by Nadine Muller, Senior Lecturer in English Literature and Cultural History, Liverpool John Moores University
(This post first appeared on Nadine Muller’s blog on October 2, 2012.)
We all worry. Some occasionally, some more often than others, some rarely. Being a worrier, or an anxious person, is not necessarily a problem. It becomes an issue, however, when you find yourself unable to switch off, feel content, or focus; when your head is permanently filled not only with thoughts but with worries about what you need to do next and what you have (not yet) done, and what the consequences of this are. From the moment you wake up to the second you fall asleep, your head spins with daunting fragments of task lists, personal worries, and the imagining of bad things that have not happened, and are not likely to. The result of this state of mind can vary between at least two behaviors; some people experience both in turn, some only encounter one throughout their lives.
The first is a sort of hyperactivity, or mania. There is no task list, no breakfast, perhaps not even time for a shower. The next best computer is still switched on from a late night, or rather an early morning, of work and is the first object on which your focus turns (next to, perhaps, the kettle or the coffee machine). Things get done in no particular order. Anything and everything you can think of is approached with the same tense energy and urgency, from emails to rushed writing jobs. The physical manifestations of this manic state are a pounding heart, a permanent frown, constantly tense shoulders, and an inability to sleep (or rather to sleep peacefully and sufficiently). You are irritable (to say the very least), become angry and frustrated with others who do not do as you would do, or not at the pace at which you would like them to do it. Most of the time this is not their fault. Lessons learned from this state of mind: never, never respond to or write an email during this period without waiting at least half a day, especially if the email concerns some sort of dispute or touches on anything about which you do not feel entirely positive. The good side: it can make you look pretty efficient, and your task list certainly becomes (temporarily) a lot smaller.
The second possible outcome of an anxious mind, and the state with which hyperactivity can sometimes alternate, is complete exhaustion and detachment, both mentally and physically, bordering very often on depression. You don’t get up. Often you feel you cannot get up because you’re unbearably tired, both in body and mind. If you do get up, it tends to result in a distracted stare at your computer screen or out of the window. It’s difficult – perhaps, at the time, impossible – to snap out of that distractedness, that emptiness, that tiredness, and distance. You think about everything and nothing, though in quite a lot of depth, but it seems as though you’re not part of the world. Instead, you stare at it in disappointment, deeply involved only in its worst aspects. You live, more than you usually do, entirely in your own mind. The positives of this state are difficult to identify. Sleeping, no matter for how long, brings nothing but more tiredness; your task list does not become shorter; you’re unable to engage with anyone in a genuine or meaningful way, simply because they cannot match or follow your thoughts.
The sometimes punishing and multiple pressures and schedules of academia can foster these behavioral patterns, at least for those of us who are prone to them. It can also lead to or – perhaps more often – stem from a lack of confidence, and a lack of belief in your abilities or the worth of your work. Unfortunately, the current job market (not just, but particularly) in academia also encourages unhealthy work patterns and attitudes. While working on your thesis, you are trying to meet the various other requirements you spot in the person specifications of the academic job adverts you dare cast your eye on. Conscious that you should be publishing, teaching, giving papers, organizing events, and trying to capture external grants, the question arises how you will produce a passable doctoral thesis next to the workload associated with all these various activities which *may* (or, for that matter, may not) secure you an academic job after your Ph.D. If you are self-funded and a part-time student, with a job on the side that pays for your fees or a family to care for next to doing your research, this question becomes, on all accounts, ridiculous. Of course, there are voices that promise you that you merely need to show the “promise” of being able to do all these things, but how will you even make the shortlist if there are Ph.D. graduates out there who have all this and more already on their CV, not least because they have been on the job market for a year at least? The task seems impossible, quite frankly, and even more so if your funding (if you have it) ends once you submit your thesis, and you have no family support to fall back on; only one or more hourly-paid teaching contracts or a job that gives you little towards your academic CV. The pressure is incredible, and there is not a day you don’t remind yourself of it. (Yet, it’s not impossible, and I and many others are living proof of this.)
All you can do is try your very best and hope for the best, which often isn’t a very comforting mantra to fall back on. Instead, you work yourself into the ground, internalize the negativity and the ruthless critique of your work on a personal level, and your self-worth only witnesses occasional peaks when students leave you lovely feedback for your seminars, or when your supervisor tells you your latest chapter draft was excellent. But even in those moments there is that doubt: does your supervisor mean “excellent” when they say it? Are they too close to your work to see all those “obvious” flaws? Are they just trying to be nice because they can see that your confidence is seriously failing you? Perhaps the students pity you, or they can’t spot the last-minute, flawed prep you did in the last two weeks. These thoughts feed your anxiety. They feed your physical and emotional lack of wellbeing.
You tell yourself that things will be different once you have that holy grail, that first permanent academic job, when you can relax on a decent salary, traveling to only one place of work, being an integral part of your department and a permanent good colleague. But if you internalize the behavioral patterns described above now, during your Ph.D., they won’t ever go away. Not on their own, not without you recognizing that you are the one who maintains them, feeds them. You will continue to feel insecure, you’ll feel unfairly threatened by colleagues, you will beat yourself up because not everyone in your department likes you, because you can’t please everyone, because you do everything wrong, always. While academia can be challenging and punishing in itself, don’t underestimate the effect your Ph.D. studies can have on you. Depending on your subject, spending three years on your own and largely in your head is bound to throw up the good, the bad, and the ugly, especially if you have struggled with mental health issues before.
Academia can be a tough environment. The current neo-liberal structures that dictate its activities and processes make it more competitive, less friendly, and often isolating. As difficult as it may seem, you must not give into the thoughts and behaviors these structures breed, or you will never be happy with who you are, or with what you do. There comes a point – hopefully sooner rather than later, perhaps when you’ve finished reading this post – that you must change your thinking about yourself and your work. The sooner you learn to be happy with yourself – your flaws, your quirks, your strengths – the sooner you will become the researcher that you’ve always aspired to be but have always felt like you may never become. If you don’t change the way you think, you won’t be able to enjoy that first job, that first salary, that sense of being part of a department for longer than a semester, because all you’ll do is just carry on what you’ve always done, and it will make you unhealthy on so many levels.
If you feel you need professional, medical help because of your depression or anxiety, then seek it. I don’t advocate medication for these issues, but when you are in a truly difficult, bad place, they can sometimes give short-term relief while you’re getting ready to see your problems constructively and honestly. You needn’t suffer your challenges on your own, either. There are colleagues and fellow Ph.D. students who will be happy to provide honest, open dialogue about the problems we all face – some of us more severely and more often than others. Constructive action instead of pathologization seems, to me, the way forward. No matter if you give your state(s) of mind medical name or not matters little, at least to me. Medical labels can be unhelpful, or they can help you rationalize your issues.
What’s disturbing is that it’s so easy, for those of us who are prone to worrying and to being anxious (especially those on an academic pathway), to remain entirely ignorant of just how much we internalize, accept, and indeed comprehend as ‘normal’ the state of stress and anxiety under which we (are conditioned and force ourselves to) operate on a day-to-day basis for extensive periods of time, from weeks through to years. Of course some, or even many, of you may say that all this is (easily) controllable, or that I dramatize perfectly normal periods of academic stress. However, it’s exactly the thought that this is ‘part of the job’, or even the idea that the ‘really capable’ ones do not encounter these issues, which I find frightening, and which, I suppose, I ask you reconsider. Our work means a lot to us, but the world didn’t end when I last said “no” to an opportunity, or when I decided to finish a task tomorrow and give myself an evening off for once. Most importantly, it’s only when you are happy with yourself that you can teach others to do the same, that you can help change the structures that encourage us to feel inferior, and that you can be at your best, as a researcher, a teacher, a colleague, and a friend.
Dr. Nadine Muller is a Senior Lecturer in English Literature & Cultural History at Liverpool John Moores University, and an outspoken advocate for early career researchers, creating and developing The New Academic blog. She has been a BBC New Generation Thinker and most recently has been awarded a British Academy Rising Star grant for her latest project, War Widows’ Stories.