Working in academia can be a tricky thing. As much as the work can be inspiring, creative, and life-changing, it can also be isolating, uncertain, and insecure. In fact, Piirus has just published a post by the wonderful Ryan on the perils of isolation within academia. Ryan argued “very few people would liken graduate school to a leisurely jaunt”. And for those of us who are undertaking a PhD or just starting our careers, the nature of our jaunt – and whether we run away from the path altogether – is very much dependent upon our supervisors, mentors, and work environment.
Some supervisory, mentoring, and employment relationships and environments are fantastic and last far longer than the PhD or employment contract. These are the relationships where you grow as an academic and a person and come out the other side better for it. Other supervisory, mentoring, and employment relationships and environments are not as easy. The many ‘I Quit Academia’ stories demonstrate relationships and environments so negative that people have left their PhD or academic career and have not come back. Even if they have not left, many have seriously questioned whether to stay in the field or not – arguments that can become circular, seemingly insurmountable, and seriously dent the morale of an individual or an office.
This is not an easy thing to talk about. In an environment of increasing casualisation and short-term contracts, it is far too easy to lose sight if the fact that our wellbeing is more important than any project, any job. Siobhan O’Dwyer wrote a deeply sobering piece about this – one that was very close to home for myself and many of my colleagues. In contrast, for some, the focus they put into their work can lead to a self-focus that prioritises their goals over the wellbeing of others. They become the ones who take the pleasure away from academic pursuits. We need to start talking about wellbeing within academia if it means limiting emotional distress and preventing promising researchers from leaving the field. We need to start talking about what our work does to our wellbeing – our life- and how to ensure that we don’t lose ourselves to negative relationships and environments.
This is not a post outlining all the many challenges. For all that I would like, it is not a post offering solutions via magic wand, either. I can offer three suggestions that have helped me get through difficult periods during my time as an academic. I might sit and over-think problems with the best of them but I also know how much better it feels when I’ve done something proactive towards finding a solution. I also know sometimes the solution can’t be ‘just leave’ so these suggestions are also grounded in making sure you can finish your PhD or employment contract while staying as emotionally well as possible.
1) Tell someone you trust.
What the ‘I Quit Academia’ movement teaches us is that anyone at any university can become vulnerable to workplace harassment, bullying, or negative relationships. This is not about weakness. Remaining silent about your experiences can isolate you from people who could help. For me, the second I’ve told someone close to me about my fears, they’ve instantly become less frightening. I’ve been able to figure out the next step to take. Make sure though to find the right person – someone who will listen, who knows what your work means to you, and won’t think they have to provide all the solutions for you that very minute. PhDs take time – you need people you can trust for the long haul.
2) Seek advice from people within the university.
Universities want their PhD students to complete and they want their staff to thrive. There are different avenues within the university system to pursue, depending on who or what it is you’re struggling with. If the problem isn’t with your supervisor, you can speak to them. You can speak to your Head of School or Faculty, or your Union representative. Each university structure can be different so there may be other people who can help. The important thing is to find the right person to support you to begin to find a solution. Support both in and outside the university can be a strong combination to get you through.
3) Find the small things outside work that let you breathe.
Not things that will necessarily make you happy – sometimes happiness can be too much to aim for if you’re really struggling – but the things that take your mind away even if just for a minute. The university process can be a long one so every peaceful minute can make a difference. For me, sitting in the sunshine with my little cat, taking time to enjoy a proper cup of coffee, or going for a walk, all help.
Speaking about the challenges you might be facing not only allows you to better seek support, it might also help someone else realise they’re not alone either. Sometimes professional development is all about making sure you stay in the profession.