Suffering is not my Standard by Ioana Weber

This blog has been adapted from an essay appearing in the March 2020 issue, with permission from the author, from the student magazine CNS Newsletter. Check it out here.

When I started my PhD, I treated my project as my ‘baby’ and enthusiastically embarked onto working long days and equally long nights. I distinctly remember cycling home from the lab at 3am on Unter den Linden, intoxicated by the sweet perfume of the linden trees and a rush I could not explain at that time. I had a feeling that I was finally doing the right thing in order to succeed—the thing which was presented to me as a necessity and hence expected of me. Now, results were bound to follow. This meant that nobody, not even my self-distrusting mind, could say I wasn’t putting enough effort in, should the results not roll in. I continued doing this for about half a year, across pilot experiments and until I fully delineated my research plan for my PhD project, and, after few months off for a break, where I felt inexplicably lacking in energy, I continued to do this for three more years.

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Pulled Too Thin by Olga Vvedenskaya

Stressors such science-related immigration, different study standards, urgency to do everything fast and efficiently, impostor syndrome, lack of help from colleagues and bosses, and tremendous pressure to finish my PhD, forms a thorough but not exhaustive list of things which have increased my anxiety manifestation during my academic career. In my case, this manifestation took the shape of trichotillomania, but it can take shape as many things, ranging from person to person, be it depression, bipolar disorder, all the way to obsessive-compulsive disorders.

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Grief and a PhD – A Personal Journey by Jasmine Schipp

At the end of 2018, my partner died unexpectedly. I had just applied for a PhD scholarship. I was 23 and a widow, two facts that seemed incompatible. My whole world changed. I was deeply grieving the loss of someone I loved dearly, who was also my biggest support and who had encouraged me to apply for my PhD in the first place. A few weeks later I received my PhD scholarship offer, which was equally exciting and terrifying. I knew grieving was going to be difficult. I knew doing a PhD was going to be difficult. How could I manage to do both?

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Depression and Anxiety: My Abusive Love Affair with Alcohol by Daniel Lester

I guess I’ve suffered from depression and anxiety for as long as I can remember but without knowing it. From my teenage years onwards I would have episodes where I’d become irrational and reserved. I’d quit eating or sleeping for days and hide from those closest to me. I’d become frustrated by others unreasonably and would regularly self-harm. I didn’t really understand what was happening until many years later when I finished my PhD; I found a job that didn’t turn out well, and hit a wall. Since then I have been more mindful of my episodes of depression and the crippling anxiety that I regularly get when things outside of my control happen in the world.

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The Pressure to Change the World by Nat Rodrigues Lopes

Regardless of what I am doing with my life at any one given time, I have long struggled with feelings of having to do more, to be more, to achieve more. I am the one who needs to be winning the awards, the grants, the titles, the mentions, the praise. All the time. And it needs to be grand, and Earth-shattering. You may be fooled to think that this is because I feel like I deserve those things, or because I suffer from some sort of superiority complex, but it is quite the opposite. I have long intertwined my identity (and my self-worth) with my academic achievements, from school, all the way to my present career in academia. It is not that I feel entitled to or worthy of achievements or praise – it is that, without it, I lose a sense of self, and of worth.

When it gets too much (and, inevitably, it does), I find myself asking: why? Why the need to do all these things? What are you trying to prove? Who are you trying to impress? Why do you need the validation? For a long time, I felt this was a problem within me that I needed to sort out (and likely it also is). However, I was recently surprised to find that others go through this sort of mental process, too. Could the pressure to do and achieve always more be a result of external pressures, as well?

While this is certainly not exclusive to the academy, as researchers we are bombarded with messages urging us to achieve and evidence impact, innovation, cutting-edge research, to be the creators of the new generation of this, that or the other. We spend a good chunk of our professional lives striving (or being pressured towards) changing the world. We are told, whatever you are doing, it is only worth doing if it is sending ripples through the space-time continuum of current knowledge. And, let’s be honest, only a very small proportion of all research falls in that category. That does not mean all other research is unimportant, irrelevant or not worth doing.

Advances in knowledge are incremental, and any one given breakthrough builds on years of smaller steps, without which the big break would not be possible.

And while my logical brain is capable of seeing and understanding that fact, it is also true that incremental advances do not create the ‘impact’ I am constantly being asked to deliver and evidence; they do not count towards REF, they do not make shiny CVs or outstanding careers. They do not make me ‘stand out from a sea of candidates’, as I keep being told should be my aim in my professional life. The competitiveness of academia (and of the world) makes it impossible not to compare ourselves with others and to find the areas in which our performance is ‘deficient’ in comparison with highly ‘successful’ individuals.

But what does ‘success’ mean in academia? Become a professor before you’re 30? Winning the best teacher/mentor award every year? Publishing papers exclusively in Nature and Science? Leading an outstanding outreach programme with local schools? Wining ten new grants every academic year? Creating a start-up company? Achieving work-life balance? I don’t know which of these most sounds like success to you – and I still don’t know which one of these sounds like success to me. Either because you get excited about the many potential facets of your work, or because you are looking to tick an undefined number of elusive boxes to get that promotion, it is easy to lose direction trying to find success, not in the least because it is different for everyone. Personally, I struggle with too broad a scope: I take it upon myself to be everything from the dedicated researcher (often biting into those harmful ideas of being a ‘passionate’ over-worker), to being the teacher, the communicator, the inspirational speaker, the society commentator, the friendly scientist on social media answering questions, the aspirational writer, the aspirational scientific advisor of whoever will listen, the blogger (you get my point). And, of course, in trying to do all these things I do none of them quite right; if you set yourself impossible goals, then however much you manage to achieve is not going to be quite as much as you initially wanted. If the goal you set yourself in the morning is to change the world, you are setting yourself up for failure.

Anyone that knows me will tell you I hate bitesize cute acronyms that are supposed to break down complex problems (I find them cringy). However, as someone who has had a personal trainer and who is now undergoing cognitive behavioural therapy (yes, incredibly these two seem to use similar concepts sometimes), I have been actively trying to set myself SMART goals:

  • Specific: define a tangible and significant task (e.g. do the dishes or finish a paper).
  • Measurable: how will you know when it is done? When you reach 3000 words? When you send a draft to someone, or when you hit ‘submit’? When the dishes are all clean and back in the cupboard? Be specific with yourself.
  • Achievable: make sure you can reasonably achieve this (e.g. couch to marathon in 2 days is not achievable).
  • Relevant: it needs to mean something to you, to make sense with your plan.
  • Time-bound: we all hate them but give yourself a deadline to work to.

Like so many other things in life, this sounds almost like common sense, but taking the time to think through what our goals are, write them down and give them structure can be surprisingly calming. Perhaps take some time to actively sit with yourself and define what it is you want out of your career, or out of life. What is success to you? Once you’ve defined that, draw your road map from where you are to where you want to be, and define the SMART goals that will keep you on that road. At least in my experience (and that is all I can really offer you), I find that this approach helps with the overwhelming and anxiety-inducing thoughts of wanting to and having to do everything at all times in order to be successful. The work continues for me also in learning to disentangle my identity and my worth from my achievements.

The world is so vast, the human condition so fragile, society so complex. Set yourself concrete, realistic goals that mean something to you. You are enough, and your most important contribution to this world is to be kind to those around you. Perhaps it is time, then, to let go of the pressure to change the world?

About the Author: Nat Rodrigues Lopes was awarded her PhD in 2018 from the University of Warwick and is currently a postdoctoral researcher interested in using laser spectroscopy to explore molecular energy transfer mechanisms. During her PhD, she became an award-winning teacher and an Associate Fellow of the Higher Education Academy. An aspiring writer interested in transdisciplinarity, Nat is currently working on building a portfolio of contributions covering a range of topics from science communication to reflections on current affairs. She is interested in understanding the relationship between people and expertise as a way to democratize knowledge and empower people to make truly informed decisions.