The clock is ticking. Sitting in the basement of our library, I find myself glancing up and down my working outline for this article. Messy with arrows, circles, and cross-outs, the outline is just like a projection of my mind, not sure how to start, how to organize materials, how to pick the perfect word. I am anxious.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines anxiety as “worry over the future or about something with an uncertain outcome; uneasy concern about a person, situation, etc.” Living every day amid never-ending torrents of choices coming from all directions, nobody can escape the uneasy uncertainty that the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard called as the “dizziness of freedom” (in The Concept of Anxiety, 1844). However, if you pursued advanced education like me and pondered living in a competitive academic world, you probably know anxiety well.
Academia as an “anxiety machine.”
In 2014, UC Berkeley’s Graduate Assembly released The Graduate Student Happiness & Wellbeing Report. The Report quoted an anonymous student: “The largest source of anxiety for me is my job outlook. It is tremendously uncertain and thus fear-inducing”. Besides job insecurity, there are many other reasons to call academia an “anxiety machine,” as said so by Richard Hall. The Guardian Education series on mental health issues in universities has suggested competitive funding, isolation, and publication pressure are all factors contributing to anxiety. Moreover, according to a survey performed by a higher education charity, the Equality Challenge Unit, university staff with mental health problems are scared to disclose their difficulties, fearing “they would be treated differently or thought less of.” While little research exists about anxiety in academia, PLOS ONE recently published a survey among Dutch medical professors that reveals a slice of the complexity.
The researchers note that the standing of individual professors at an institution is largely determined by the quantity and quality of scientific research papers they publish. A professor’s publishing record directly influences his awarded grants, financial compensation and career advancement. To understand how such publication pressure affects these professors’ mental well-being, the researchers recruited over 400 medical professors in eight centers in The Netherlands to complete a two-part online survey, one measuring publication pressure and one measuring burnout. According to the results, 54% of the participants say publication pressure “has become excessive.” 24% of these medical professors exhibited signs of burnout – physical and emotional exhaustions such as loss of energy, negative work attitudes and alienation from colleagues – that can affect academic tasks, educational activities as well as patient care. It is also notable that the percentage (24%) of professors suffering burnout was much higher than the national average of 8-11%. The same study also found strong associations between the level of publication pressure and burnout signs. Although not directly suggested in this study as a type of chronic psychological stress, professional burnout often leads to greater anxiety.
What if the symptoms escalate?
Professional burnout leads to temporary or situational anxiety for many people. Nevertheless, the spectrum of anxiety disorders is expansive, ranging from generalized anxiety disorders to eating disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder. While it is estimated that nearly 273 million people experience anxiety disorders worldwide, there is little data or research on the prevalence of anxiety disorders in academia specifically. From a survey conducted in 2014, the UC Berkeley report discovered 47% of its Ph.D. students suffered from various degrees of depression. According to a New Scientist article, some Australian researchers found that “the rate of mental illness in academic staff was three to four times higher than in the general population.” A study in the UK also found that 40% of the university staff (in a sample of 307) claimed stress at work had affected their health, whereas that percentage in the general population was 26% (in a sample of 120).
One recent tragedy demonstrated how extreme the stress and pressure could be for those in the academia. Stefan Grimm, who was a professor of toxicology at Imperial College London, committed suicide at the age of 51 in the fall of 2014. In his emails to colleagues not long before his death, Grimm said he was struggling with the “publish and perish” culture at the institution. That event and the disclosure of those emails stirred many discussions on various media outlets, forums and blogs.
On the suicide issue, a 2006 report released by the University of California Student Mental Health Committee found that one in 10 graduate students surveyed had contemplated suicide in the previous year. Emory University’s webpage on “suicide prevention for graduate and professional students” states that “some research has shown that graduate students have the highest rates of suicide and that more than half of graduate students have had thoughts of suicide at some point during their lives.” These findings call for more mental health reports from research institutes and indicate that more research is necessary to understand the factors determining suicide ideation in graduate students.
What makes the anxiety unbearable? Consider perfectionism in academia.
For Rosemary Beam de Azcona, a researcher in linguistics confessing her experiences with generalized anxiety disorder via YouTube, she tentatively pointed the blaming finger to “Perfectionism in Academia.”
In this YouTube video, Beam de Azcona characterized academia as a very hierarchical world. She said senior professors sometimes judge and dissuade early career researchers with a common stereotype: a “perfect career” that overemphasizes peer review publications against any other evaluation methods. She realized that even she once took pity on a recently graduated Ph.D. student when she heard that he did not advance on to a postdoc position, but accepted a teaching position at the same graduate school.
Beam de Azcona’s story about perfectionism in academia is not an isolated case: just last month, the Guardian Higher Education Network published another story titled “Managing an anxiety disorder in academia is a full-time job.” In this article, the anonymous author explained that perfectionism is one of the key “anxiety-provoking assumptions.”
It is understandable that the excessively high standards and critical evaluative style, which define perfectionism, could easily provoke anxiety. Over the years, researchers further classified perfectionism into self-oriented perfectionism and socially-prescribed perfectionism, the latter being more relevant to our discussion about the academic environment. Socially-prescribed perfectionists need to gain approval from the external world, which is also the source for their high and unrealistic standards.
Various studies have shed light on perfectionism and anxiety disorders. For example, patients with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) have significantly higher scores of socially-prescribed perfectionism than controls. Among social anxiety patients, perfectionism positively correlates with symptom severity. In large-scale community studies, perfectionism has been identified as a specific risk factor for eating disorders as well.
Moreover, perfectionism is also implicated in interfering with the treatment outcomes for anxiety, for example, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (or CBT). Studies have shown that among OCD patients, non-responders – people whose symptoms did not reduce to subclinical levels – had higher pre-treatment perfectionism scores than the responders. After all, the primary purpose of CBT is to change unhelpful thinking patterns in short-term hands-on sessions. We could speculate that for perfectionists who fear to fail the treatment sessions, they might become reserved about participating or have unrealistic standards for the therapy’s effect so that they would opt out prematurely.
What can be done?
As an Early Career Researcher, it is important to be aware of that anxiety and perfectionism is a prevalent problem in academic life. By staying vigilant about managing the pressures of academia and being open to recognizing mental health problems among your colleagues and yourself, an ECR can take greater control over their mental wellbeing.
For researchers struggling with anxiety, I suggest the Science Career section, PhD Comics and self-checking Multidimensional Perfectionism Scale. If you have other resources that help you survive and thrive in academia, despite the thundering “anxiety machine,” please comment on my post.
MENTAL HEALTH RESOURCES
Featured photo courtesy of M I S C H E L L E via Flickr.