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 of 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 Self-Acceptance: Autism Spectrum Disorder and a PhD by Daisy Shearer

I’ve been an anxious person for as long as I can remember, but it wasn’t until late high school that I started to develop depression, and I was not formally assessed for my mental illnesses until the penultimate year of my MPhys degree. Armed with a diagnosis of Generalised Anxiety Disorder as well as Major Depressive Disorder (which are often comorbid), I was put on anti-depressants (which I still take to this day) as well as starting therapy. Both of these treatments have helped me somewhat, but I continue to have a lot of trouble just navigating life without getting overwhelmed and still struggle to understand the social world around me at times. 

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The Perpetual “Problem” Child by Amy Andes

For me, graduate school was supposed to be the next exciting life step after receiving my undergraduate degree, yet I could never have prepared myself for the mental fatigue and instability I would endure and continue to endure.

Since my doctoral degree began back in 2017, I have always felt like a “problem child”, whether that be in my lab, in my committee, or in my department. I typically point a finger at my imposter syndrome for making me feel this way; however, some people’s words and actions during my journey have merited considerable attention as to why I feel emotionally depleted.

What I mean by “problem child” is that I feel I cause inconveniences, errors, and unnecessary work for others simply by existing. You might also experience this, and I give a big virtual hug to whoever does. Likely, imposter syndrome is to blame. If you are unfamiliar with this term, people with imposter syndrome experience feelings of inadequacy and self-doubt continually, even in the face of evidence to the contrary.  In my experience, this happens regardless of whether I really know what I’m doing, or even when I achieve awards and recognition for my work. Several examples come to mind of times I have felt like an “imposter” in food science.

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The Pain of Pursuing a PhD as a Young-Old Adult by Elizabeth Harris

I’ve always known I wanted to help people, to understand their “whys” in an effort to better understand them. So, naturally a career in psychology was the perfect fit. Yet I had no desire to become a psychologist and wasn’t aware of any other available avenues to realising my goal until I found neuropsychology and neuroscience; since then, I’ve never looked back. Except I didn’t happen upon this career path until I was in my thirties. I didn’t find the career that fit without going through a number of jobs that didn’t fit. So, here I am starting a PhD in my mid-thirties. Inevitably asking myself if I made the right decision. Sceptically asking myself if I’m capable of completing a PhD. And constantly asking myself if pursuing a PhD at this point in my life is even worth it.

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International Isolation: An Unconventional Journey by Kat Kennedy

In 2018 I decided to take a leap of faith. Unhappy in my job and recently out of a difficult five-year relationship, I had finally mustered up the courage to reach out to a leading sleep scientist whose work I had been following for a while. I dreamt (no pun intended!) of pursuing a PhD in his lab, though my unconventional background almost stopped me from trying. I had a Bachelor’s degree in marine biology and terrestrial ecology and had just spent 6 years working as a microbiologist, while cultivating a side hustle writing about science and health news. I knew I wanted to change course to physiology, and the necessary steps to get there, but I had crippling fear that no one would take me seriously, due to my lack of a prescribed path.

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Eating Disorders and Academia: A Fight for Control by Emily Ennis

TW: This blog discusses eating disorders

Academia has a way of making you feel like it is the only important thing in the world. It makes you expect to treat yourself and others badly because it’s ‘just part of the journey’ from student to tenured professor. Yes, an enriching home life, strong family bonds and living near your place of work are all vital components to mental wellness and personal fulfilment, but are they more important than student essays? Than your first book? Than doing whatever you can to keep your foothold in a notoriously cruel and unfair environment? At some point I answered those questions for myself. Academia had to come first – I was taught that excellence should be the outcome at all costs. 

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My Queer Impostor Syndrome

I am bisexual. This means that I am attracted to my own gender and other genders. I also describe myself as queer. Lately, I have been learning more and considering using the term polyamorous as well. The last one is still pretty scary for me and I am still trying to navigate what that means for me and how I interact in my social and work spaces. However, even being bisexual comes with its own issues. There is an invisibility that comes with it. I grew up being told by my mother that “Bi people didn’t exist” and where “gay” was used in a negative way. If I tried to put out my feelers by saying someone I knew was bisexual, she would reply “They are just saying that for attention.” I hated attention, and felt that if this was true, then I couldn’t be myself. I needed to be invisible. This, obviously, had a heavy impact on my mental health. I didn’t date anyone for a while, so hiding my sexuality was an easy thing to do.

However, ignoring this part of my identity never felt quite right and led to lots of questioning and confusion and hiding. And isolation. It wasn’t until college when I met others who were queer that I felt remotely comfortable. Yet, I still didn’t know that many people who were bisexual. This made me feel like an outlier, even within a safe space to divulge, so instead of claiming my identity, I continued to ignore it and threw myself into supporting my friends.

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Managing Your Student-Supervisor Relationship to Support Well-Being by Christiane Whitehouse

Academia is undergoing a cultural shift. Research highlighting the “evidence for a mental health crisis in graduate education”1 is demanding we re-examine how mental health and wellness are prioritized in academia. Although this cultural shift is occurring slowly and needs to be adopted by those in positions of power (faculty, universities, scientific societies), graduate students can still take meaningful steps to care for their own mental health and wellness by “managing upward”.

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Dealing with Your PhD When Life Happens by Jelena O’Reilly

It took me personally 6 years to finish my PhD because during that period several major life events happened in my life (probably more than during any previous period of my life) which resulted in me taking three leaves of absence from my studies and one extension. I am living proof that you can still get your PhD despite many hurdles.  In this blog I will talk briefly about  my PhD journey, followed by some of the things that helped me deal with the surprising life events that came my way, and ultimately go on to finish my PhD. 

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I Will No Longer Suffer in Silence by Joy Ismail

In the first semester of my PhD, I often found myself locked up in a bathroom stall, between classes, having a breakdown. I was overwhelmed, to say the least. I was shocked by the nonchalant way in which information and tasks were dumped on us, without the slightest regard for whether we would cope. I already knew I had anxiety and a small tendency to experience episodes of depression, but add the stress I was feeling from the PhD and you got the perfect concoction for a severe blow to my mental health. Suffice to say, I had to pick myself up and deal with it alone. By the next semester, I had adapted, developed slightly thicker skin, and could better handle the immense pressure and blatant disregard for mental health.

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Return of the Mummy: The trials and triumphs of a life post-maternity leave by Jennifer Z. Paxton

There are frequent conversations focused on the impact that having children can have on a woman’s career progression, especially in academia. That is not what this blog post is about. On the other hand, there is also much positive discussion claiming that women can ‘have it all’ and that children should not, and are not, a barrier to women ‘making it’ in their career. This is also not what this blog post is about. Instead, this post is about me and my own personal battles with motherhood, my career and my own sometimes destructive mind. Some of this may be applicable to others and some of it may not, but I hope at the very least that it helps to open the doors of communication for anyone who ever felt like I did and to let them know that things can, and do, get better.

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