When Pianos Fall from the Sky: How to Deal with Illness and Other Life Disasters while Writing a PhD

Many of the struggles of PhD life pertain to invisible, imaginary pianos that might fall from the sky: feeling like you’re behind, writing struggles, fear of criticism, of not meeting a deadline…the list goes on. Most pianos don’t fall. And if they do, you find out they are quite innocent cute little pianos you are well equipped to handle, after all.

Sometimes we are not so lucky, and a real whopping big piano drops right on top of us. (That’s some of us. Count your lucky stars if you cannot relate!) These type of pianos tend to drop so fast there’s no fear involved. That’s the irony, or it seems to be. The truly awful stuff: it just happens. And then you have to deal and cope, whether you like it or not.

A while ago a PhD candidate got in touch with me. He had to suddenly deal with a disability: an illness for which he was effectively treated, but the treatment had had side-effects. Side-effects that directly, and likely permanently affect his mental energy, sometimes his mental clarity. On the outside no-one seems to notice. He looks the same. But he can no longer perform the way he did before. What to do now? How to finish his PhD? How to communicate about his situation?

The tragedy of dealing with massive pianos, especially if they are invisible ones, is the loneliness. You drop out of the mainstream, your experience no longer shared. There are no guidelines, there is no handbook. It’s just you and the piano. And the question of how to get it to shift an inch, so you can get it to hurt a bit less, and work with it or around it, and somehow get on with your life.

Universities often offer little support. You may have to deal with additional complications: sometimes systems are so rigid they do not allow for pianos at all! Great. Just what you need.

So, how to cope? How to deal? Can it be done elegantly?

I have quite a bit of experience with massive pianos and how to deal – if you’ve been reading for a while you know I finished my PhD while struggling with an illness that left me with very little energy and more worries and issues than I want to even think about!! In the process I learned quite a bit about being effective despite circumstances.

A tip of the iceberg:

1. Love your boundaries

If I could say only one thing, it would be this: love and respect your boundaries as much as you can. A piano, whether an illness or something else, will force you to re-examine what you can and cannot do. It is incredibly hard to come to terms with the constraints imposed. You did not choose this, you do not want it, yet it is there. Acknowledge the piano. Dare look at the reality of the situation. Dare find out what the new situation means. I say dare, because it takes courage. If you are clear half the battle is won. Boundaries keep you safe, and provide possibility. They show you what is possible, right here, right now. Find out what might be possible, find out how you could work within your new boundaries. Don’t fight them, even though it’s tempting, I know.

2. With courage comes heart

Appreciate yourself for all that you are, do, and deal with. It’s pretty incredible! And it is enough, even if you can’t do what you used to do, for now. A sense of self-appreciation is your most valuable ally in the midst of your world falling apart (hopefully not completely!). Not only will it help you muster the strength to go on with your life, in pieces or not, it will significantly affect how others treat you. If you respect yourself, others are more likely to respect you and your circumstances (and if they don’t, it’s not as much of a problem). You set the tone by how you approach yourself. I suggest you do so with fierce appreciation.

3. Communicate your needs

Asking for help is the most difficult thing in the world! If you are anything like me you want to be independent, self-reliant and eh…capable, without extra provisions or extra care. No special treatment please! Yet asking for help, asking for support becomes vital once you have serious life-changing stuff going on.

Work-wise: if your situation is preventing you from working at a pace you were used to and is expected of you, temporarily or permanently, let your supervisor/ anyone else involved know. You don’t have to go into great detail about your circumstances, but you must, MUST, communicate about your new situation as it pertains to what you can and can no longer do. You may have the tendency to underplay the huge changes in your life. You may want to deny the piano. In fact, you may succeed for a while, as most pianos are invisible to other people, including supervisors! That is until they can no longer be denied, which at that point will be certain to cause you a great deal of extra stress and grief. Not good.

It’s a much better idea to be as pragmatic as you can in dealing with your situation. Stick up for yourself. It’s important. Depending on your circumstances make strategic decisions as to how much information to share at work, and whether/ who/ how to ask for help. Some environments are friendlier than others, and some people have people skills while others do not! But regardless, and I want to emphasize this: let others help if they can. People (supervisors are people) are often more than willing to do so. They may even help bend some rules. Ask yourself what you need first. Be specific. Then ask. You deserve all the help you can get.

From my personal experience: when I was finishing my PhD I had to do so in a PhD environment where there were NO arrangements for disability (Ouch, how I hate that word!). The only option was to take unpaid sick leave, and they didn’t seem to be too generous with that either. Yet I needed time, and lots of it. Every six months, for the three years that I did not work at all, I applied for an extension, and I ended up being the person with the longest sick leave in the history of the Institute! This wasn’t without stress, and to be honest in the end I thought they would drop me. They didn’t. Now I know my supervisor did quite a bit of lobbying on my behalf behind the scenes, even though he too was getting impatient. I believe he/ they would have given up on me if I had not communicated about my circumstances, as painful as it was. These situations can make you feel as if you’re battling a machine. I am glad I kept making my case, best as I could, and kept asking for what I needed (more time) without being apologetic about it. It paid off.

4. Don’t underestimate yourself

There is a silver lining to massive pianos: the imaginary pianos start to matter less. These aren’t words of comfort really: I am sure we would all rather deal with imaginary pianos than real ones! But it’s true: crisis can create momentum. There is no time to obsess over writer’s block etc. when you have real problems going on. The sky has already fallen, so no need to obsess about it happening! Might as well skip writer’s block altogether and get to work! When fear starts to matter less, when the PhD becomes less important in the scheme of things: that is when the pace picks up. In addition, constraints can force us to become more effective in the way we work. It is quite remarkable what we are capable of when we have to, when we are forced to do more with less energy/ less time at our disposal. If we used to specialize in making life difficult for ourselves, we no longer do. There is a real piano to deal with now – it is enough.

If you are dealing with a piano right now – an illness, a disability, death in the family maybe – just know I am rooting for you. May the tide turn soon, may you feel better, may all be easier for you in the not-too-distant future. In the meantime, hang tight. You can do this. You will get through it. You will find a way. You will.

If you have questions for me about this topic, please don’t hesitate to get in touch. Talk to me. Leave a comment below, or send me a message or tweet. As always, if you enjoyed this post, please share it. 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.