On Emotions and Overthinking in Academia

@angry_prof | 25/10/16


I distinctly remember having one particularly confusing week in grad school in 2001. I was funded, published, and on track to complete my dissertation by age 27. But for some reason, that was the week I chose to lie extensively to my university, advisor, and family about having meningitis and spent the entire week on my sofa bed watching Maury Povich. No, this wasn’t the gut-punch anxiety of intentionally emailing the wrong attachment because my comprehensive exam was not finished on time, or the total emotional collapse after my significant other moved away. This didn’t make sense.

As a professor and professional overthinker, I’ve grown accustomed to confused looks when I explain a train of thought or how I make decisions; disquieting looks of incredulity mixed with sadness and a regrettable inability to empathize. Faces both impressed by the sheer volume of overlaid cognition and clearly appreciative of not having to live inside of it. And I’m fully aware that I produce similarly conflicted microexpressions when I hear “I love what I do” reflecting both a distain for flowery emotional language and a deep-seated envy of being able to suspend disbelief about the academic system long enough to develop feelings for it.

So I suppose it’s really not that surprising that there exist remarkably few people with the intestinal fortitude to tolerate my apparent inability to bask in the projected Hunger Games glory of tenure, persistent use of exile as a metaphor for sabbatical, and rehearsed disillusionment of academia as a dystopian, publisher-owned, ego-fuelled Matrix. I get that I’m not the most optimistic person, and that I should presumably have already gotten used to the interpersonal disconnect and ambivalent isolation afforded by an academia-trained propensity for overthought.

But maybe it’s FOMOOE – fear of missing out on overthinking everything – that kills the idea of optimism before it infects. Or maybe it’s my life-long membership to the cult of the next, that ever-lengthening pursuit of the perfect title, institution, journal, award, or mention by one’s academic hero – that pinhole of guiding light that will one day transform into a glorious beacon announcing one’s prophetic insight, intellectual ferocity, or near-death pursuit of knowledge to the world. That imagined validating end point making all the nights, compromises, and forgone personal life experiences worthwhile.

Or maybe it’s just me. Maybe it’s that academics like me tend to self-select into this heady ego system, tolerating a culture of intellectual prize-fighting at the expense of overworking the eager in order for those occasional strokes of ego to feel that much more self-soothing. That heart flutter of excitement when opening a conference notification email. That profound swelling of pride when seeing your name and affiliation formatted in columns in your publication PDF. That feeling of royalty when stepping off a plane in a foreign land to address to an adoringly naive, intellectually starved audience satisfied only by the acute physical apperception of soul-quenching speculation leaving your lips one syllable at a time.

I don’t know. Sometimes I think my experience in academia would be easier if I could better ignore how the intellectual stimulation of discovery or pride of publication doesn’t quite mask the loneliness of being the only one who understands what you do at your institution, or drinking alone at a hotel bar because everyone else at the conference was meeting up with old colleagues. I sometimes wonder if imposter syndrome is specific enough a label to cover feeling out of place not because of skills or reputation, but by having too many feelings or thinking too much about them. I also often wonder if my colleagues are really my friends, or if we’re just the only ones consistently left behind as students continually move on to more interesting developmental milestones and career challenges.

But what tends to bug me the most is that I can’t decide whether I think too much, feel too much, or both; whether I’m overthinking my feelings, or getting too emotional about the way I think. And then there’s trying to figure out if all this thinking and feeling is typical, if I am alone in wondering why all of this seems so confusing. Whether spending a week in bed means I’ve developed a remarkably sophisticated premature disillusionment with the publishing oligarchy dominating academic politics, or if I might just be depressed because I’m alone as would a normal person. It’s a confusing process trying to decide if being a good academic means harnessing all emotions toward the good of science, or alternatively, if having feelings that get in the way of writing means I’ve chosen the wrong profession.

The hypothesis that this extent of deliberation over my emotions makes me special is not supported by immediate responses to sarcastic attention flares on Twitter. However, it is readily debunked by body language from colleagues that very clearly tells me to stop talking because you’re making everyone uncomfortable. It’s not easy bringing up feeling confused, disillusioned, sad, lonely, or depressed in academic circles without worrying about how it will impact departmental politics or your professional reputation. And I’m not saying I’m particularly adept at expressing these sentiments or admitting when I need help, but I have learned a few things since grad school.

First, I am not alone. I have learned to recognize a familiar pain in the eyes of students, post-docs, and fellow faculty when I talk about the struggle to maintain self-care or personal relationships in the face of teaching demands or the pressure to always be writing. I now notice the quiet nods from colleagues when intimating through a change in tone or well-timed silence how truly lonely it can be to live inside your head for a living. And just as I’ve tried to create a safe space for students to yell or cry over illness, disability, loss, discrimination, finances, family, or even a manuscript rejection, I’ve also seen full professors completely break down when things were too much.

Second, saying these things out loud takes practice. Yes it does feel exceptionally weird and like an explicit admission of weakness or collective betrayal to admit doubting yourself, regretting academic career decisions, or acknowledging that your love for what you do may not be strong enough to compensate for its emotional toll. But there are few things like hearing yourself say the words “I don’t enjoy this any more” or “I think I’m just really lonely” out loud to kickstart your academic propensity to problem solve or to stumble across someone you actually believe when they say “I hear you” or “it will be ok”.

Finally, I’ve learned that although I may as an academic be able to convince myself that my emotions are too complicated or specialized for colleagues, friends, family, or the general public to appreciate, this is complete bullshit. Arguably the most reliable consequence of assuming that my feelings were not understandable by others because they concerned impact factors, letters to editors, intradisciplinary norms, training doctoral students, or teaching/evaluating higher-order cognition was that I was left feeling even more alone than before.

In my experience, academics are not a special breed immune to basic emotions, but instead uniquely equipped to paint ourselves into a corner of isolation by convincing ourselves that our experiences are qualitatively unique as evidenced by others not understanding what we say or do. Feeling embarrassed of not being able to keep a promise to yourself is not unique. Feeling shame when facing unmistakable consequences of choosing your career over your family does not make you special. Wondering if you’ll ever achieve a level of success where you won’t feel like an imposter is so common they’ve had a label for it since like the 70’s.

If admitting you have these feelings is the first step to feeling less alone, the next step is probably swallowing your pride and putting it as simply as possible. Although perhaps not as metacognitively satisfying as “mitigating affective disengagement by way of linguistic transduction and affiliation”, being honest about how you feel might require the humbling realization that although your work might set you apart, your feelings don’t. Whether starting with sarcastic quips on Twitter or a trip to your friendly neighborhood psychologist, there are people who listen if you try to say something.

In an academic world where cognition is currency and publication is king, I understand the academic disinterest toward emotions not involving passion, inspiration, or perseverance that can distract from writing and contributing to science. I’m just saying that pursuing your academic dreams can lead to treating your emotions like an afterthought, and that as overthinkers, we can probably do better.

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On #PeerRevWk16: An Entirely Cynical Perspective

N. C. Hall  /  12/10/2016


#PeerRevWk16 is an annual effort by academic publishers to bolster flagging peer review participation, quality, and speed through explicit statements of thanks and recognition.

Although this initiative could be viewed as a face-valid effort by a public service industry charged by governments and post-secondary institutions with the sacred, inestimable responsibility of research dissemination, there are major ongoing issues underlying academics’ reluctance concerning peer reviews that this initiative does not discuss. From huge publisher profits afforded by gouging public institutions and not meaningfully compensating academics to unjustifiably high open access fees and peer review patents to stifle competition, there are serious systemic problems underlying the peer review process that this hashtag effort does little to address.

Basically, I started to feel uncomfortable seeing publishers attempt to dominate a hashtag ostensibly “for” academics with tweets containing marketing-department infographics on what academics want, promoting a new reviewer ratings system, or sharing “how-to” guides to cost-effectively improve the quality/speed of free academic labour. In response, it seemed important to balance this profitable status quo narrative by highlighting the uncomfortable realities of the peer review process for academics. I am by no means an expert on higher education policy/ethics/economics, I just wanted to share information and balance the discussion about how to promote research quality by better supporting those who do it.

It all started a few weeks ago when I first noticed tweets from academic publishers pop up in my timeline underscoring the importance and novelty of thanking peer reviewers as well as quantifying/ranking peer review efforts:

In typical fashion, I responded with flippant sarcastic commentary, thinking it to be an obviously transparent (and hopefully temporary) publisher effort to pacify volunteer reviewers with a pat on the back and self-relevant data:

But this weird gratitude parade only seemed to ramping up and it got me thinking more seriously about the motivation behind these reviewer appreciation efforts:

As a good academic, I supplemented these devastating hot takes with references to external sources outlining the growing dissent concerning the publication process:

With such an eviscerating response to this uncomfortable wave of public publisher affection, I thought my job was done. However, I soon realized there was an actual hashtag for this initiative – #PeerRevWk16 – and an entire week to come of publisher efforts to spam Twitter with pre-scheduled, strategic gratitude PR aimed at thanking academics by educating them as to their peer review value and responsibilities.

Some #PeerRevWk16 publisher tweets hoped to inform researchers of the importance of peer reviews as the cornerstone of scientific inquiry, as if they were somehow not addressing individuals who by definition should be not only intimately familiar with the scientific process but have based their research careers largely on this premise:

Other tweets expressed heartfelt thanks to reviewers for their time and effort through mass cut-and-paste “publishers are people too” gestures garnering remarkably few RTs or replies:

Publisher spam also included regularly scheduled marketing-office infographic blasts educating academics about why they do (read “should do”) peer reviews, with most results ironically showing academics to have already decided on better ways to spend their time:

And then there were the tweets consistently promoting the new reviewer recognition system “Publons”; a publisher-owned effort to bolster peer reviewer commitment by tracking, quantifying, and ranking peer reviewers:

But perhaps the most condescending #PeerRevWk16 tweets were those gently informing academics as to how they could better perform their free publisher labour:

So I admittedly got a bit snarky:

And being on sabbatical, words were soon diverted from manuscript revisions to countering this increasingly awkward, oblivious, and patronizing publisher narrative implying that problematic peer review disengagement could be remedied not by meaningful compensation or real talk about peer review costs, but by a Twitter campaign aimed at educating, flattering, and shaming academics. Again, I’m not an expert on the academic publishing industry, but it seemed important to share some thoughts on issues that were clearly being avoided such as:

1.  The peer review burden on vulnerable academics:

2.  The ethics of peer review compensation:

3.  In-store credit as review compensation:

4.  Financial compensation for peer reviews:

5.  The exclusion of industry expertise:

6.  Peer review sampling bias:

7.  The “gamification” of peer review:

8.  My personal review perspective:

9.  Public perception of publisher appreciation efforts:

So while the #PeerRevWk16 initiative does on the surface present as an effort to simply thank and support peer reviewers, a quick consideration of the academic publishing landscape suggests that it may also represent an effort to whitewash growing public discontent over a massively profitable industry that does shamefully little to show respect for the free academic labour on which it relies:

So for good measure, I doubled down with @AcademicsSay to better punctuate the #PeerRevWk16 publisher noise:

Even Nature got in on the fun:

And despite publisher-provided highlight reels of #PeerRevWk16 in which most of the above is effectively excluded, the narrative that resonated most with academics was obvious:

As to where to go from here, there were a few thoughts:

Maybe it’s just me, but this hashtag effort at best seems intended to distract from publisher problems or promote new publisher products. At worst, it seems a fundamentally misguided attempt to sustain profits by increasing peer review engagement among (a) inexperienced, less expert academics not yet familiar with the scientific process, (b) early career researchers trying any way they can to demonstrate a willingness to sacrifice their time and energy to potential employers, or (c) already overburdened academics disillusioned with the publication process who need and will take the self-esteem boost despite its patronizing tone.

Is a thank you from publishers for peer reviewing appreciated? Perhaps, but that’s not why we do it. And as a transparent attempt to placate a base increasingly dissatisfied with publishers profiting from their good will, institutional/disciplinary pressure, and passion for science, the #PeerRevWk16 effort kinda looks like using the “tip” section of a bill to provide actual tips on how to serve publishers better:

Of course, I might be entirely off-base in interpreting #PeerRevWk16 as anything other than a face-valid attempt to show some much-needed appreciation to hardworking volunteers. But as a leading authority on pandering to academics on Twitter, I can safely say that academic publisher trolling could use some work.

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Unpacking @AcademicsSay: Part 1

N. C. Hall  /  06/05/2016


This is my first blog post.

And the only reason you’re seeing it is @AcademicsSay, ostensibly one of the most influential academic social media accounts reaching upwards of 24 million views a month across platforms.

Although polite company warrants eyes-down, humblebrag explanations of the success of this social experiment as serendipitous, that’s not entirely accurate. Instead, the account growth has been markedly consistent, largely anticipated, and intentionally facilitated by strategies common to influential accounts.

To the extent the following may read as a self-indulgent, overthinking, faux-Machiavellian hyper-justification of writing procrastination, I apologize in advance. Below is Part 1 of a tl;dr overview of the varied growth hacking strategies derived mainly from observation, basic psychology, and trial-and-error that may or may not have contributed to the success of @AcademicsSay.


1.   Opportunity. When I set up my professional Twitter account in May 2013, there was no common gathering point for faculty or lightning rod for feedback/sharing. There were no clear accounts to follow first, nothing central that really got academics excited. I wanted to create that, first because it’s confusing and boring to go online and not have a place to connect with others. Second, I was feeling burnt out and needed a laugh. There were also no humour accounts for faculty, aside from scattered student-shaming efforts and @PhDComics for grad students, so I made one. I am not a humour writer. But you don’t need to be great when there’s no competition; you just need to show up.

2.   Tone. I am not a generally positive person. So when deciding how to sound online, I went with my regularly scheduled deadpan, sarcastic, depressing, uncomfortably self-aware over-explanations that make for awkward conversation. I also pride myself on avoiding the wrath of colleagues by getting a laugh despite my interrupting their work as a way of procrastinating on mine. So the overall tone of @AcademicsSay was basically an extension of what I was already doing, just in a more distilled online format. I then found a recognizable meme that fit the tone and went from there. Fortunately, as non-intellectual or unintentionally humourous aspects of academic content tend to get the most attention on social media (e.g., the “Gabor” effect), I was immediately in business.

3.   Authority. I regularly get comments, questions, and surprisingly impassioned critiques about the account behavior; hopefully this section addresses some of that. In addition to content tone, I incorporated from the outset a set of implicit cues to convey authority to potential followers and expedite follow/retweet decisions. This was for two reasons: first, to provide an ironic take on the stereotypical aloof, egocentric academic persona; second, to mimic the profiles of existing viral parody accounts in the history or science domains. Some examples involving language, formatting, colour, and ratios are below.

4.   Language. The word “shit” in the account name implies irreverence or catharsis and is unexpected in academic timelines, grabbing attention while providing ironic context for otherwise curse-free content. The account handle remained curse-free to accommodate more respectable manual retweets. Similarly, “academics” not “professors” were referred to in the account name to convey faculty responsibilities beyond instruction (e.g., writing, tenure requirements, work-life balance). As the content was to be more “water-cooler gossip” or internal self-talk than in-class “dad jokes,” the less-than-student-centered approach was intentional.

5.   Formatting. Tweet text was formatted to exclude “all caps,” emoticons, exclamation points, and question marks to mitigate impressions of attention-seeking and uncertainty. In addition to facilitating a deadpan or aloof tone, ending sentences with periods was also a bit of a inside academic joke not unlike how Kanye West describes the private hilarity of not smiling. To not dissuade engagement among academics who are typically less than familiar with Twitter protocols, I also initially tried to avoid including nonintuitive hashtags (e.g., #ecrchat) and acronyms (e.g., H/T) in favour of more accessible terminology (e.g., via, courtesy of).

6.   Colour. The colour profile was also intentional. Although the specific profile image (“avi”) was selected almost at random from my cell phone, it needed to satisfy two  conditions: it had to show well at lower resolutions and needed to be red. The colour red was emphasized based on research showing red to implicitly convey competitive success and dominance in affiliative and advertising contexts (e.g., CNN, Time, Science, Netflix, BuzzFeed, TMZ, TED Talks) and to solicit more online engagement (e.g., link clicks) than other colours. The image itself is simply a cropped photo of a graffiti art gorilla I took on the sidewalk after a disappointing trip to the farmer’s market. I’d like to think the gorilla signified other elements (e.g., stoicism, “300-lb gorilla” metaphor), but it’s mainly just red.

7.   Ratios. The account also manipulated three Twitter ratios to implicitly convey authority. First, an exaggerated “following-to-follower” ratio was achieved by not following other accounts (as per other parody accounts) requiring unidirectional follows vs. reciprocal “followbacks.” Second, the “retweet-to-follower” ratio was bolstered by deleting tweets that did not sufficiently resonate; a ratio consistently held to around 0.001. For example, tweets in Spring of 2014 (~30K followers) that did not reach 30 retweets were omitted (typically within an hour), with the exception of tweets including links or promoting content intended for “clickthroughs” (current cut-off is ~150 retweets <1 hour, >1K likes on FB; see @TheTweetOfGod, @SoVeryBritish for comparable ratios). Third, deleting tweets with insufficient retweets helped to improve the “tweet-to-follower” ratio. Off-brand tweets promoting specific accounts, lists, hashtags, sites, etc. were similarly omitted to provide an on-brand, content-focussed read for timeline scrollers (“grooming”). Overall, these ratios were maximized to create the impression of an authoritative, non-reciprocal, content-provider account where each tweet not only resonated but gained substantial followers.

8.   Branding. Similar to other viral parody accounts, @AcademicsSay does not reply or retweet. Instead, standalone text reposted from other accounts is formatted as per a typical academic quotation (“…” – @source), or (more rarely) as a screenshot image, to visually associate or “rebrand” it with the account name and image. The quotation format is immediately recognizable to academics but differs from typical (less visually appealing) manual retweets in which acronyms and the original account are inserted before tweet content (e.g., RT “@source …”). This form of attribution is generally appreciated by those referenced, avoids “Twitter plagiarism,” and facilitates portability across platforms (e.g., Facebook, Tumblr). However, it can also be seen as particularly distasteful (especially screenshots) as it effectively affords self-promotion and metric gains at the expense of direct engagement with source accounts. Given the markedly ego-involving nature of not following someone on Twitter or Facebook, it’s perhaps not surprising that this strategy has to date been the most negatively received.

9.   Images. One of the most well-known and easily implemented ways of increasing Facebook or Twitter engagement is to just add an image (e.g., by 35%). So after waiting three months to ensure that text-based content was resonating with followers (~7K), relevant images were introduced. At this point, I had decided to use the account to recruit for off-line research and consciously opted to forego whatever old-guard, intellectual cache was attached to excluslively sardonic text in favor of incorporating more accessible, existing visual content that elicited a more visceral response (e.g., May 2014: doubling new followers/day to 450+ by doubling down on comics, graphics, and screenshots). Given a long-standing body of work by academic comic legends (e.g., PhD Comics, XKCD) and creative efforts of emerging webcomic artists (e.g., Errant Science, RedPen/BlackPen, The Upturned Microscope), finding content wasn’t hard and I finally had a chance to indulge my long-time love of cartoons. I eventually introduced original images and memes to capitalize on social media norms, mocked up preview graphics to increase clicks for news articles or blogs (16:9 to prevent awkward Twitter cropping, better Facebook previews), and started embedding square blog logos that are automatically grabbed when link is shared.

10.   Attribution. Given the emotional and financial investment involved in creating visual content for social media, I eventually started to receive responses from artists requesting that additional source information be included in posts beyond that contained in the image. And after a few requests by original artists (e.g., @MacLtoons, Kemson Cooper), online criticism when attribution was not included (e.g., Paris attack graphic), and an education on attribution and copyright by my friend Jorge Cham (@PhDComics) following an uncomfortable Twitter/email exchange with artist @twisteddoodles, I not only research the origins of posted artwork (e.g., TinEye, Karma Decay, Veracity) but try to provide linkbacks to within-platform accounts or external sites to not deprive artists of potential exposure or income. Although posting images without attribution or linkbacks is more efficient (particularly when source/contact info is embedded), a well-worn strategy for expediting growth (see @HistoryInPics, IFLScience), and not unpermitted in the Twitter TOS (see p. 22, Agence France Presse v. Morel), it is more susceptible to removal on Facebook or Twitter (DCMA takedowns) on copyright grounds and is not a good look for an academic audience uncommonly preoccupied with attribution.

11.   Anonymity. I ran the account anonymously until July 2015 for various reasons. First, I didn’t want my atypical online activities to somehow influence my tenure deliberations. It also helped to maintain a focus on the followers, underscoring the aim of the account to resonate based on shared experiences rather than a self-indulgent showcase of intellectual, writing, or humour abilities. In this way, followers were allowed to perceive their engagement more simply as sharing a laugh or connecting with others by way of satire, as opposed to endorsing the attention-seeking efforts of a specific individual. This decision also helped to circumvent the awkward self-esteem-loaded “followback” expectation otherwise encountered with personal Twitter accounts. In a similar vein, demographic cues involving nationality (e.g., American spelling), gender (typically assumed female), race, rank, or discipline that could unnecessarily complicate or bias content perception and mitigate engagement were avoided. As an anonymous account, I was also allowed more freedom to make mistakes and experiment in term of content (e.g., topics, attribution) or growth strategies (e.g., branding, promotion) without risk of direct criticism or reprisal.

Maybe it’s because academics tend to be familiar with blinded research and manuscript reviews that remarkably few people ever asked who I was. Or maybe it’s that social media platforms generally promote engagement over attribution, a point illustrated by Twitter adding the “quote tweet” function in 2015 while at the same time quietly removing the automatic insertion of quotation marks and account mention (used for manual retweets) when copying tweets in the app (making it much easier to plagiarize). Regardless, it was only after my tenure was confirmed, account influence exceeded relevant benchmarks, the cache of “coming out” could be reliably predicted to bolster off-platform efforts (study recruitment), and these unconventional online activities could be justified in part as a public service to non-social-media users that I wrote the Chronicle piece about the account (as agreed upon one year earlier). However, judging by continued confessions of love for “whoever you are” or “you guys,” and minimal spillover to my personal Twitter account, people generally don’t seem to notice or care who’s running the account.

12.   Efficiency. To promote initial growth, I also pre-prepared tweets that released automatically on apps like Buffer (Facebook pages provide in-platform scheduling) and used free sites like Tweriod to determine optimal tweet times (now largely irrelevant due to international reach). Not unlike other parody or satire accounts, I also regularly repeat content. Although I had previously deleted original tweets to disguise this strategy (some accounts delete tweets wholesale, presumably for the same reason), I now keep them up to gauge growth. I initially felt comfortable repeating only after a 6 month lag (consistent with previous Twitter API restrictions preventing older tweets from being viewed), but now tend to repost within 2-3 months due to a follower base big enough to ensure sufficient sharing from those who would not have seen it, would not remember seeing it, or would not mind seeing it again. Although some repeats are verbatim, others are reformatted or modified (e.g., replacing “book” with “blog” 9 days later) to improve engagement. As for the account meme, the “shit xxx say” format itself affords specific efficiencies, such as a focus on what others say (observation is much easier than inspiration) and basic text (Siri dictation while waiting at Starbucks vs. curated content or creating visuals), as demonstrated by even single-letter posts gaining traction. Finally, one unanticipated consequence of this meme is the extent to which it actually encouraged crowdsourced feedback (replies, mentions, emails) that has to date been highly effective in terms of providing off-platform content, pop culture phrases (e.g., “all of the things”, “Netflix and chill”), timely memes (e.g., Game of Thrones), or even grammatical improvements for repeat posts.


So there you go: a quick introduction to some of the more straightforward strategies adopted a priori or over time to expedite follow decisions and account growth for @AcademicsSay. For more on the roles of analytics, experimentation, and emotions, or more awkward topics such as plagiarism, haters, and monetization, check back for Parts 2 and 3 in the coming days.


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