Crushed by the ivory tower – a personal account of mental health in academia

The tone was set on my first day at university. After a tough year of sitting exams to get the grades required to be admitted to a competitive undergraduate science programme, I was sitting in my first lecture. The professor stood in front of around 300 excited undergraduate students and began their first lecture with the statement “A year from now around half of you will be gone”. Indeed, what followed were three gruelling years of constant pressure with exams every 6 weeks and term breaks filled with additional lab work, seminar presentations, or essays. By the end, only around a third obtained their degree.

Rather than protesting this brutal pressure that robbed us of our intellectual and social breathing space, we students were largely complicit. On the contrary, a culture developed that aggravated and justified the pressure. After all, this level of sacrifice is to be expected if you want to make it at a top university. Plus, the recession had hit hard and obtaining jobs was seen as a struggle for life at an institution that offered little perspective on employment prospects outside of academia. It seemed like there was no chance to find employment without top grades and extracurricular activities to make you stand out.

I observed a similar culture as an MSc and later PhD student at a different institution in a different country. Senior academics told us that the commitment necessary to obtain their position had taken a substantial toll on their private lives. Again, there were myths floating around that made the pressure balloon to even more crushing proportions. Apparently, getting a position as a university lecturer is impossible with a Nature or Science publication, students working less than 45 hours per week might as well give up, and if you really took it seriously you should consider emulating Professor X who gets through his enormous workload with caffeine pills and nicotine gum. I adapted to this culture by working extremely long hours, working on weekends, taking on additional projects, and neglecting my social life.

After bearing the pressure stoically for a few years, I had my first breakdown during the second year of my PhD. I had fallen into a vicious cycle of caffeine-fuelled work during the week and heavy drinking on weekends – the abundance of cafes and pubs around university might indicate that this is a common pattern. One Monday morning, I did not find the strength to get up. The isolation and constant pressure of my PhD had sucked the joy out of my life. By sacrificing almost everything for my work, I had eroded all the support that might have provided some resilience.  Fortunately, I could get professional help and managed to start building a healthier relationship with academic work, which is still very much work in progress.

I think a learned a few lessons about triggers that make academic work problematic for people with a predisposition for depression and/or anxiety like myself:

  • unclear or unrealistic expectations: We often don’t know what leads to success and if it is attainable
  • isolated work: In my experience, scientists often work by themselves and identify a lot with their work
  • high standards, abundant criticism: from anonymous peer review to seminar questions, scientists have to deal with a lot of negative feedback
  • comparisons: the golden boy from lab X just received a fellowship right after his PhD, the people I follow on social media publish papers in high impact journals all the time, X is not only a great postdoc but also an accomplished concert pianist, …

I wish I had a good solution for dealing with these triggers, but, unfortunately, I don’t. However, I think that there are things to all of us can do to change this culture of pressure and make life more enjoyable for all. First, we should acknowledge that longer working hours and higher workloads are not the route to success. In contrast, leisure time is essential for building creativity and resilience. Second, share your difficulties as well as your successes. Even the most accomplished scientists are not some sort of Übermensch and will have experienced some setbacks. It is important for junior scientists to hear these stories and learn how they can be overcome. Third, we should all monitor how we communicate with other people. You may disagree with another scientist’s work, but you should acknowledge that this scientist’s time, sweat, and blood went into this work. So, in reviews or Q&A sessions at least try to find something nice to say.

Please share your experiences and your suggestions in the comments below.

 

 

 

 

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5 thoughts on “Crushed by the ivory tower – a personal account of mental health in academia”

  1. Thank you for sharing this! I think other triggers (which are related to the ones you already listed) are the uncertainty of employment, and long waiting times to see the impact of your work – it can feel like you are doing it all for nothing, just to be “thrown out” after a temporary contract…

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  2. I think this is a largely overlooked issue in academia. People often stay quiet and try to cope with the increasing pressure in spite of their physical and mental health. The work of Susan D. Blum on this topic got my eye last year as I was struggling to get by while feeling like I was the only one who felt that way, she proposes some interesting and useful (although long term-based) solutions such as a revolution of the educational system (in the style of Ken Robinson).
    There should be more people like you, who open up and are willing to talk about this, but more importantly, we should find a way to improve the situation and help the ones who are experiencing the crushing weight of a faceless system that doesn’t care about individuals. I guess the first step would be to make the institutions admit that there is a problem…
    Thank you for your words and for your courage.

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  3. I am struggling with this right now. There is nothing I can do about it. The critical issue lies within me, and no one can really fix it in my stead. I’ve seen multiple therapists, psychiatrists, I’ve been open about the issue with supervisors and support staff. Their help and support is well-meaning, but they can’t climb into my mind and rebuild the entire history of my self and my life into that of a mentally healthy person.

    My struggles with mental health affect my output, my productivity and my well-being. This in turn limits my future possibilities. If I’m likely heading towards the path of a handicapped academic career, knowing full-well the increased pressure and stress that such a career is likely to incur, should I even keep going?

    In the past I’ve been more hopeful that I would find a way to deal with my situation, and that if I sought out help from professionals things would work out and improve. They haven’t, and I feel increasingly trapped. This might not be the most useful comment, but I hope it might resonate with someone in a similar position.

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    1. Hi, I’m not a professional in the field of mental health but I think that you should continue to try to work with them even if it doesn’t seem (from your perspective) as if it’s helping you.
      I believe that you should primarily focus on dealing with your personal issues and not let them build up on top of the pressure of the academic world. Also, you’re right, no one can climb into your head to make you change your state of mind, but they can help you see things differently, that’s the whole point!
      Now, I don’t mean to discourage you (in fact, quite the opposite), but maybe you should re-evaluate your career path: It’s OK if you don’t continue down this road if you feel that it’ll be too daunting for you; there’s nothing wrong with knowing when and why to quit. On that note I recommend you to read a nice short book called “The dip” by Seth Godin.
      All that aside, if you decide to continue with academics, you can revisit this post each time things get messy (as they will) to remind yourself that many of the problems within ‘ivory tower’ are not your fault and most importantly, that there are people (us) who are willing to break the silence and try to change it for the better, slowly as it may be.
      Good luck!

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