We’ve created a culture of overwork in academia.
It’s expected that techs, professors and graduate students eat, sleep and breathe their work. Slept more than four hours last night? You could have been replying to emails. Took an hour lunch break? Chug down an energy drink while you analyze data and eat a bag of chips on the way to class instead. Only worked 9 a.m. – 5 p.m. today? Don’t expect to get tenure any time soon. This dangerous and pervasive narrative, fuelled by a combination of impostor syndrome and the “publish or perish” mentality, causes many academics to feel compelled to spend every waking hour reading the literature, refining lectures and perfecting their ideas so that they can keep their careers afloat.
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Ostensibly it would not seem to be so: the sun is shining, I have a safe and lovely home, a supportive partner, and I love my work. Everything is fine—but I am not.
I am sitting in the garden, trying to compress the rising panic, breathing slow and deep to ebb away the tears building behind my eyes, and the tightening of my throat. Earlier today I got up, did my yoga, had a healthy breakfast, chatted to my partner, then got a tea and sat down to work. But as I scrolled through my emails, for no apparent reason my anxiety kicked in. Every small request or notification was somehow more pressure than I could bear.
So, I stopped. I shut down my laptop and walked away. I told my partner how I felt and came outside. And then I sat here in the garden thinking, I had to communicate this to you all: it’s okay to stop, it’s okay to put yourself first.
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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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