Managing Isolation as a Field Biologist by Partha Sarathi

Growing up, I moved around places because of my father’s job and I never found a sense of belonging with any one place. Losing connections with friends every time was painful and it has always been difficult for me to let go. Knowing that I would inevitably move again and knowing that I would have to let people go again, I kept on making more friends. However, it wasn’t until I experienced an unspeakable tragedy when I lost friends and someone special to a terrorist attack that my first experience with depression occurred. At the time I had no idea that I was even suffering from a mental illness. Things changed in that moment for me forever. According to my therapist, I have never been able to completely recover from that tragedy in 2008.

The reason I started with that paragraph instead of directly jumping into a discussion of academia is for everyone to know that academia did not triggermy mental illness; I had experienced it before following a tragedy. We are human beings, and we bring previous life experiences with us to our academic studies. However, there are certainly elements of academia that affected my mental health, including the narrative that sometimes we can only be academics and cannot have lives outside of our work. I hope that sharing my story here will help others to feel less alone.

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Trying to be Superwoman by Hannah Roberts

When I was eight years old, I begged my Mum and Dad for a science kit for my birthday, shortly followed by a telescope and all the ‘how my body works’ books. After career day, I came home and announced, “I’m going to be a doctor.” I didn’t have the vocab back them for “making a difference – helping others.” There was also a status attached to wanting to be a doctor and naturally my parents reaffirmed my decision.

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The Gremlin and the Superpower: How OCD has Shaped my Academic Journey by Simon Fox

 It wasn’t until a friend died that I suddenly realised time was precious. Through the grief, a transformative experience occurred within me. In my mid-thirties, I flung myself back into education at undergraduate level to pursue a new career in healthcare. I relished every opportunity and for the first time in my life, I felt that I had direction. More than that, I had a purpose

However, I was acutely aware that there was still something missing. I knew that deep within me, there was a piece of the jigsaw in my psyche that didn’t quite make sense. The more I looked for it, the more it would hide, like trying to remember a dream when you wake. There were vivid flashes, but it quickly slipped away. That was until my undergraduate final examinations. 

If you had asked me then, I would have said everything was fine. My grades were great, I had made friends on my course, and yes, that purpose in life that had been missing before was now burning brightly. That was when things began to happen that I couldn’t explain. There were missed instructions for assignments, despite my diligent attention. Conversations began to play on a constant loop in my mind. I would show up for seminars early and I couldn’t understand why no one else was quite as eager as me. Yet, I was going to the gym more than ever and I was on the verge of an exciting new career. How could anything be wrong with me?

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A Thesis with a Side of Depression by Isabel Rojas-Ferrer

We all know the running grad student gag: anxious, depressed, poor. We’ve seen the episode of ‘The Simpsons’ where Bart imitates a grad student. The thing about stereotypes is that they sometimes highlight very important truths. In fact, graduate students are 6x more likely to suffer from anxiety and depression when compared to the general population, resulting in what has been labelled a ‘mental health crisis’ within the academic community. Not only do many graduate students suffer from anxiety and depression, but they have to write a thesis during this highly pressurized time, and survive the ‘publish-or-perish’ culture in academia in order to graduate. Many graduate students surpass the writer’s block associated with anxiety and depression and become successful and thrive in academia, but sadly, some do not.

Like many of my peers, I suffer from anxiety and depression. I’ve experienced periods of incapacitation and hospitalization; simultaneously I have a Masters, am almost finished with my PhD, and am a published author. Fun fact: my family and my friends never suspected I was incapacitated as I kept smiling, making people laugh, taking care of my appearance, turning in my work, being ‘deceptively’ successful. 

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You are Worth It by Dom Sirianni

As members of the academy, we are constantly being evaluated: with exams, viva, job interviews, grant applications, tenure dossiers, etc. During each stage of our academic journeys, our peers, superiors, and sometimes our competitors pass judgement on our work, and by extension, ourselves. They judge how impactful our proposed research is; how many patents and publications we have generated; how satisfactorily we have completed program requirements; how well we have taught and mentored our students and trainees in the classroom or research laboratory.  In other words, our worth as academics is repeatedly judged by our productivity.  This is, of course, the easiest method by which to assess our worth, but it is also the most impersonal; why, then, do so many of us ascribe so much of our personal worth to these altogether impersonal metrics?  As academics, what exactly are we really worth?

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How do you define success? By Tricia Carmichael

If you don’t know me, it’s easy to read my academic biography and see a career of highlights. You’ll see a long list of awards starting from my undergraduate career, fully funded scholarships for graduate school and postdoctoral fellowship positions at MIT and Harvard. I began my independent research career at the prestigious IBM T.J. Watson Research Centre, then moved to the University of Windsor to take up a faculty position and am now a full professor with a thriving research group in wearable electronics. On paper, it seems like I had everything figured out, but the real story is far more complex. In academia, we idealize success and hide challenges – particularly mental health challenges. These “hidden” stories are closely intertwined with professional biographies but rarely told together. In the full story, the biography of an academic becomes more relatable and, well, more human.

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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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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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