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On these days of mental stress in Academia

I am dedicating this entry to all colleagues, friends, and peers experiencing in a daily basis all the sorrows and very few of the joys of being a scientist. For all those, tenured or not, in a precarious emotional state.

As I have been meaning to do for weeks, I could write today on how amazing my last fieldwork season to Ethiopia was (this February 2018), how many cores we recovered, the exhilarating experience of sharing fieldwork with great, lovely people. But I will not. I will instead write on something that itches my mind quite often as I see dear friends and colleagues suffering from it.

Over the last few weeks I have been reading in different media about how Academic jobs make people more prone to mentally unbalanced situations, making them (or us 🙂 to fall in depression, low self-esteem situations and constant anxiety. I have also had access to good readings on how to tackle this from a wholeheartedly, holistic approach…and that’s the wavelength I want for my writing today. And I don’t want just to tell people “Cheer up! A better future is to come!”…as everything in my personal blog I want this text to be something that helps me above all, and I hope might be useful for others in a similar situation.

One of the big issues wrapping mental stress in Academia is that no one prepares us enough at the beginning to face rejection and failure, and that will certainly come, and it will do in different shapes: papers, funding, analyses, fieldwork, etc. Derived from there we face another atrocious beast which is the imposter syndrome that we embody too often.

But to me there is something even worst about this: no one prepares us to cope with failure and to go on. And going on should not be interpreted as stubbornly trying something that may fail forever (although I would not argue against that either if one feels like it). Going on comes to me from a critical message that I give myself and others in similar situations:

Critical message 1
Failing does not matter because I am not my work, and this rejection is not telling anything about me, my abilities, my real performance and the relevance of my questions”.

As vital as this message may seem, there are two essential aspects of Academia preventing it to diffuse in our minds:

1. Failure comes sometimes from how modern Academia is setting the selective processes and the research assessments, in a kind of scientific capitalism, too focused in metrics, spurious criteria not always quality-based. Attacking this we have to come to message 2:

Critical message 2
Getting successful is sometimes totally out of our hands”

as lottery is and we do not blame ourselves when we do not get the prize. At that moment is quite important to stop thinking on what we should have done in the past,…past is over and there is no way we can change it. We can only learn something from it, what leads me to point 2.

2. Sometimes we are the ones making mistakes (and I speak for myself here, as my career is full of them!) as we may have bad experiment design, poor coding or statistical abilities, a miss-planned fieldwork, inexperience in applying for funds, difficulties to write in good English (or whichever the language). While the academic pressure will not wait for us to do right we have to frontally refuse a pervasive message that we get since we are in school: failing is bad and something that we have to avoid. Sometimes we avoid it so much that we do not even move not to fail, while indeed:

Critical message 3
Failure is the main and most important source of learning and how a brilliant idea may come one day to crystallize into a reality (whether funded or not)”.

Now having said this, coming to practical hints to cope when we fail, I share here some ideas I try to repeat often as a mantra to me:

  • Talk to your peers and colleagues, the ones that know your work better than any referee, committee, etc. Yes, I know, they are biased because they are collaborators or maybe friends. Do not think for a second that, as critical message 2 says, assessments are free of biases, may be not personal ones, but of other kind that may make your science to look diminished.

  • Ignite the change you want to see around and cooperate more, be kind to others, discuss new ideas, share your skills and create things even if they are far from your current research discipline. I have found this to be the best medicine against anxiety and dark depression: we scientists are naturally creating things all the time (ideas, methods, writings, etc.). Use that for your own and others’ benefit starting a new collaborative action for instance.

  • Do not be scare of changing, may the change be a radically different experiment, investing time in learning something that may boost the quality of your research, or even a more extreme change as leaving Academia when all doors are closed. If that moment reaches, and it may reach me in the future, I have a last critical message:

Critical message 4
You have come this far that might be much further than many others that were not able to reach here; you have done a great job up to this point; you have helped others with your work and have progressed, even if minimally, the knowledge frontier of your discipline. Use all that now to make good somewhere else and I promise you there are places where you can do damn good!.

 

Disclaimer: this is not by any means a detailed protocol to tackle depression or serious mental health issues. If you think you might be in that situation please check this other blog post from Tenure, She wrote Mental health in Academia

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