On My First Job in Academia: The Challenges, Mental Health, and Coping Mechanisms by Ritika Mahajan

As far as I remember, I always wanted to be a teacher. Initially, for some years, I wanted to run a dance school, but soon I shifted to a safer ‘dream’ of being a teacher. Growing up in the 1990s in India, economic security was essential for a middle-class family. One could dream of breaking the norms but within boundaries, as contradictory as it sounds!

I was told that I was a good student because I followed all the instructions and scored the highest in examinations. A student who came on time, obeyed without asking questions, learned things by heart, and gave the expected answers was the best student. When I look back, I realise the message was clear – compliance is excellence. So, my most significant learning after years of education was neither analytical ability nor innovative thinking; it was compliant behaviour. With this conditioning, I entered the world of academia, only to realise that I had no training for this field.

After completing a PhD in management, I got my first job as an Assistant Professor. It was a good offer with decent money and reputation. With this job, I shifted from a small town to a big, metropolitan city. It was my dream city as a child, where I wanted to ‘settle’ in as an adult. It had a lovely vibe for me – tall buildings, massive roads, grand malls, the multiplicity of culture, and diversity among people. But as a young working adult, it became a humdrum place with identical people following similar routines and working like machines to make ends meet.

From here, I share my short story in the big city. I don’t know about the global scene, but in India, an academic job is generally considered ‘very comfortable’. Especially if one gets into a government organisation, the common perception is that one must now live a relaxed life. I had a great learning experience in my first job. I grew intellectually, had some delightful moments, and met some brilliant and beautiful people. I would not have written this article if I had not met them. They taught me courage and kindness, for which I will forever be indebted. 

But in this story, I focus on the challenges because culturally, I was taught to suppress conflict. Now I feel it is essential to talk about it to be able to embrace it. The perks of an academic job are widely known. What comes along are office politics and other issues that can severely affect one’s mental health, and no one openly talks about it. In no way, I want to undermine the joy of being an academic. Instead, I share what I did not know about academia. I feel it might resonate with doctoral students and early-stage academicians dealing with stress or poor mental health and trying to find their way. In particular, I discuss the primary responsibilities I faced as a new academic, the challenges, their impact and my coping mechanism.

Challenges Facing New Academics

A classical musician or a dancer spends years in training; a college or a university teacher, on the other hand, spends time on a PhD, with a strong focus on acquiring research skills rather than becoming a good teacher. As such, my PhD programme had little scope for training to be a teacher. I was lucky to have supervisors who guided me in this regard, but it was not a part of the programme structurally. I do not speak for everyone, but I experienced enormous growth as a teacher only after going into the classroom for the first time. The way I deliver lectures today is significantly better than how I taught five years ago. Like most academics, I believe that I acquired 90 percent of my teaching skills on the job.

Also, I was 26 years old when I started teaching boys and girls almost my age. I felt some difference in the way they treated the male teachers and me. In my defense, I admit that I overdressed on several occasions and maintained an intentional distance and stiff body language, which made me look mature in my head. Handling a class is an art, and it was difficult for me to balance being disciplined and humorous. My inner critic and I still fight that battle. I used to be very anxious before every class. With all eyes on me, I felt judged. Sometimes I came across as arrogant or shy, but it was my attempt at hiding my vulnerability. It affected me to the extent that I would be nauseous before every class and have a severe headache in the evening. But no one found out because the classes went exceptionally well. Also, nausea is not a serious problem in my culture – it doesn’t show physically or in any doctor’s report. With each semester, my skill, delivery, and understanding of the nuances of teaching improved, and so did my self-confidence.

The second aspect of my job was research. My PhD work involved collecting and analysing primary data – mainly qualitative research. In my area, positivism dominates, i.e. the majority of the research work applies questionnaire-based surveys, hypothesis testing and statistical analysis. I became a loner trying to figure out qualitative research methods where the process is less organised and goes back and forth. After taking up a full-time job, I did not understand how to further my research work single-handedly. Amid new environment, new courses, and administrative responsibility, my research took a back seat to everything else I had to do. I also did not understand collaboration and networking. I wrote articles and conceptual papers, but they were not appreciated much by my organisation. It took me a lot of time to understand the ways and create an ecosystem for myself.

The third part of the job was training and consultancy. I enjoyed it and was appreciated for it. But it was full of politics. It was common that a senior man would be the project’s principal investigator, and I would be told that I would learn so much working on it. While I would put in a lot of effort, I would be admired for my work but not given credit on paper. At times, I was made to feel obliged to for getting an opportunity in the name of mentorship. Eventually, I was able to distinguish between those who mentor and those who exploit. Only recently, I have been able to gather the courage to stand up for myself, and sometimes, I still let it go.

The fourth part of the job was administrative work and taking on additional positions as a result. The worst aspect was attending meetings. Not one of these meetings yielded anything fruitful. The majority of the meetings lacked a plan, and if there was an agenda, the organiser did not want anyone’s opinion. The discussions were more about personal vendetta and who was in whose team. Mostly, one of the youngest members would be asked to prepare the minutes. I did it very enthusiastically in the beginning, only to understand the futility of this task. Also, it wasn’t easy to read between the lines; to understand the motives in formal and informal conversations. It was all so grey!

Further in the administrative role, I was given responsibility but hardly any authority. For instance, I was asked to focus on increasing the number of student admissions; I did not know how to do it. It was easy to blame the young and the vulnerable. I feel it was also easier to blame the women than the men. The women would also get more administrative work because they were assumed to be would be meticulous. Interestingly, I feel the women leaders had a tough time holding men accountable; confronting women was easier for them, especially the younger ones who yielded to them. 

Mental Health Consequences

Gradually, these challenges started taking a toll on my mental health. Honestly, back then, I did not use words like ‘mental’ or ‘anxious’. The biggest challenge was that I could not understand what was wrong. I had no specific issues to explain because I had everything it took to be happy in the conventional world. Adding to this chaos were family members, friends, and even acquaintances describing how I should chill and enjoy life; how this is very, very normal.

I felt frustrated. My eyes looked red, and I was sleep-deprived. I remember a doctor once prescribed my husband an antacid and a mild sleeping pill to cure acidity; I could finally sleep well for 15 days consuming those pills. I also developed a habit of constantly scratching my ankle, leading to severe eczema. On some days, I even felt good about all this because I believed this was what success felt like! The only silver lining in the cloud was my group of office friends, who gave me strength and the confidence to keep going.    

But eventually, because of all this and more, for reasons personal and professional, I decided to quit. I finally got a new job, and we moved to a new city, smaller than my dream city, hoping to find a better working environment.

Moving On: A New Start

As I joined the new organisation, initially, it felt different. Slowly and steadily, it started resembling my previous workplace, with similar conversations, characters, and issues. But I was not the same person. I had been to many classrooms, worked with diverse teams, attended meetings and gatherings, prepared and interpreted standard operating procedures, and observed and learned from peers. The experience of my first job in academia changed me from a compliant, vulnerable, and naïve doctoral student to a confident, experienced, and smart teacher. Why and how? Two reasons – fear and awareness. Fear is a powerful emotion – fear of embarrassment, abandonment, not being liked, being known as a rebel, not fitting in, etc. When fear went out of the window, it liberated me. Also, awareness about why did I feel a certain way was very helpful. 

Over time, I realised that I am a ‘highly sensitive person’. I came across the work Dr Elaine Aron stating that 15% of the population exhibits this trait. I have not yet consulted a medical professional, but I relate to all the symptoms and situations stated by her. When I am in a classroom, I process the facial expression of every single student. I notice any slight change in the class environment or a meeting. I can sense so much around me that my brain is always overworked; also why I feel incredibly anxious at times. Things and situations deeply affect me – be it an abandoned child at a traffic signal or a choice of words at a party. The awareness that my emotions are very intense changed my life because I now know why I feel the way I do when people around me are hardly affected by the same situation. However, I must admit that I have not yet gathered the courage to visit a psychiatrist. Despite my level of education and access to medical infrastructure, I did not go. Such is the taboo!

In my new job, the academic culture was almost the same. There was sexism, people trying to frame and blame, and ego issues. But I was aware that I am a hypersensitive person, and on top of it, if I were fearful, I would be back to square one. If I tried to comply and please everyone, I would be disappointed again very soon. So, I started asserting myself in meetings, loving students with my heart and spending time with them, rejecting sexism in all forms, and focusing on my work. I accepted that I would feel everything very profoundly because this is who I am. I also started writing. It’s been cathartic. I had stopped creative writing because it did not get me any points for the next promotion. But now, I do not care. It is not worth it. On some days, I still feel very anxious and nauseous, but I let myself be. A lot of credit also goes to my husband, family and friends for bearing with me during these times. I know, if I cannot thrive here, I will pack my bag and move on. From confusion and compliance, I have moved on to clarity and freedom.

Ritika Mahajan

Ritika is an Assistant Professor in the area of General Management and Strategy at the Department of Management Studies, Malaviya National Institute of Technology (MNIT) in Jaipur, India. She has a PhD from the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Roorkee. She has been a trainer to the Indian Institute of Coal Management and a visiting faculty at Shiv Nadar University, TERI School of Advanced Studies and University of Delhi. She is a curriculum development expert for the United Nations Switch Asia Program and a Consultant to the Center for Research in Sustainable Practices and the Slow Ventures Pvt. Ltd. More details on her website here https://ritika.scrollstack.com. You can find her on Twitter at @RitikaM07435068.