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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The Valley of Shit

Author: Inger Mewburn
Original: Thesis Whisperer


I have a friend, let’s call him Dave, who is doing his PhD at the moment.

I admire Dave for several reasons. Although he is a full time academic with a young family, Dave talks about his PhD as just one job among many. Rather than moan about not having enough time, Dave looks for creative time management solutions. Despite the numerous demands on him, Dave is a generous colleague. He willingly listens to my work problems over coffee and always has an interesting suggestion or two. His resolute cheerfulness and ‘can do’ attitude is an antidote to the culture of complaint which seems, at times, to pervade academia.

I was therefore surprised when, for no apparent reason, Dave started talking negatively about his PhD and his ability to finish on time. All of a sudden he seemed to lose confidence in himself, his topic and the quality of the work he had done.

Dave is not the only person who seems to be experiencing these feelings lately. I have another friend, let’s call him Andrew.

Andrew is doing his PhD at a prestigious university and has been given an equally prestigious scholarship. Like Dave, Andrew approaches his PhD as another job, applying the many time management skills he had learned in his previous career. He has turned out an impressive number of papers, much to the delight of his supervisors.

Again I was shocked when Andrew emailed me to say he was going to quit. He claimed everything he did was no good and it took a number of intense phone calls to convince him to carry on.

Both these students were trapped in a phase PhD study I have started to call “The Valley of Shit”.

The Valley of Shit is that period of your PhD, however brief, when you lose perspective and therefore confidence and belief in yourself. There are a few signs you are entering into the Valley of Shit. You can start to think your whole project is misconceived or that you do not have the ability to do it justice. Or you might seriously question if what you have done is good enough and start feeling like everything you have discovered is obvious, boring and unimportant. As you walk deeper into the Valley of Shit it becomes more and more difficult to work and you start seriously entertaining thoughts of quitting.

I call this state of mind the Valley of Shit because you need to remember you are merely passing through it, not stuck there forever. Valleys lead to somewhere else – if you can but walk for long enough. Unfortunately the Valley of Shit can feel endless because you are surrounded by towering walls of brown stuff which block your view of the beautiful landscape beyond.

The Valley of Shit is a terrible place to be because, well, not to put too fine a point on it – it smells. No one else can (or really wants to) be down there, walking with you. You have the Valley of Shit all to yourself. This is why, no matter how many reassuring things people say, it can be hard to believe that the Valley of Shit actually does have an end. In fact, sometimes those reassuring words can only make the Valley of Shit more oppressive.

The problem with being a PhD student is you are likely to have been a star student all your life. Your family, friends and colleagues know this about you. Their confidence in you is real – and well founded. While rationally you know they are right, their optimism and soothing ‘you can do it’ mantras can start to feel like extra pressure rather than encouragement.

I feel like I have spent more than my fair share of time in the Valley of Shit. I was Thesis Whisperering while I was doing my PhD – so you can imagine the pressure I felt to succeed. An inability to deliver a good thesis, on time, would be a sign of my professional incompetence on so many levels. The Valley of Shit would start to rise up around me whenever I starting second guessing myself. The internal monologue went something like this:

“My supervisor, friends and family say I can do it – but how do they really KNOW? What if I disappoint all these people who have such faith in me? What will they think of me then?”

Happily, all my fears were groundless. My friends, teachers and family were right: I did have it in me. But boy – the smell of all those days walking in the Valley of Shit stay with you.

So I don’t want to offer you any empty words of comfort. The only advice I have is: just have to keep walking. By which I mean just keep writing, doing experiments, analysis or whatever – even if you don’t believe there is any point to it. Remember that you are probably not the right person to judge the value of your project or your competence right now.

Try not to get angry at people who try to cheer you on; they are only trying to help. Although you are alone in the Valley of Shit there is no need to be lonely – find a fellow traveller or two and have a good whinge if that helps. But beware of indulging in this kind of ‘troubles talk’ too much lest you start to feel like a victim.

Maybe try to laugh at it just a little.

You may be one of the lucky ones who only experience the Valley of Shit once in your PhD, or you might be unlucky and find yourself there repeatedly, as I did. I can completely understand those people who give up before they reach the end of the Valley of Shit – but I think it’s a pity. Eventually it has to end because the university won’t let you do your PhD forever. Even if you never do walk out the other side, one day you will just hand the thing in and hope for the best.

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The Productivity Robbing Myths of Grad School

Author: Steve Shaw
Original: How Not To Suck at Grad School


I am not sure if there is a best way to be efficient and productive as there are many very different, but positive, ways to work. However, there are some common and universally terrible ways to work. Here are a few things that I hear students say with pride that are actually signs of an inefficient worker.

“I do my best work at the last minute. I thrive under pressure.”

–No. The first draft of everything is terrible, even for the best writer. You may be an extremely good binge writer, but I promise that the work will be better with another draft and some time to consider and change content.  Plan your time well. The draft of any project should be completed three days to two weeks before it is due. The remainder of the time can be spent in the real work of writing: editing.

“I am not a detail person. I am an idea person.”

–Ideas that are well-researched, communicated in detail, completely thought out, and effectively implemented are useful. All others tend to be vague dreams that borderline on hallucinations. Everyone is a dreamer, but the truly useful person works hard and uses detail to convert dreams into reality.

“I am a perfectionist.”

–This is not a positive trait. Trying to pursue perfection is a useless activity that is harmful to well-being and productivity. Being conscientious, detail focused, and striving for excellence are laudable characteristics. Perfectionism is maladaptive.

When I hear people tell me that they are a perfectionist, I feel the need to assess further to determine if we simply are defining perfectionism differently or if their behavior is maladaptive. Usually people mean that they are detail focused and striving for excellence with undertones of anxiety. This is typically a good set of characteristics for grad students. But when they mention the need to be perfect, then we are into a zone where anxiety may be maladaptive. Seeking excellence is good. Seeking perfection is a neurotic waste of time.

“I edit while I write.”

–This is a guaranteed method of getting nothing finished or severely limiting your productivity. Get all of your ideas out on paper. Only edit when you have completed a document or at least a substantial portion. Editing while writing is slow, makes for choppy prose, reduced flow and creativity, and increases anxiety. People with this habit also tend to be perfectionists and have learned this habit while doing last minute work. Take the time to complete a full draft and then edit.

“I don’t want to show this to you until it is ready.”

–I understand this secrecy problem. Some supervisors are extremely judgmental and even hostile to unfinished work. Submitting any work is aversive under these conditions. The best approach is to have students submit work on a timed basis, even if it is raw. The difference between a professional and an amateur writer is deadlines. Working to a deadline is more important than achieving the mythic ideal paper. I also find that when students wait to submit their ideal paper that they are crushed when substantial revisions are to be made. The supervisor can make suggestions, edits, improve the paper and move on without judgment. The goal is to develop a relationship that produces a large amount of scholarly material in an efficient manner. Trust between a student and supervisor is the best way to make this happen. When the secrecy issue is fostered we are teaching grad students to be perfectionists and adding anxiety to their lives.

“I’m a multi-tasker.”

–You are not. You can only attend to one task at a time. Many folks have developed a sophisticated skill set where they actively shift attention from one task to another. You attend to the television for a few minutes and then back to your book—you cannot do both at the same time. That counts for radio or music as well. You can focus on music or focus on your work, not both. What we tend to do is shift attentional focus. If you are listening to music and you know what was playing and enjoyed it, then you are shifting focus. Once you are in an activity where you are shifting focus between two things, then your efficiency is being robbed. There is some evidence that music with a constant beat and no lyrics can actually aid in concentration and focus. Classical music is an example. When I am at my most scattered, I listen to a metronome to help with focus. But no one is truly multitasking, you are rapidly shifting attention and reducing efficiency. This is not necessarily bad, but inefficient and needs to be used sparingly.

My wife works from home with the TV on.  She says that she likes the noise while she works. However, when I ask her what she is watching on television, she has no idea. She is certainly losing some focus, but not as much as she would if she was at all attending to the TV. I watch television while working only on weekends. I am mostly watching TV, but get a little work done at commercials. Not efficient and focused work, but better than nothing.

White noise can be a better idea than music or TV. White noise can be ideal for folks who like a level of sound to mask the often jarring ambient noise of your real environment such as construction, lawn maintenance, and loud neighbors. There are several white noise generators available online such as http://mynoise.net/NoiseMachines/whiteNoiseGenerator.php and http://simplynoise.com/ . One of my favourite websites and apps is http://www.coffitivity.com/. This site plays the ambient noise from a coffee shop. You can even select the type of coffee shop noise from “morning murmur” to “lunchtime lounge” to “university undertones.” This style of white noise is also helpful for the folks who actually prefer to do creative work in coffee shops, but cannot get there. I do not understand how people do this as my attention flits to the homeless guy, the hostile person in a long line, and the sounds of coffee slurpers; nonetheless many people do their creative work in coffee shops. The white noise from coffitivity is associated with a place of creativity, which can put you in the mood to work. The secret of white noise is that there is no content in the noise to draw attention away from your work.

Once I learned the skill of unitasking, I became at least twice as efficient as before. Now I do one thing fully focused until completed and then turn my attention to the next task. Not only is my work completed at a faster pace as a unitasker; I enjoy movies, TV, and music much more. And as an extra bonus, there are not the nagging feelings of guilt that go along with such multitasking.

We all develop work habits and there are many ways to be a productive worker. But as grad students and professors have increased pressures to produce the limits of our work habits are often reached and exceeded. What worked as an undergrad no longer works and now falls under the heading of a maladaptive habit. There is a constant need to hone work habits and remove of the productivity robbing myths and habits from your work.

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Giving Up On Academic Stardom

Author: Eric Grollman
Original: Conditionally Accepted


I have bought into the ego-driven status game in academia. Hard. I find myself sometimes wondering more about opportunities to advance my reputation, status, name, and scholarship than about creating new knowledge and empowering disadvantaged communities. Decision-making in my research often entails asking what will yield the most publications, in the highest status journals with the quickest turnaround in peer-review. I often compare my CV to others’, wondering how to achieve what they have that I have not, and feeling smug about achieving things that haven’t. Rarely do I ask how to become a better researcher, but often ask how to become a more popular researcher.

I have drunk the Kool-Aid, and it is making me sick. Literally. The obsession with becoming an academic rockstar fuels my anxiety. I fixate on what is next, ignore the present, and do a horrible job of celebrating past achievements and victories. I struggle to accept “acceptable.” I feel compelled to exceed expectations; I take pride when I do. “Wow, only six years in grad school?” “Two publications in your first year on the tenure track?! And, you’re at a liberal arts college?”

When did I become this way? Sure, academia is not totally to blame. My parents expected me to surpass them in education (they have master’s degrees!). I also suffer, as many gay men do, with the desire to excel to gain family approval, which is partially lost upon coming out. Excelling in college, rather than becoming an HIV-positive drug addict, helped my parents to accept my queer identity. In general, I compensate professionally and socially for my publicly known sexual orientation. It is hard to unlearn the fear one will not be loved or accepted, especially when homophobes remind you that fear is a matter of survival.

Oh, but academia. You turned this achievement-oriented boy into an anxious wreck of a man. It is not simply a bonus to be an academic rockstar of sorts. My job security actually depends on it. And, it was necessary to be exceptional to even get this job. And, it matters in other ways that indirectly affect my job security, and my status in general. You can forget being elected into leadership positions in your discipline if no one knows you. “Who?” eyes say as they read your name tag at conferences before averting their gaze to avoid interacting. I have learned from my critics that one must be an established scholar before you can advocate for change in academia.

The Consequences Of Striving For Academic Stardom

I am giving up on my dream to become the Lady Gaga of sociology. I have to do so for my health. I have to stop comparing myself to other scholars because so many things vary, making it nearly impossible to find a truly fair comparison. Of course, I will never become the publication powerhouse of an Ivy League man professor whose wife is a homemaker. Even with that example, I simply do not know enough about another person’s life, goals, and values to make a comparison. I do not want others to compare themselves to me because my level of productivity also entails Generalized Anxiety Disorder. I am not a good model, either!

Dreams of academic stardom prevent me from appreciating my present circumstances, which were not handed to me. Sadly, voices, which sound awfully similar to my dissertation committees’, have repeatedly asked, “are you surrreeee you don’t want to be at an R1?” I have zero interest in leaving, and negative interest (if that is possible) in enduring the job market again. But, I fear that, as I was warned, I will become professionally irrelevant; and, this has made it difficult to fully appreciate where I am. I have acknowledged the reality that no place will be perfect for an outspoken gay Black intellectual activist. But, I have found a great place that holds promise for even better.

Beyond my health, the lure of academic stardom detracts from what is most important to me: making a difference in the world. Impact factors, citation rates, and the number of publications that I amass distract from impact in the world and accessibility. It is incredibly selfish, or at least self-serving, to focus more energy on advancing my own career rather than advancing my own communities.

Obsession with academic rockstardom forced me to view colleagues in my field as competition. My goal is to demonstrate what I do is better than them in my research. In doing so, I fail to see how we can collaborate directly on projects, or at least as a chorus of voices on a particular social problem. Yet, in reality, no individual’s work can make a difference alone. I also fail to appreciate the great things my colleagues accomplish when I view it only through jealous eyes.

When I die, I do not want one of my regrets to be that I worked too hard, or did not live authentically, or did not prioritize my health and happiness as much as I did my job.  Ok, end of rant.

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