no or undecided, read: should I quit my PhD?)

Oh, and a final tip: Don’t ask people how they are getting on with their PhD when you bump into them in the hallway. There is no such thing as an innocent question in the hallway! And if you really want to know, all you have to do to never know the answer is to ask questions in the hallway! (Well, you might catch a person off-guard, and they may blurt things they didn’t intend to share, but they may not talk to you ever again!) If you must, try again in a more intimate setting. The answer will likely be more satisfying.

Do you ever feel insecure about your PhD (if I may ask)? If so, thank goodness, you are normal. Well, that is, as normal as you are comfortable being. Tell me all about it in the comments. Oh, and if you liked this post, could you share it? As always, I appreciate it!

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Why Academic Kindness Matters

Last week I came across two articles commenting on academic wellbeing. The first was a piece on how feeling supported, encouraged and engaged at college affected levels of engagement and wellbeing at work, afterwards, based on a study by Gallup-Purdue; the second was a piece in the Guardian on how the stressors of academic life had impacted academics struggling with mental health problems. The commonality? The research underlying both articles show that feeling valued matters.

The topic interests me as it touches on one of the core concepts that I teach, both in my online course, and when I teach seminars. It is that (academic) wellbeing is not simply the function of the demands placed on an individual, and how he or she copes; but as the function of the demands and the rewards in place. In terms of rewards, the most important tends to be ‘feeling valued’. In short: when we feel our efforts aren’t rewarded and our work and presence isn’t valued or even noticed we become stressed out, and our performance suffers. However, if we do feel supported and rewarded we are much more likely to rise to the challenge of whatever is thrown at us. We become resilient. (If you’re interested in the literature on this start with Siegrist (1996))

You might balk at the psycho-babble and the pseudo-science that, let’s be honest, often goes with managerial talk of ‘optimal performance’. But if you look at the data, and, into your heart, you will find some truth in this reciprocal model. In the Guardian survey, it’s true that ‘heavy workload’ comes out on top as major stressor (mentioned by 51% of respondents), but the two runners-up are ‘lack of support (44%)’ and ‘isolation (43%)’. These issues are major, and I believe they deserve more attention than they currently do. Academics are human. Easy to forget at times.

Click for the findings in full of the Guardian’s mental health survey

But so are students. The study by Gallup which looks at links between college experience and being engaged at work and experiencing high well-being afterwards, suggests that student interaction with engaged and encouraging professors is key (just skipping over the issue of direction of causality here – let’s assume that professors indeed encourage students to develop their thinking, and themselves, leading to higher job and life satisfaction later, not that more engaged people in general are more likely to find mentors who inspired them). Professors who ‘made me excited about learning,’ ‘cared about me as a person,’ or ‘encouraged my hopes and dreams’ are important figures in a person’s life.

Screenshot 2014-05-19 14.21.28

Click for the full Gallup – Purdue Index report

I know that for me personally, this has been very true, and I can find many examples that illustrate the links between feeling valued and challenged, and performance. When I was a student I was very lucky to have mentors, who helped me shape not only my thinking, but also my attitude. I have talked about Gordon Smith, my tutor at the LSE, before (I never stop when I start talking about Gordon!), but he really was fantastic. He was terrifying enough to frighten me into engaging in seminars – he barked at me during our first meeting: ‘I expect you to come to my office weekly, and report on your contribution to the academic debate at the LSE. If you decide to keep your mouth shut in class, I will get very angry.’ So yes, he ‘encouraged’ me. He was also offensive enough to make me cross, which resulted in some very sharply written essays he was more than pleased with, and when he was done offending me, there would always be an unexpected compliment thrown in, which would mostly be suitably politically incorrect, and would flatter and entertain me immensely. When I was worried about failing my exams he would exclaim things like: ‘Amber, I don’t worry about you, and neither should you!’ Thank you, Gordon. Other mentors (Stefan Collignon comes to mind) have been tremendously important in shaping how I think about the world (he also encouraged me to ‘develop my originality’. Immensely grateful for that), or simply by being absolutely terrific at what they do and showing me a new way to think, period (Simon Hix).

On the other side of the uplifting experience of having a mentor who challenges and supports you, there are the anti-mentors who put you down. The difference can be down to personality – I know some of Gordon’s students did not appreciate his style, and I remember comforting a crying friend whom he had told to ‘stop floating around, or get married and have children.’ (I told you he was politically incorrect! I appreciated it, but I can see why others wouldn’t). But style aside, some things should never be said, to anyone. Too many people have told me of PhD supervisors telling them they were too stupid to be in academia. Personally, I have been told in a seminar setting by my supervisor at the time, that he ‘doubted I was capable of producing a single coherent rational argument’. It would have been funny, if it wouldn’t have been for the anger and disdain behind the words. For some time, I almost believed him, and it affected me. I knew my work was in a bit of a chaotic phase, which is probably the understatement of the century, but I also knew I was at least somewhat capable. I started doubting that. I have heard from others who have had to endure much, much worse from the same person. PhDs should not be torturous never-ending projects, but they became exactly that in the absence of decent supervision.

The bottom line is that, in academia, maybe even more so than in other work environments, the quality of social interaction in general, and of supervision relationships in particular, can make or break you. So how go about creating an academic environment that is challenging, encouraging and supportive? An environment that truly supports the academics working there, and the students they teach?

I’ll give it a shot. To start it’s important to be aware of how the way academia and academic work are set up may impact our wellbeing, and how we can devise strategies to best cope with these pressures. Such strategies range from the very practical, such as setting up our workday in a way that allows us to do your work most efficiently, to the profoundly spiritual, in the sense that work becomes almost effortless when we are more connected to why we do it in the first place. These are strategies at the individual level, but their effects will spill over into the organisation we work in as a whole. I also believe it is important we are sometimes reminded of how valuable we are, and can be (and in some cases could be), to others. That we affect others, positively or negatively. That we matter. I believe it makes a difference.

This is touchy-feely territory which is incredibly challenging to approach in any organisation, let alone in the cerebral, insular world of academia. Which self-respecting academic doesn’t roll their eyes at ‘motivational’ or ‘team-building’ activities? I know I do. How many hollow phrases and pointless activities can we endure in one lifetime anyway? Trying to picture someone like Gordon, the ultimate difficult academic, in ‘motivational’ activities, is enough to cause a laughing fit. I sometimes wonder whether these things can be orchestrated, at all. At the same time, of course, I am someone who goes to universities to speak about these topics, and from what I’ve heard people leave inspired (So please, yes: hire me. Warning: surges in productivity, wellbeing and self-reflection will ensue). I have found my audiences to be more open and receptive to what I have to say than I had expected. Which, in turn, may not be surprising seen the fact that academics struggle with exactly these issues, as articles such as the Guardian article quoted above underline. *facepalm*

Screenshot 2014-05-19 18.56.45

Mostly, I believe in an inside-out approach. It’s why I like Twitter initiatives such as #ScholarSunday and @AcademicKindness so much. Simply academics showing a bit of appreciation and sharing small, important, moments of kindness. This whole business of feeling valued, and creating a supportive environment, is about being genuine. So, keep your sarcasm, keep your wit. Be difficult, if you are. But be kind. It’s appreciated. And it matters.

Siegrist, J. (1996). Adverse health effects of high-effort/low-reward conditions. Journal of occupational health psychology, 1(1), 27.

Stress, Underperformance and Mental Health: Why Academia Needs a New Paradigm

Since last week the Twittersphere has been full of talk about the ‘culture of acceptance’ of mental health issues in academia, in response to this article in the Guardian. I have been talking to academics about these issues and their experiences for the past couple of years – most specifically with regard to stress, and how it affects their lives – and what strikes me most is not only how normalised being overly stressed is, but how non-existent a constructive dialogue on stress, mental health, and wellbeing. The fear of ‘showing weakness’ is deeply engrained, and so people choose to express nothing at all. Even academics who are sympathetic to the cause, such as those who contact me and ask me to give a talk, remain mostly silent.

Clearly, something has to change.

Academia needs a new paradigm to think and talk about productivity, stress and (mental) health.

Let’s start with two basic ideas:

1. In academia stress is an institutional characteristic, and should not be taken as an indication of personal failure.

Academia is an inherently stressful work environment. This is true not primarily for reasons of workload as is often suggested (especially in the early years. It gets worse as your academic career progresses), but because of the nature of the job, and the way the system is set up. Most importantly, there is a structural imbalance between effort exerted and rewards received: the rewards for academic work are always delayed, in the sense that hard work put in may only pay off in terms of public acknowledgement (praise, publications) weeks, months or years after sitting at your computer crunching those data or composing that first draft of a paper. In between lies a tough road of criticism, failure, and – if you’re unlucky enough to not know these things come with the territory, and still unsure whether recognition will occur ever, at all – self-doubt. Couple that with competitive pressures and an increasing emphasis on ‘measurable results’, and stress is a given. To repeat: It is not workload that makes you stressed – it is a lack of balance between immediate effort and reward. If rewards are in place people can do the most amazing things. If they are lacking, people crumble. ‘Feeling valued’ may be the most important reward of all. It’s a psychological foundation of wellbeing which is often completely overlooked in academia today.

2. Stress is the single most detrimental factor when it comes to academic performance. It should be dealt with as such, and not as some sort of masochistic test of personal toughness.

There is a big difference between short-term stress, and long-term stress. Short-term stress helps you focus, meet that deadline, write that paper, and do it in a fraction of the time you would normally spend accomplishing the same. It can be exciting and exhilarating. Unfortunately, the same hormones that drive short-term performance in stressful circumstances harm the brain and lower academic performance if their levels remain elevated. This is no joke. The impact is real and harmful. At some point you may no longer function like you did previously, and think it is ‘just you’. It’s not. It’s the result of chronic stress. An understanding of how stress and academic performance are linked is needed, as are strategies to break this vicious cycle. Pushing harder is the absolute stupidest thing you can do in such a situation. Instead, you need to break the stress cycle, to allow your brain to recover and refresh. In the Guardian article a supervisor was quoted as having said that it “was normal to work to the point of illness during the early stages of an academic career.” (Actually, it wasn’t in the Guardian article – it was elsewhere. Argh. Can’t find the piece now. Please forgive the missing reference). That equals saying it’s OK to work to the point of brain injury. Let’s not do that. There must be a clear demarcation between short-term goals that may require a challenging all-consuming sprint, and long-term goals that require a strategy of effort and recovery. That does not mean your work output can’t be high. But you’ve got to work smart, not push to the point of destruction.

If even only these two basic ideas would be better known and understood in academia, pointless suffering would be reduced, and publication records would increase in the process. The machismo of ‘working till you drop’ and ‘being tough’ is old-school and misguided. It needs to be replaced with a paradigm of ‘working smart’ and ‘being in touch’. ‘Working smart’ meaning: working with your physiology, not against it. ‘Being in touch’ meaning: being more aware of how ‘in shape’ we are in terms of mental clarity, tenacity and general productivity, and improving our form by working strategically. It also means being more connected with our colleagues, and fostering a supportive environment. Negligence, and the feeling of not mattering – absolutely endemic in the world of doing a PhD, in particular – are poisonous substances personally and professionally. Academia needs a culture that is supportive of academic performance. Competition alone is not enough. Academic competition and academic kindness are needed to be resilient and perform your best.