TW: This blog discusses sexual harassment and sexual assault
Jane and I started our PhD journeys at the same time and I remember back then thinking she was really cool. As is often the case, with time and work, we diverged, and I stopped hearing from her. Our campus is very fragmented and as there is so much to do in Berlin, the PhD community is not very cohesive and it’s easy to lose touch with each other.
Three years later I was swamped in my PhD, going through my own battles, with no idea where to go and what to do with myself since my research was not particularly successful, and I couldn’t see the end in sight. At that point, Jane came to see me. She told me she had been sexually harassed by the postdoc she was working with. She had asked for help from the Graduate Office, the HR department, and her group leader. Nothing. It turned out that the postdoc was one of the group leader’s favourite scientists, and that seemed to matter more than the sexual harassment.
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When we are at the frontier of research, the foray into the unknown can be exciting. What will we discover? What contributions can we make to our field? What unique perspective can we bring? This thirst for knowledge can, however, come at a cost. Approximately 1 in 2 researchers embarking on their PhD will experience mental health concerns during their PhD, with pre-existing issues often compounded, as well as people experiencing mental health difficulties for the first time. The causes of this rise in mental health issues are varied, from impostor syndrome, to lack of support, through to abuse of power and discrimination. Unfortunately, the mental health toll does not stop there, with precarity of postdoc contracts, the competitive nature of academic positions, institutional racism, and ‘work overload’ as researchers progress up the academic ladder. In order to ‘make it’ in academia, individuals have to overcome a complex set of hurdles, and many will never be able to make the jump.
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This blog is part of a special issue, released for World Mental Health Day. At Voices of Academia (VOA) we strive to make sure your voice and experience is heard. Dealing with loss is complex and an additional strain on our mental health during the academic process. The blog was recorded as part of a conversation between our guest, Jemima Thompson and Marissa Edwards (one of the VoA team) earlier this year. This is the second part of the interview.
Part 4: Identity and the Value of Past Experience
M: And you said also that you felt anxiety and imposter syndrome. Do you think that’s a result of what you went through with your husband? Or do you think that’s more just the PhD environment?
J: I think it’s six of one, half dozen of the other. I think again you have that feeling of, “I really am the imposter. Everyone else’s imposter syndrome isn’t real but mine is” and it’s that weird cognitive dissonance, isn’t it? Like, “I know that it’s a syndrome and that’s more a perception, not a real thing so I’m not really an imposter but I definitely am.“
M: Yes, absolutely.
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This blog is part of a special issue, released for World Mental Health Day. At Voices of Academia (VOA) we strive to make sure your voice and experience is heard. Dealing with loss is complex and an additional strain on our mental health during the academic process. The blog was recorded as part of a conversation between our guest, Jemima Thompson and Marissa Edwards (one of the VoA team) earlier this year. The blog is in two parts, and there is a link to the second part at the end of this post.
From Jemima: Since this interview was recorded in April, I sadly lost my father to COVID-19 the following month. In light of this devastating turn of events I wish to dedicate this interview to him and his memory, and to all of those who have experienced the loss of a loved one during one of the most challenging times in living memory.
Part 1: The Start of the Journey
Jemima (J): I’ll start in the beginning and how I ended up in academia because I think that’s an important part of the story for me. So, I’m 32 now. I came to academia quite late. It wasn’t like I went from 18 went through the Bachelors, the Masters, and a lot of people have taken that route where they’ve just stayed in academia the whole time. I’ve been in and out and done all kinds of weird stuff.
The reason that I ended up where I am now is partly because of what happened previously in my life. My PhD is in medical education looking specifically at doctor-patient communications and patient-centred care. The thing that made me feel that this is so important and why I want to do this was that my husband had multiple sclerosis. He was diagnosed when he was about 24 and he died about five years ago. During that journey and all of those hospital appointments, I learnt about all of the multidisciplinary stuff that’s going on and the complex, complicated connections between healthcare professionals and the community and hospitals and even inpatients/outpatients.
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As I leaned against the wall of my apartment, tears running down my face, one thought kept circling around and around in my head: “This shouldn’t be happening.”
Indeed, from all outside appearances, my life was pretty good. I had completed my PhD with no major difficulties, I had a supportive family and a wonderful circle of friends, I had no major health problems, I had a job that I loved and knew I was a strong candidate for a tenure-track position in the near future, and had no significant financial difficulties. I was incredibly privileged and still recognize how lucky I was. So why was I crying so hard, and why couldn’t I leave my apartment?
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“What language do you dream in?” is in all honesty a really cute question that I sometimes get asked when one of my friends wonders what it is like being bilingual. I do not really remember the language of my dreams, but I do certainly know which language I learn in.
In this blog, I wanted to discuss one particular aspect that, in my opinion, is sometimes overlooked in the conversation of mental health, inclusion, and accessibility in academia: language. I want to talk about how the linguistic monopoly that English has in academia affects the mental wellbeing of a large part of the student body. From feelings of isolation from your community, to increased exhaustion from studying and working all day in a language that it is not your own, language has a silent but strong effect on the daily life of many students.
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In October of my second year of my PhD program I found myself waiting in an exam room at the student health center wondering if I was being melodramatic about how terrible everything felt. I was, objectively, a successful second year psychology graduate student. I had proposed my Masters, taught an undergraduate lab, and secured funding for the next three years via a supplemental grant, but I had never in my life felt worse about myself or my future. I had lost any motivation to work in the area I was studying or academia in general and wanted to quit nearly every day. I struggled to communicate my needs with my advisor, who was so enthusiastic about his work that he didn’t seem to notice my struggling. I was increasingly having trouble getting out of bed because of the dread I felt about what my day held – even on weekends. I had started avoiding my roommates, whom I loved, and instead I was spending hours not really watching TV on my laptop alone. I had started going home every day and getting into bed and hoping I’d fall asleep until my alarm went off the next day.
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