Why your voice matters: Welcome to Voices of Academia

In the last several years, issues relating to mental health and well-being in academia have attracted increasing attention from researchers and in the popular press. Although scholars have long recognised that academia can be a stressful and demanding profession, it has been argued that the current situation is so serious that it should be described as a “crisis”.  Both university staff and students are reporting high levels of stress and burnout, both of which can have serious consequences for mental health and well-being.  In a recent review of the scholarly literature, work by Guthrie et al. (2017)  found that “proportions of both university staff and postgraduate students with a risk of having or developing a mental health problem, based on self-reported evidence, were generally higher than for other working populations.”

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Academia and Low Self-Esteem: A Tale of Two Things by Elia Magrinelli

“Who am I?”

When answering this question some people might think about defining moments in their life. I have a clear memory of my early high school years; I was having an oral exam during biology class on the subject of animal physiology and evolution, something most of my classmates were struggling with, considering it a mnemonical exercise. That exam didn’t just go well for me; I aced it! I still remember the signs of awe in my classmates’ eyes at the end of the exam evoking a sensation that ultimately became a core memory and a pillar in defining who I would say I was for a long time. I was good at science. What maybe I didn’t fully understand at the time was that the feeling I had latched onto was not just that of mastering something, but the feeling of having my peers recognise me as someone who was highly talented, along with the feeling of acknowledgment. This identity and motivation, being recognised as a gifted STEM student, has pushed me over the years to achieve a lot academically, but it also came with some large pitfalls and insecurities. Furthermore, I believe that the academic system can amplify some of these insecurities, and this is why I wanted to share my experience here.

Experiencing Failure

Driven by my desire to receive affirmation from others I worked hard and chose to undertake very difficult academic tasks so that others would consider me as a capable scientist. I graduated with high grades during my Master’s degree, frequently going out of my way to help friends when they were struggling, and taking some extra courses and activities. I then received funding for a PhD abroad which also ended quite well. At my first postdoc, I worked a lot on multiple main projects and side projects, but I didn’t manage to finalise my main publication before the two years of my scholarship funding ran out. Having taken the decision not to relocate my family any further (as we ended up wanting to stay where we were), staying in academia for me meant essentially that I had a single chance to secure funding and advance in the hierarchy. And I failed.

I couldn’t get the grant I needed and pushing further into an academic career meant relocating at the very least, chasing after positions wherever eligibility criteria for funding would allow me to apply again, as well as setting back many other life goals. Most of all, I no longer recognised who I thought I was. Until that moment I had been “the one that succeeds in STEM”, and suddenly that was no more. This didn’t remove any of my achievements so far, or any of the things I learned and could do; it simply meant some other people had done better and were evaluated as a better fit for the position.

Without this external validation, assigning value to myself was challenging, and my self-esteem took a heavy knock. All it took just the one knock and all the strong motivation I had felt for a decade had come tumbling down, and I was not sure how to move forward. The façade that other people were seeing me as was not there anymore – I could no longer be seen any more as the gifted STEM student that succeeded at everything. I had been shaping my view of myself based on what others thought and said about me. Now I had no more shape. I was no more.

I spent the next few months feeling aimless, trying half-heartedly to understand what other options I had in academia and quickly realising that nothing would allow me to progress as I intended while staying where I wanted to be. While this was happening internally, it manifested externally as well, I had lost 4-5kg out of sedentarism, something which is quite unprecedented as physical activity has been something I had never abandoned before. Feeling more and more distant from the identity and the goal I had been pursuing, I ultimately asked myself: Why had I wanted to pursue an academic career in the first place? Furthermore, what could I do now? What did I truly want to do? Yet I kept feeling as if I had really achieved nothing.

Defining Our Worth

At this point, it is probably a good time to pull back from just my own story and try to define what I had experienced and why. If you do care about closure though, I will just say that my story ended (as of today) with me ultimately understanding that what I was enjoying the most rather than just being in academia was doing science as a bioinformatician. I also realised that this was possible through pursuing different job opportunities, and about a year after that event I did manage to find a job where I do just that in a private company. This said, I am not advocating strictly for a specific sector being superior to another, it is simply where I have happened to find my current place.

I want to make a point of how in academia, especially in the early phases of an academic career, most of the achievements and steps required to progress through its hierarchy depend on competing with others, rather than simply your individual ability. I also believe it is important to discuss that academia places high importance to achievements such as high impact factor publication and grants, something that is ultimately dependent from a lot of very intricate variables often disconnected with someone actual skills as well as often being based on some sort of competition. This can exacerbate the anxiety of  people who are internally motivated by the search of external approval as well as induce the same anxiety in people who are initially not falling into this dynamic, until ultimately they risk their mental health.

Allow me to use a small example to clarify what I’m trying to convey: let’s compare how academic CVs are written in comparison to those for industry. In my experience, an academic CV puts front and centre your publications and grants, which ultimately are a result of a very complex mix of luck, opportunity, privilege, location, socioeconomic background and more. For an industry job, CVs are written directly highlighting personal skills and individual abilities. This is maybe a little dense so I will try to lighten up the content with an analogy. Let’s imagine a photographer who writes their own CV either in an “academic style” and one for the private sector. In the first case, they would be likely to highlight whether their work made it into prestigious journals and whether or not they received an award for that, making it easier for the person viewing the CV to understand how the photographer fared in comparison at different steps of their career. On the other hand, a CV built for the private sector would be more likely to look like a portfolio that highlights the skills and capabilities of the photographer, giving examples of how well he can set up portrait photos, landscapes, macros or whatever would be needed for the job in question. The interviewer would then have a good idea of the photographer’s skills and whether or not they fit the requirement.[ Added another example, let me know if this one is better and thus would like to swap it ] This is maybe a bit dense to digest, so let’s take the time for the obligatory sport metaphor (it’s the only one, I promise). Let’s imagine a sprint runner writing a CV in the “academia style”, they would probably highlight the rank they achieved in the most prestigious competitions they run, the examiner would then have a good grasp at knowing where the sprinter was in comparison to their peers during steps of their career, playing with a specific set of rules. Now let’s imagine the same runner making a CV in the style of an industry job. They would most likely write their best set of times they ran in the different types of specialities, giving a good idea to the examiner of their overall performance.

What Happens When Low Self-esteem Gets the Upper Hand

Having defined how academia structure focuses on competitive results it is time to look at the dynamics that tend to happen to people with low self-esteem are prone to fall into. In my case, my personal history had most likely channelled my low self-esteem into a case of “superiority-complex”, probably as a result of the positive feedback loop in which succeeding in science was giving me the attention and praise I wasn’t able to gauge on my own. While the more popularised perception or stereotype of the superiority complex is associated with people who behave somehow arrogantly towards others and consider their abilities inferior compared to theirs, this describes only a limited situation described by the term. As first described by psychologist Alfred Adler (The Individual Psychology of Alfred Adler, 1964), it’s a dynamic in which people who are moderately talented at something while having low self-esteem feel motivated to work hard and obtain the approval and attention of others recognising their worth, while struggling to value themselves. The problem these people often face, as for my personal case, is that soon or later there will be a moment in which the expected approval from others won’t come, for one reason or another. For example, someone else will simply do better than them. These events can break the feedback loop critical to their own identity, thus causing trauma.

While I am currently aware of this dynamic, it is still something that is part of my internal motivation dynamic and has pushed me to more than just academic endeavours. For example: at my current job, our office is roughly 50 km away from where I live, which thanks to the great infrastructure of public transport I can easily cover in about 50 min, mixing 30 minutes of biking and 20 minutes on the train. Seeing me arrive at work in bike attire many colleagues asked in semi-admiration if I was coming on my bike alone. You probably know already what happened next. After awkwardly correcting my colleagues I started figuring out in the background whether I could have actually done this small feat, and I have finally started doing the whole stretch of commuting by bike. It is a great ride just near the lake which I really enjoy and works as a great exercise, but I know that part of the reason why I decided to do that, is because I caught wind of how other people would have considered this as something cool and hard to do.

Finding Your Own Value

I don’t like to conclude stories with a sad conclusion, but I don’t have a magical solution to this situation either. What I will do instead is leave you with a personal recommendation for navigating the current academic system. I think this could be especially helpful for those like me who struggle with self-esteem and self-worth. It is a message that is somewhat coming from the work of Jean Paul Sartre (Being and nothingness – “L’etre et le neant”, 1943). Yes, I am citing French existentialism as a conclusion. No, I am not fun at parties. To my own knowledge, I don’t know if Sartre ever made a direct statement on how to navigate the academic system with low self-esteem, but I still believe some of the messages of his work and of existentialism overall could be of help. If you happen to be new on existentialism, in broad strokes it is a philosophical discipline that puts the human existence and individual subjective experiences at the core of finding reason and meaning in life. As human beings, we are capable of rational thought, and we are also capable of defining who we want to be outside of what other people think of us and might want us to be, and we have all have the right to do that. With this though, comes as well “the existential angst”, as in the anxiety of finding your own place in the world. Since we are capable of thinking and have free will, we are also responsible for freely defining who we want to be and not rely always on others to find this meaning.

Man is condemned to be free; because once thrown into the world, he is responsible for everything he does”

Finding value in the approval of others is not necessarily something bad, but we should not entirely base our value on the opinions of others alone. Yes, this can be hard work, but it’s also necessary work we ought to do: we owe it to ourselves. If in academia or in any other line of work you might find yourself out of touch with your own values, take a moment to remind yourself of what you can do, of what you have learned to do from the past and what you like doing. It is something that helped me figure out what I could and wanted to do, and maybe it could help you too.

Elia Magrinelli is a data scientist at Sophia Genetics. He was born in Italy and approached higher studies as a first-generation student. He attended the University of Milan and obtained a Molecular Biology PhD at the University of Nice. While he started his science career in developmental neurobiology he progressively caught interest and expertise in bioinformatics and genomics. He has worked over the years at many science communications initiatives, such as with AIRIcerca and Bio-Room. He can be reached either via Twitter @EliaMagrinelli or his website eliamagrinelli.wixsite.com/home

The Power of Community for Addressing Academic Mental Health by Ciro De Vincenzo

I still remember vividly the first day of my PhD. The sky was crystal clear, with no sign of clouds, and the temperature was so mild that it seemed to harmonize with the serenity of my soul. And my first lecture was amazing. I had my special notebook/pen and took notes tirelessly during my “Contemporary Social Theory” class. I was so eager to deepen my knowledge! In the following days, I started to get along with my colleagues and I met my supervisor to create a work timetable. Taking PhD classes, studying the literature on my topic, and writing drafts of articles made up my routine—along with daily beers with friends. What could go any better?

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Coping With Anxiety and Grief: Accepting Help and Moving Forward by Gurnoor Mutreja

I am a law teacher and postgraduate in law who has lived her life according to a plan. I can say with pride that I have been academically very competent throughout my life. I passed all exams with flying colours and therefore I assumed that I would easily land a job. However, the Covid pandemic and changes in my personal life made it hard for me to secure a job. 

In this blog, I will discuss my journey through depression and anxiety and how these affected my professional life.  I will also discuss how accepting the problem and seeking helped me find a way forward. 

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Challenges of Navigating a PhD while Recovering from Mental Health Conditions by Daeun Jung 

I was first diagnosed with depression and generalised anxiety disorder ten years ago. My first reaction to getting the diagnosis was relief. I was relieved that my problems were medically recognised. I was not just “weak” or “lazy” or “attention-seeking”; I felt validated. Then I felt angry. Why did I have to seek validation through a medical diagnosis? Since then, I have been on three different antidepressants, been hospitalised a few times, and gained some scars along the way. At the same time, I have finished my bachelor’s and master’s degrees and worked in four different jobs, which led to last year when I started my PhD programme and joined the world of academia. In this blog post, I will share my experiences of navigating the first year of PhD while managing mental health conditions.

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Drought Days: Reflections on Work in Troubling Times by David Abbott

 I write this at the dimming of a heatwave day. In the mornings I feel utterly discombobulated, a bit sick and a bit dizzy. A mix of medications and general gloom. The sunshine and excessive heat are of course hugely problematic in terms of current concerns about climate change. And the light is better for my morale than the inevitable long months of a grey, Welsh winter. Even at this time of day, my thinking is not very efficient. Reviewer 2 would definitely say that this piece lacks structure and clarity. It’s true. But here is what I have to say anyway. 

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The perfect researcher (and why I am not it) by Zoë Ayres

Just another typical PhD day for me. Highlighting another research paper, trying desperately to retain the salient bits. Mixing it up with different coloured highlighters. Grabbing a cup of coffee, hoping that the information might go in if I let the caffeine sink in. And yet it never quite does. I beat myself up, telling myself I am too stupid to do a PhD. Walking away from a meeting, I feel ashamed, as I know I read the paper that was being discussed, I just can’t quite recall the details. Rinse and repeat. This, combined with many other small things, which in isolation were hardly something to fret about, left my mental health in tatters.

It’s not just a bad day, or a bad week. It’s all the time. I am struggling to engage in reading papers. As soon as I pick them up, I glaze over or I get distracted. My reading list grows forever longer – the weight of it playing on the back of my mind. My inner voice constantly telling me I am not doing enough to succeed.

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Surviving Loss: Supporting Bereavement in Early Career Academics by Sam Strong

Nothing in the world can prepare a person to lose a loved one. Sure, mental health professionals can explain the stages of grief (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance)1, but the path and duration of the journey is entirely individual – in my experience it’s like wading through a heavy substance. On good days you can move forwards slowly, one step at a time. Other days, it’s easier to stand still, or move backwards into the path you’ve already created. This can make it difficult to see a future, and it can feel like everything becomes more challenging. You can see then how this type of scenario could impact a person in their early academic career, which is already widely regarded as an extremely challenging time.

I sadly lost both my parents in my late teens which had a huge impact on my wellbeing and an even bigger impact on my career decisions. Now, it may have taken me a very long time to be in a place where I feel comfortable enough to talk about those experiences, but I now feel that it’s important for me to raise awareness in the hopes it may help people understand how to support individuals in similar circumstances. 

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Loss of Identity: Surviving Post-PhD Depression by Amy Gaeta

Completing the biggest achievement of my life has left me in the most zombie, emotionally depleted state of my life. Immediately after defending my dissertation successfully, thereby securing my Ph.D. in English, I found myself soft crying into a pillow and trying to find enough stability to reply to all the “congratulations!” text messages pinging on my phone. This emotional release marked the start of what I’ll refer to as my post-PhD depression: a state of aimlessness, premature cynicism, and loss sparked by the contradictory realization that it is all over and yet there is so much more to do. It is like finishing a marathon after giving all you got only to realize you’ve agreed to compete in a triathlon every day for the rest of your career.

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The Eternal Dislocation of Academic Living by Clare Griffin

Seven years ago, I left my home country. I haven’t lived there since. From the UK I went to Germany for two years, from there to Kazakhstan for five years, and now I am in the USA, for who knows how long. In part, I left by choice: in Berlin, I went to a major research centre in my field. In Kazakhstan, I got to help develop the curriculum and policies of a recently-established university. My new position in the USA affords me new possibilities. Moving internationally gave me opportunities I might not have gotten at home. 

You could say I left for these opportunities, but I also left because of the academic job market. Simply put, I had little choice if I wanted to stay in academia. I have been on the job market almost continuously for the past 11 years. In that time I have applied for many, many jobs in the UK. I Interviewed for four jobs and got one. I haven’t gotten as far as the interview stage of any job search in my home country in nine years. 

I am having to constantly choose between options: keep my career, or go home. I may never be able to do both. For now, at least, I have chosen my career. But that comes with its own stressors.

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Voices of Academia, Two Years On: Where do we go from here? by Dr Marissa Kate Edwards and Dr Zoë Ayres

We are thrilled to announce that Voices of Academia is now two years old! We are so thankful for you, our community, and proud that we are now over 15,000 followers strong.  

Although Voices of Academia was conceived during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, it still feels as relevant as ever. Numerous #AcademicMentalHealth tweets as well as published research reveal that academics continue to struggle with the demands of working in a busy and competitive work environment. Many academics report feeling anxious, burnt out and increasingly despondent about the future. Students experienced considerable distress during the upheaval of COVID-19 and now appear to be more disengaged than ever before. Furthermore, we are sure that many of our readers will have seen the constant discussions about going “alt-ac” and pursuing a career outside of the traditional faculty position. After the last two years, many academics have nothing left to give—and they are looking for an exit strategy.

Given the current situation, the mental health of staff and students should be an urgent priority for universities, but we know that this is not necessarily the case. Indeed, many of our blog authors have shared how the culture of overwork in academia has contributed to their mental ill-health and in some cases hindered their recovery. Others have shared how the stigma of mental illness in the academy has discouraged them from speaking up and seeking help. We agree with Professor June Gruber, who argued last year that higher education needs to do more to address mental health issues:    

“Despite growing awareness of a mental health crisis among undergraduate and graduate students, as well as faculty, much of higher education has remained silent or complicit in perpetuating stigma towards mental illness. I’ve seen this first-hand, even in my own field of clinical psychology. A reckoning with how we handle mental health in daily life in higher education is long overdue.”

We hope that initiatives such as Voices of Academia can help to reduce some of the stigma and – along with many other important efforts – contribute to cultural change in universities over time.  

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