Feel like you’re underperforming? It’s not you! (It’s the system)

By |2020-02-28T11:49:57+00:00February 28th, 2020|Uncategorized|0 Comments

Sometimes I feel like a broken record when I am talking about writing a PhD: no matter what you may be struggling with, I am likely to reply: “It’s not you!” Most PhDs at some point or another think there must be something wrong with them (this once included myself), or with what they are doing, that otherwise they wouldn’t be struggling as much.

Academia is a challenging environment to perform and feel well in, most of the time. It can be a relief to realise that it is not some character flaw on your part that is causing you to feel like you may be stuck (or whatever other not so pleasant feelings you may be feeling): the odds are stacked against you in this environment. Once you realise how some of these mechanisms work it becomes easier to shrug your shoulders: it is not about you personally anymore. And at that point it also becomes easier to find ways of addressing your particular hurdle.

I received an email from a PhD who is taking my course, who mentioned it was so helpful to see it spelled out: to see exactly why academia may be making you feel stressed, overwhelmed and why you feel you might be underperforming: “My colleagues and I often tell ourselves it is not us and that it’s ’the system’, but it was really helpful to read in detail about why the academic set-up may be having such a negative effect on people.”

Oh academia, most confusing workplace of all, what do you do to us? Why and how do you make people feeling so stressed and miserable “doing what they love”?

In the course I tell a true story of how a number of promising economists selected by an elite US university — starting out bright-eyed, eager and ambitious, and ready to do “whatever it takes” — ended up underperforming to the point of it being a real challenge getting papers written at all, let alone published. The PhD finish line became increasingly out of reach. When I first heard the story it didn’t make sense…but it is a repeating theme I have seen (and experienced myself): very smart people starting to seriously struggle.

I won’t go into too much detail, as I want to keep things relatively short and snappy here, but I will say this: the current academic set-up is not designed to help you perform well (however you want to measure it…but that’s another story) or feel well. The human factor seems to be not factored in in the academic work process (rather a shame when you think of it!). Some of these features are intrinsic to writing a PhD/ doing academic work, but the stress factor has multiplied due to increased competition and wonky incentives in the system as a whole.

I started to understand this phenomenon when I started looking at it from a chronic stress perspective. In a nut-shell (summarising a whole field of study in three sentences), people get stressed when their efforts are not met with sufficient rewards. Additionally, people get stressed when they feel they are not in control of outcomes. Also: perfectionist tendencies (prerequisite for joining the academic tribe) intensify these stress levels. Being stressed out of your mind isn’t great for anyone.

Once you start counting the ways in which the ratio of effort and reward is skewed in academia, you will laugh or cry! Think of four years or more of work to finish a PhD. Think of how papers are received: the model is criticism (not always of the constructive kind). Think of how little mentoring and support there tends to be along the way, a trend intensified by the work pressure senior academics have to deal with. Think of the individualised culture. ‘Feeling valued’ is the best way to prevent stress and help people perform well, and academia isn’t that into it. (On the whole, structurally. Of course there are many wonderful people, supervisors, colleagues and so on who do support each other… I believe choosing the right supervisor and department is the absolute best advice anyone can give you when choosing to embark on a PhD.)

There will be more laughter and/or tears when you look at the control ratio. The PhD process is long and it isn’t linear, even though it is often conceptualised as such. By its very nature you are trying to do something new. It will not work out the way you thought it would (part of the process), and you will have to adapt along the way, repeatedly. There is nothing wrong with this: your research in all its twists and turns can be exciting, but stress and excitement are close cousins. Where I feel this goes wrong is once the process becomes arbitrary, and I would say that in the current set-up it has done so. In the hyper-competitive grant/ publication/ job market you have little control over outcomes.

The wonky control dynamic may also show up in a supervision context: your supervisor may not ‘get’ what you are trying to do, and give you unhelpful feedback (even though she or he is trying her best (or not…)). Being so dependent on one person isn’t a great model, stress-wise. Same as above: choosing the right supervisor goes a long way, but isn’t always feasible.

I could go on, but you get the idea… In sum: academia is a stressful environment. And although a burst of acute stress will help you finish that paper, chronic stress which we are talking about here is detrimental to academic performance and wellbeing. That’s what’s happening, and it’s why you may be feeling down or panicked or overwhelmed. It is both good and bad news. Good, because it’s not you (there is nothing wrong with you)! Bad, because it’s not you (you cannot fix the system as if by magic).

Once you know all of this it becomes possible to think out how you might address working in a less-than-ideal environment. You can find resources on this blog, in my free courses and, if you want to really dive in, in my online course. You can do this! First step, always remember: It is not you!

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