I suffer from stress and anxiety. And in academia, it has been talked about a lot recently, but it is not a new thing. It has always been there. From what I have gathered from colleagues and reading about it, it is due to a few things: 1) lack of job security; 2) limited support management; and 3) a high workload. In addition, particularly for early career researchers such as myself, it is uncertainty. I feel like although being super into historical and social volcanology, I have set myself up for failure because nowhere really wants to let me fully embrace everything I have learned. I want to stay in academia so I can continue researching and engaging, but it is an uncertain place. This is because my topic is super-niche. But of course, I do have expertise in other areas, mainly disaster risk/resilience/vulnerability. I could technically research any hazard I wanted, but my first love is volcanoes and the people that live around them.
Getting to research volcanoes for a living is not guaranteed when you get a PhD in it. This makes me uncertain in staying in academia. It makes me anxious because I have worked so hard to get here. This in turn stressed me the hell out. These cascading effects, on top of just the stress of the job, it is intense. You can reach boiling point and “burnout” real quick.
Of course, mine is only of one experience. Other people have children and way more responsibilities than me. So I can only imagine the added stress and anxieties that brings, when working in an uncertain, intense environment like academia.
I myself, being part of a big Caribbean family, I am attached to them. So I want to stay in the UK, and at least near one family member (for my undergrad I was near my mum, for my masters and PhD I was near/lived with my dad). I also need Caribbean culture nearby too, which has been an interesting experience being in Denmark. The main diverse group here is African, not Caribbean. I have done my best to combat this cultural-loneliness by cooking some Caribbean home comforts and just keeping up with calling my family.
Which brings me to another mental health issue in academia: loneliness. A PhD is a lonely process, despite being surrounded by other people. In the UK it is well known that every from young adults to the elderly suffer from it, it is an endemic situation. I am an introvert and most days do prefer my own company, but I am in a relationship with someone I would love to settle down with. But you know…the whole uncertainty in academia thing. As a British volcanologist, this may require me finding relevant work outside of the UK. This has placed me in a really rubbish situation: what do I sacrifice? My relationship or my career aspirations? This then, makes me more stressed and anxious. Because I do not want to sacrifice either one.
Having a life outside of academia is important. I have friends within academia I can just go out and do something as simple as going to a restaurant (and not talk about work). My friends, my family and partner outside of academia is also important too. It helps de-stress. Often, we experience guilt by not focusing on the work if you are having the time to relax and de-stress from work. It is the pressure of the job, wanting to do good work – be it research, admin, teaching, science communication etc. The workload, lack of support, strict deadlines, funding pressures and so many more…make us feel guilty if it is not done on time or not to a high standard.
A lot of these factors I have talked about, plus a “hostile” environment, measurements of performance such as the REF and TEF, sexual harassment not being taken seriously, lack of permanent positions, the gender pay gap and so many other factors, push people away from academia. I want to do research because I feel I am good at it. But then again, I look around and think other people are better. Yep, I am referring to “imposter syndrome” – it is like the peak tier of intellectual guilt. You feel like a fraud, it saps your confidence and self-esteem. Before Denmark, I shared an office with 3 other women. All different ages, from different countries/towns in the UK, and way different projects. But we still feel like one was “doing better” than the other.
That is why building up a support network – within your research team, department/institution, with people at other places, friends and family outside of academia, offline and online, is so important. It helps make the work more bearable.
I summary, personal responsibilities and academia pressures can make mental health issues hard to cope with. But, do not be afraid to talk to someone, be it in an informal and/or formal capacity. You are not alone ❤