Academic anxiety.

Anxiety has been on my mind a lot this week. This essay appeared on Science’s website last week reflecting on the state of mental health amongst the academic community. I read this anonymous blog post in the Chronicle of Higher Education; A common practice on their site. I listened to a segment on Science Friday about this book about one man’s experience with anxiety and I read or listened to something about Impostor Syndrome and how it’s prevalent amongst high achievers (I don’t count myself as a high achiever- yet) and how it might be adaptive and a good thing in some ways.

And this week I’ve had a lot dumped on me that I wasn’t expecting as well. I’ve got to present in lab meeting next week, the day before I head off for vacation and I have to finish, I have a paper to put together, my fellowship is officially ending and I need to get my final report into them and that makes me anxious because I feel I haven’t done enough. I’m always nervous to go on vacation. I was worried on Monday that my car wouldn’t pass inspection (it did!). I’m worried about finding the time to get my job search going when everything I read about carrying out a successful job search requires putting forth what seems to be Herculean efforts just for one application (I know, stop blogging…).

I know the solution is something along these lines of getting to work on something and just doing all the little things to achieve things. And I’m not as anxious as I used to be, though I still get paralyzed by it. I get paralyzed in place all too easily still. I’m trying to flip the switch to being excited and energized when I feel the anxiety coming on, but I’m not there yet. And my old friend depressive thinking also comes into this and still makes me think that anything I do is pointless. Catastrophic + depressive thinking is not a good recipe in my head. I can go to the gym to alleviate it a little bit, but anything I do is kind of a stop gap measure.

How does this relate to academia more broadly? I had the thought today in reading the anonymous essay- the author is writing about the start of the job search season and the feelings it provokes- that there is something odd about academia and anonymity that breeds anxiety. I read a lot about mental health issues- it’s a subject of personal interest to me and in a lot of places the author is listed. But in both the Science and Chronicle pieces, the authors use pseudonyms which is common in academia whenever career/personal life issues are discussed. I’ll say here it is the right of these authors to remain anonymous and I can understand why they would choose to do so, but the anonymity also sends the message that if you’re you, you won’t have a career, no one will listen to you and that it’s not OK to be yourself.

I may be reading too much into this, but it does seem endemic in academia to keep things quiet and to suffer in silence all too often. I started this blog in part to voice my challenges (and hopefully some triumphs too!) since the culture of academia ironically is not as open and sharing as it might seem from the outside. It might well be true of ideas in science, but the people are often seen as secondary to the actual lab work. Am I hurting my career by being open about my thoughts/feelings/experiences? I hope not. But it makes me anxious that that’s the case due to anonymous essays about the experiences of people in science. I realize there are plenty of non-anonymous stories too, but they always tend to be about the successful people, not those of us still struggling.


Author: Ian Street

Ian is a plant scientist and science writer relating stories of plant science and scientists on his blog, The Quiet Branches as well as other outlets. You can find him on Twitter @IHStreet.

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