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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Finding a Friend In Failure by Victor Mosconi

Failure: IT’S OVER.

That’s how we often see it.

Failure is so often seen as the end of something. And not the end in a good way, but in a disappointing, tragic way, often ending in anguish, and sometimes with tears. 

“Failure” is a powerful word that creates all sorts of negative thoughts in the mind. Even just seeing the word creates anxiety and stress in some people. And if you experience the imposter phenomenon as I do, then not only do you worry about failing, but you internalize it as well and you see yourself as a failure. The imposter phenomenon, also known as imposter syndrome, is the inability to recognize internalized successes and achievements. It’s the constant fear of being seen a fraud for not being good enough. With my imposter phenomenon mindset, I saw myself as someone who always made mistakes and could never truly succeed. I not only failed in all I did and worked on, but in who I was as a person. The problem we often run into with the word “failure” is that we only look at the end result. And if that end result is not what you or others expected, then it’s deemed a failure. You didn’t achieve your goal, so it is determined to be a poor result, a mistake, and problem, maybe even a tragic end.  With the imposter phenomenon, you also see yourself as having not achieved what others expected, wanted or desired in a you. So, you see yourself as a failure.

In academia, there is often a lot of undefined end goals and you are continually adjusting as you go. Failure can seem like a weekly occurrence. You can be given a particular end goal in your first phase of a project or writing assignment, and once you’ve achieved it, your professor then will tell you how you need to change the focus of your project based on the first phase developments. But you also have to go back and change what was written in the first phase to align better with the new end goal. Being continually informed you have more changes and more alterations to make creates ever-growing thoughts that you’re failing at writing this project. You have the thoughts, if you weren’t failing at each step, you wouldn’t have all these changes. Working on my PhD dissertation has been exactly like this. I completed the first step, was told it was good, but I had to make all the changes. Okay, in my imposter mindset my first thought was, “so then it wasn’t good.” I’d rewrite it, turn it in, and she liked the changes, but, now I need to make these new alterations and drop this one variable, but maybe add this new variable. Each step there’s more changes, the end goal is not in sight. I’m not even sure what the end goal is besides earning my degree. And honestly, after the third rewrite, my imposter thought was “Oh, wow, I’m so bad at this, I’m going to fail out of my PhD.” 

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I Don’t Want to Dance in the Dark: Disclosing Mental Illness and Neurodiversity in the Ableist Academy by Marco Miguel Valero Sanchez

When I saw the call from Voices of Academia on Twitter actively seeking contributors to share their stories on mental health and well-being in academia, I thought: Wouldn’t a blog be a great way to share your own experiences with depression and ADHD in academia? Wouldn’t it also be an excellent opportunity to raise awareness about mental illness and neurodiversity in general? Why shouldn’t you give it a try? As usual, I was very tired that day. I had a sleepless and restless night, an unexpected panic attack in the morning, and a stronger depressive phase overall – perhaps because I already had a few days of holiday. I find such days off always give you the ‘opportunity’ to think intensively and continuously about yourself, your body, and your mind – whether you like it or not.

Perhaps my mental state was also the reason why my initial enthusiasm was immediately overtaken by self-doubt and pessimism, asking myself: Why would anyone care what you, of all people, have to say about the challenges and difficulties of managing mental health and well-being in academia? Who exactly would care about your personal story? And above all: Why would it make any difference and to whom? In fact, I cannot say whether anyone will read my personal story, care about it, or whether it will make any difference at all. But maybe these are the wrong questions and expectations to begin with. What I can say with absolute certainty, however, is that every voice matters with regard to mental health and well-being – in academia and beyond – and that every voice helps to shed light on a still taboo and mostly invisible topic. And in this respect, I am confident that my voice matters as well.

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Living with Anxiety in Academia: The Importance of Acceptance and Support by Carla Aranda

When you feel death getting closer, you inevitably reminisce about your life: your best experiences; your worst moments; the things you said you were going to do but, in the end, didn’t; the things you did not expect to happen, but did. And if you contemplate on these things a bit, you will likely come to the same conclusion I reach: our life is ruled by the values we hold, which help to determine our priorities and the choices we make. For example, going to that concert instead of studying for a math test, attending that family gathering or staying home, and even bigger things like moving abroad alone or staying in your country of origin with your romantic partner. Priorities dictate our experiences, and if you don’t have much time left, you will most likely think of those hours you wasted on allegedly important (but truly irrelevant) matters.

In this blog, I will discuss my experience as an undergraduate student suffering from anxiety and how the current educational system’s flaws affect many students’ mental health and self-worth. Additionally, I will stress the importance and impact of having – and being part of – a supportive, non-stigmatizing environment, as well as share my ongoing recovery journey and what has been helpful during it.

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No, I’m Not a Serial Killer, I’m a PhD Student –Living with Dissociative Identity Disorder by Nicole Melzack

TW: Descriptions of self-harm and scars

COVID-19 hitting the UK coincided with my contract ending in a job I loved in the Space Industry. Of course, this was not renewed and I found myself unemployed, and looking for work in the midst of a pandemic. I had worked in the Space Industry as a Thermal Spacecraft Engineer for the past six years, it’s a pretty niche job and there was not much demand for this skill in April 2020. After getting over the shock of my unemployment, and being reassured by my partner’s furlough, I decided to take some time to think about what I really wanted out of my next role. Looking back at the jobs I have had, I realised I loved the research side, the designing something new, and the ability to explore my academic curiosity. This is what convinced me it was time to make that a full-time role – so I applied for a PhD in Energy Storage and started at The University of Southampton in October 2020. It has been the best decision I ever made.

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Studying while Recovering: Learning to be Authentically Me by Lizzie Salter

TW: Suicidal ideation, eating disorder

In 2017 I started my Undergraduate course in BA Geography. Going into it, I had my own perceptions of what a ‘perfect’ student, researcher and scientist looked like. I thought to be successful you needed to have an empowered, independent, and busy personality. The ‘hustle’ movement of glamorising all-nighters and drinking as many energy drinks as you can to give you the anxiety buzz needed for staying awake. I thought my diary needed to be full of study days, extra sessions, and experience in the field. I struggled with all of these because as a recovering anorexic with bipolar disorder and a long history of perfectionism I found it hard to meet both the expectations I put on myself and the reality of university life.

It took a lot of courage for me to be able to talk to my supervisors, my tutors and my institution about the mental health issues I was facing, and it took an admission to the mental health crisis team to finally take that step of saying, “Hey—I am not okay and I need support.” For the remaining two years of my degree, I constantly battled between wanting to be the best I could be and do the best I could do, but also struggling with being a student with a mental illness. In my third year, March 2020, I hit a rock bottom with that struggle and it nearly ended my life. I was underweight, severely depressed and I had little energy to function without thinking about dissertations, research, and lectures. 

Fast forward to present day: I am a Post Graduate Researcher in Law and Criminology working on research that I believe has changed my perceptions of not only academia but also life in recovery. My aim with this blog is to share some of my coping strategies I have learned along the way with you.

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Learning the Importance of Self-Care During Your PhD by Eleni Routoula

Reflecting back, I think that overall I had an “easy” PhD, though it didn’t always feel that way! I completed it by the end of 2019, and the more time passes, and the more I separate my  self-worth from my studies,  the “easier” I think my PhD was. Except that it was not. A year before I submitted my thesis I was suffering. I thought that I would not finish, and that I was not good enough. Not only were my results bad, but I could not make sense of my data, let alone put a publication together. I used to cry a lot from what I thought were the weirdest causes. I used to compare myself to others, I used to think I was worthless. Except that I was not. And if you have the same feelings, join the club, you are not alone!

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Coping as a PhD Student During COVID-19 by Alex Wakeman

Prologue – February 2020: Pre-pandemic in the UK

I’ve spent the morning traversing half the length of Britain. The chill of winter hides in every shady corner but is powerfully countered by direct sunlight, resulting in a day of constantly putting on, then taking off, then putting back on my coat. Maybe I’m just restless because I’m on my way to a PhD interview. At King’s Cross I take a smaller, more tightly packed, less ventilated tube along the Victoria line. In the five-minute walk between Victoria station and the location of my PhD interview I bump shoulders with more people than I’ll see in the next ten months of the year.

When I’m ushered into the interview room, I’m informed that the panel of ageing academics will not be shaking anyone’s hands today – just to be safe. I’d like to think that despite my many insecurities, I am capable of admitting when I’m wrong, so I won’t make out like I was some sort of Nostradamus. The amount of people I’ve been in contact with throughout my journey seems normal, not skin-crawling and so the lack of handshaking strikes me as more rude than cautious, I think it’s a little overkill for ‘just some flu in China’. The UK had yet to officially register any coronavirus related deaths, but there had been a few confirmed cases. Two of which had been international students at the University of York – where I’d spent the day interviewing for a different PhD funding scheme just a few days prior.

“Don’t get COVID!” my family joked to me the day before I left for York. And it was a joke.

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The Long-lasting Effects of Cultural Misconceptions by Irina Anna Rose

Content warning: Alienation, trauma, suicidal ideation

Every visitor’s or expat’s culture shock is different. For me, once a graduate student from Russia, now an American permanent resident and immigrant, it’s the dreaded and inevitable question: “Where are you from?” Such unintentional, seemingly benign, casual, yet annoying moments can, and do, provoke a deep feeling of alienation. followed by a fearful thought that I will always be an alien here, no matter the circumstances.. 

The truth is, I cannot in good conscience answer that question. In my experience, the intention behind it is small talk, pseudo-connection, a shortcut to shared experiences and therefore relatability. Putting aside the fact that (in my experience) it is invasive, too personal, and most of the times completely unwarranted, it is also highly triggering and utterly empty.

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Down The Rabbit Hole: My Journey with Anxiety, Alcohol and Benzodiazepine Use by Anon

“But I don’t want to go among mad people,” Alice remarked.
“Oh, you can’t help that,” said the Cat: “we’re all mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad.”
“How do you know I’m mad?” said Alice.
“You must be,” said the Cat, “or you wouldn’t have come here.”
― Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland

In this blog, I want to share my experience using various drugs, namely alcohol and different prescription medications, throughout my academic career. I also want to acknowledge that people use drugs—both legal and illegal—for many different reasons, often at the same time. Sometimes they just want to enjoy themselves. Sometimes they want to relax. Sometimes they do those around them are engaging in drug use. And sometimes, drugs are used as a coping mechanism in the context of mental illness, which is my experience. Looking back, I believe that my substance use was appropriate during some periods, and clearly problematic during others. I believe that problematic substance use is a hidden and largely taboo topic in academia, and that we need to acknowledge that it exists.

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