Selfhood and mental health in academia

Thursday 12th of October, 2017

I read two articles this week (today, actually) which both touched on mental health in academia. The first one, “High-Functioning Depression and Anxiety and the PhD”, by Cat Oakley, suggests this culture of depression and anxiety amongst newly minted academics could be the result of a lack of support for PhD students combined with unrealistic work and funding expectations; something I’ve certainly experienced myself. Haven’t we all? The paragraph which caught my attention focused on how confusing the PhD process can be and how institutions have been failing to support their PhD students:

“Undertaking a doctorate comes with pressures enough in itself: isolation, long hours, financial worries, the lack of clarity and confusion surrounding your ideas, living with the unfinished-ness of the thing across an extended period of time. The majority of us anticipate these factors, to some degree, when we sign up. However, in addition to this, the current institutional culture of academia is failing PhD students in multiple ways. It offers a funding model that pulls the rug from beneath your feet in your writing-up year (if, that is, you have funding at all). It is amplifying expectations to publish, to teach, to network and to undertake other professional activities whilst also ensuring that you are on track to submit in a timely fashion. It offers insufficient training and payment for postgraduate teaching. It does not provide tailored support and careers advice for the difficult transition period after completion, as you emerge into a shrunken academic jobs market.” (Oakley, 2016, para.6).

While touching on some valid points, what resonated with me was that I wasn’t the only one who felt wholly underprepared for teaching at university level. Having my teaching experience limited to the two years of an education degree I completed as an undergraduate (which, I’m aware, is more than many academics have as they enter the workforce as a sessional or contracted academic), and being disadvantaged by my age and lack of experience in general (I started teaching at 25), I relished in being able to work on a team of very supportive, experienced and inspiring academics. In my first year of teaching sessionally, I learnt a lot from the people I worked with and looked up to one lecturer in particular, whom I modelled many of my own teaching practises around. I also asked a lot of questions, an annoying amount of questions, and I read a lot of papers. Since then, I’ve transitioned from sheer panic before I enter a classroom (can you believe I suffered from stage fright? My students are always quite surprised and find it oddly comforting), to feeling like my students know me better than many of the academics in our open plan office. I feel completely comfortable, both in my ability to teach the content, and in how much I know and can share with my students – the latter being something I questioned and doubted for quite some time.

Likewise, Crystal Abidin's “Confessions from a young woman academic in five parts” contains passages that exemplify the unrealistic expectations touched on by Oakley and the impact this has on new academics especially, drawing attention to the perception of “free labour”, which is rife in academia. However, it is the notion that “It seems I am not my own person and my time is not mine” (Abidin, 2017, para. 5), a phrase repeated at the end of each excerpt, that encapsulated my very early explorations into academia. That is not to say that my current job places unrealistic expectations of free labour on me. In fact, I think I’m very lucky to be in a position where there is expressed appreciation for the work I’m contributing. However, what I do is not always widely understood, or easy to explain to those outside academia. This sometimes makes me feel like I’m existing as two different people, people I can’t mash together, people who just don’t get along. The kind of people who give each other sideways glances and make passive aggressive comments during dinner conversation.

I love my job, and I love the creative work I do in my free time, but I’m sick of having to give my ‘elevator pitch’ to people when asked what I do (and people always ask – nowadays what you do to make money seems as important a question as what people should call you when they gossip about you behind your back). This isn’t because I haven’t perfected my elevator pitch, but because it always inevitably leads to more questions, and a longer conversation where I end up making really reductive arguments about complex theories that really need more time than a conversation over drinks or dinner to fully explore.

This idea of selfhood in academia, and in our private lives, is raised by Rosalind Gill, who explores the role of neoliberalism in contemporary universities. She cites Cronin, Rose and Walkerdine when explaining the concept of “'compulsory individuality'(Cronin, 2000), the idea that individuals are now increasingly required to tell the story of their lives as if they were the outcome of deliberative planning and choice (Rose, 1990, Walkerdine et al., 2001)’” (Gill, 2009, p.6). Gill explains that this “bring[s] into being the endlessly self-monitoring, planning, prioritising 'responsibilised' subject required by the contemporary University” (Gill, 2009, p.6) which could be, in part, why I feel uncomfortable talking about what I do outside of academia—no one else seems to have such a perfectly crafted narrative of stability and planning when it comes to developing selfhood and even, in many instances, professional identity.

With that I want to close with some parting words from Gill on why we struggle to define the boundaries surrounding professional identity in contemporary academia:

“All this happens in a context in which not only has the boundary between work and play (or non-work) become completely corroded, but in which we are deeply invested in and passionately attached to work -- indeed, we often draw no distinction between our work and ourselves (and again there are powerful parallels with creative workers here).” (Gill, 2009, p.15).


Gill, R (2009) Breaking the silence: The hidden injuries of neo-liberal academia in Flood,R. & Gill,R. (Eds.) Secrecy and Silence in the Research Process: Feminist Reflections. London: Routledge. Retrieved October 11th 2017 from http://diafaneia.ee.auth.gr/sites/default/files/silence.pdf

Oakley, C (2016). High functioning depression and anxiety and the PhD. Mind Your Head. York: University of York. Retrieved October 11th 2017 from http://www.mindyourheadyork.org/depression-anxiety-and-the-phd/

Abidin, C. (2017). Confessions from a young woman academic in five parts: Wishcrys. Retrieved on October 11th 2017 from https://wishcrys.com/2017/10/09/confessions-from-a-young-woman-academic-in-five-parts/#more-15968

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