Physchosis: How academia destroys your mental health.

Apparently I have one of the best jobs in the world. Yeah, I used to think so too. But it’s reached the point where I feel more like a slave, dreading getting up in the morning. I’m far from the only one. And when you see twitter academic parody accounts talking about guilt for not working on a Sunday night, and know that certainly it rings true for many of your colleagues, it’s clear there’s a serious problem.

I want to keep this one short, so here’s what I see as four key causes…

1. The relationship between what’s expected from you and the resources you have available to you are ridiculously non-linear: The resources available to two different researchers can be massively different. The obvious difference is budget, which can easily differ by three orders of magnitude, but there’s also time, which to some extent scales with budget as you need money to have people, access to infrastructure, access to ‘networks’ which in turn brings papers, invited talks, etc., and demands on time in the form of teaching load, service load, etc.

When you add all this up, it’s easy to have two people in the same department. Prof. A with a $10M p.a. annual budget, 10 postdocs and 30 students all producing papers with their name on the end of it, a near zero teaching load, easy access to the best papers, conferences and collaborative efforts. And Dr B with a $10k annual budget (if that), 2 Ph.D. students, a huge teaching load, and closed doors that must literally be kicked down to get outcomes that actually count.

That there can be orders of magnitude difference in opportunity is a fact of life that’s tough to take but survivable. What’s truly destructive is that the expectations in output don’t differ by orders of magnitude, in fact, they are often more or less the same. Even with almost nothing you’re still expected to produce high-impact papers, get invited talks, pump out seas of graduating students, on top of being excellent educators and writing a disproportionately larger number of funding proposals because most get rejected for funding.

The fact that many of us still do achieve this actually suggests that these folks with the much better resources are the underachievers. For every top paper your ‘breadline’ researcher produces, the ones with huge resourcing should pump out a hundred or a thousand. Few do and that’s fine. But you’ll never see management congratulate the breadline researcher on their one top-paper a year despite the adversity. Nope, they’re forgotten, or worse, told to lift their game, to aspire harder to excellence, as if they can conjure up more out of the almost nothing they have to work with in comparison. All the spoils go to the few at the top.

It doesn’t take long before giving your all and more for what feels like nothing in return destroys your desire for the job. It’s hard to go home every day, feeling like an underachiever or an unachiever, when your level of effort in any other job would probably see you as the top employee in the company.

2. Everyone has to be a chef and all the cooks are useless: There’s this crazy obsession in academia with ‘leadership’. I lead this, I lead that, nothing matters unless you’re the leader… us academics have even conjured up the most ridiculous of bullshit terms around: thought leader. You know it’s really bad when you mentor junior colleagues applying for grants or promotion or whatever, and have to tell them to remove statements about doing ‘behind the scenes’ work on projects and instead spin the whole thing as some kind of leadership. You know it’s really bad when people in teams squabble over who will be the ‘leader’, or cut it into little pieces they each can lead, and people don’t want to contribute unless they can claim a formal leadership role of some part of it. You know it’s really bad when everyone finds some little thing they can be director of, just do they can, you know, lead and stuff.

How it hurts is that much of what you do is not actually ‘leadership’ and what science, or any other job, needs is people who will do the hands on work. You take 10 foremen and put them on a worksite, does a hole get dug? No. You take 10 celebrity chefs and put them in a kitchen, do the dishes get washed or the potatoes peeled? No. Suddenly all the apparently mundane but nonetheless essential tasks become worthless. Why do them at all? Sure, we get paid, but in our job we don’t do things for the money, we do it because we get joy out of contributing. And when your contributions are worthless because they aren’t leadership, then why get up in the morning? When you’re told your teaching is good enough if students aren’t complaining, and to stop wasting time that could be spent on research instead, then why get up in the morning if you derive joy from teaching well? I could go on, but when most of your job doesn’t matter and isn’t recognised, then how can you expect someone to feel good about it?

3. We’ve perverted all the adjectives to the limit: You know you’re an academic when someone says something is pretty good, and you immediately know that’s code for mediocre or even crap. Good is terrible. Excellent is barely acceptable. Outstanding is good but rarely achieved. All through the culture you keep having these perverted objectives thrown at you — all the infrastructure needs to be world-class, the ‘pursuit of excellence’ is persistent and all pervasive. Journals and awards and universities can’t just be, they have to be prestigious or top-ranked. The superlatives are endless and excessive and they ultimately destroy your ability to retain perspective.

In many ways, it’s like having advertisements for luxury goods shoved in your face on a daily  basis. Before long, your nice old Seiko watch looks like total junk in comparison. With advertising, keeping consumers in a persistent state of dissatisfaction keeps them spending. In academia, it seems as though keeping academics in a persistent state of self-dissatisfaction and ‘underachievement’ keeps them working longer hours for and with less. The side effect in both cases is destructive mentally.

4. The culture of ‘only brilliance’ matters: A common thread in physics is the idea of meritocracy — that your success and value should be determined by your achievements as a scientist alone. There are lots of problems with this myth and many others have written about it. The one aspect that’s particularly destructive is that it makes a system that a) tolerates monsters and b) it strips your other qualities out of you as they don’t contribute to your success.

The former is easy and everyone knows examples, from the extreme, e.g., institutional responses to things like #astroSH, to the benign but still destructive, e.g. “At times he broke in on the initial sentence of the talk, refusing to let a speaker proceed until the point was clarified. Sometime clarification never came; I once witnessed the humiliation of a visiting postdoc who was forced to defend the first sentence he uttered for the entire hour and a half allowed for his seminar. No one dared restrain X.X. At first I imagined that his rigorous questioning was the by product of a pure search for knowledge and truth. Later I began to detect a latent glee with which he savaged the imperfections in other people’s talks. He enjoyed disorienting them.” [1] Often these monsters are exploiting their advantage/privilege via 1. to do these things and ruin the workplace for others.

The latter is more difficult to define, it is nebulous, stealthy and sinister like a slow-growing cancer, it is the system stealing your soul. Before long, you find yourself losing your sense of humour, losing your ability to relate to people, losing your ability to relax and not freak out in the fear of what more will land on your plate when someone knocks on the door or the phone rings. You find yourself slinking around the corridor, hoping no one stops you. You find yourself not listening to conversations because your brain is processing your to-do list, or not listening in talks and meetings because you’re on your laptop editing proposal text or writing an email or doing some ridiculous admin task. You find yourself avoiding holidays or activities with family and friends because you need to get job X done or deadline Y is approaching. You work on your down time, hell, you work all the time. Gradually you become a milder version of the monster that gets created in a system where the only thing that matters is your achievements, metrics and cv. It destroys you as a person and makes you start hating your job and hating your life.

When you add it all up, what you have is the perfect recipe for destroyed people, hollowed out souls who are nothing but work, people who should love their job but spend many days on the edge of falling to pieces, feeling like they’re worthless, deeply suspicious of their colleagues and how they might shaft them in the relentless competition for acknowledgement, which is designed by the system to be the only thing that provides job satisfaction. It’s the perfect recipe for mental dysfunction.

How to fix it? That’s harder and might be for another time…

[1] Emanuel Derman, “My Life as a quant”, Wiley NY 2004.

2 thoughts on “Physchosis: How academia destroys your mental health.

  1. You’ve described my feelings perfectly. Just continuous dread. I don’t blame academia 100%, some of it are my own insecurities getting amplified there as well. I don’t think it is fixable, but maybe we can develop thicker skins. I don’t have easy answers…

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