I’ve just read a blog post on mental health and academic life written by Nadine Muller, a bright, feisty colleague here at LJMU. It’s inspired me to reflect a little bit on my own wobbles which seem quite standard across the sector.
If I had a pound for every time I’d declared that I was giving up academia, retiring early or finding a new job, I’d be much richer. I’ve said quite a few times, both privately and publicly, that academia is not a place for the faint-hearted. We have to deal with huge amounts of pressure and criticism which unfortunately, isn’t always constructive. Not only that but if you’re anything like me, feeling fraudulent is an everyday battle. The slightest badly-timed comment can send me spinning off into a black whole of utter desolation that can last for weeks and weeks. I, like many of you, I suspect, internalise any shard of negative comment and fail to take on board the good stuff because somehow, praise seems insincere or charitable…or both. The consequences of this are rubbish; you question your own ability, begin to doubt that you’re liked by your colleagues and you become sweaty-palmed when you realise that you have research to do and papers to deliver. Even though I have been invited to give both of my upcoming papers, I feel utterly unprepared and more like an imposter than ever before. My dreams are full of anxious scenarios, both real and fantastical, and I’m tired and stiff. This, I am told, is fairly common in academia.
I’m still trying to work out how to squash my demons once and for all. I suspect the answer will combine more exercise, therapy and a thicker skin. I might also re-take a course that worked wonders for me while I was at Reading. It’s called the Fear Course and the marvellous chap that led it helped me to identify that my anxiety comes from the fear of being exposed as a fraud.His techniques also improved small things like my ability to make eye contact and speak to strangers, all of which are part and parcel of my overall anxiety.
I also think that we need to hold on to what matters to us. For me, gratification does not come from delivering papers or sitting in a reading room pouring over sources and trying to think of ways to set the world on fire. (Helpfully, I was once told that my research would not do that.) It comes from my students. I wanted to write my most recent book, and start the PhD on which it’s based, because I wanted my future students to engage with a narrative that wasn’t utter tosh. That drive has not gone away. Whenever I have a wobble about the bitchiness of academia or the pressure to produce 4* REF pieces (when really we need to be producing useful work that we enjoy and our colleagues respect) I am reminded of the curiosity and joy of my students. They’ve encouraged me to become a better teacher and mentor, and forced me to think hard about to produce courses that stimulate their thinking and make them as employable as possible once they graduate.
In short, I owe my career to them. While I doubt that the urge to run away and set up a nice gastro pub by the sea will ever go away, I am determined to enjoy this part of the ride and not let my head ruin the view.