My friend Kev shared this article today on social media. I saw it as I stuck my head up from writing in my personal journal about my own mental health, funnily enough. Well, I’m not going to share my every sordid thought on the blogosphere, am I?
This ‘Anonymous academic’ has taken a very brave step in writing such an article, I commend them very strongly. I also don’t want to sound trite as I write this post in response, as we live in a world of lip service. However, it must always be stated almost as a kind of disclaimer: Academia is not an easy world to work in. Particularly in the field of Arts and Humanities. Constantly having to justify why research is being carried out – how can it engage with the public (this in itself is no bad thing – how else would we fill universities now that tuition fees are £9,250 per year?) and what is its impact? Sometimes a subject won’t have a huge amount of ‘impact’ (what is impact anyway?) but that’s no reason not to wander down the avenue of exploration!
The world of funded PhDs is no different. With literally hundreds of applications for single-digit numbers of scholarships, it’s definitely about the survival of the fittest. I will say this about my own particular funding body though, it made the overall experience of application for PhD funding a comparative dream. NECAH made the experience about the PhD proposal, which for someone who’s, shall we say, a little bit older than most of the applicants who are fresh out of an MA fresh out of a BA, feel a lot more comfortable. The interview process was a conversation directed at getting the best out of each applicant rather than subtly raised eyebrows and a nice ambiguous “Well that’s an interesting take on the subject”. The universities put the money into the pot, they interview based on the proposal and they take who is the best fit for them. They see that in order to grow research communities, they must be invested in, unlike the governments (naming no names, but if the cap fits….) who have placed Higher Education under a shameless attack either by naming and shaming remainer professors, or cutting the funding from institutions whose output doesn’t fit with rigid league tables and frameworks that perhaps they could improve on if only they had some more, oh wait, money invested in them….
Like ‘Anonymous academic’, more and more students are discovering that self-confidence is a class-based system, rather than a classroom-based one. It is only the privileged schools (ie not the ones where they’re having to ask parents to send money for pens and pencils) where the students are infused with a sense of pride in who they are just because they exist. University is no exception either, with only the best and brightest being told to apply for any sort of (now dwindling) funding. However, what funding bodies should focus on next, perhaps, is not how to acquire the funding, but how to handle yourself once you achieve it. A bad research day does not mean that you’re a fraud who conned the interview panel into paying you for pursuing your passion.
Imposter syndrome is nothing new in academia and it affects scholars no matter the stage of their career. When everyone is being judged in Research Excellence Frameworks and now that #REF2021 is going to turn universities into football teams in transfer season now that the research travels with the academic, it is something that needs desperate attention. Academics are more than your output, you’re not only as good as your last conference paper or funding bid. We should be reminded that more articles get rejected for journal publication following peer review than accepted for them. One in five research grant applications get accepted – that means 4 in 5 don’t. When the odds are stacked against you that high, is it really so hard to believe that scholars believe that they are failing when really it is the system that is failing them? It’s little wonder that university counselling services are stretched, just like ‘Anonymous’ writes. And there’s no easy answer about how to fix this problem either.
But back to ‘Anonymous Academic’ – I really hope you can stay the distance and save your PhD, if only for the doors it can open for you even outside academia. However, it is more than understandable if you can’t. Can you stop the clock at least temporarily by suspending your studies until you get yourself back on track and rework your thesis while you take the time to recharge your batteries? These stories are sadly becoming more and more common, for students and professors alike. Let’s keep spreading the word about mental health in academia and providing the training for scholars who are equipped to deal with setbacks just as much as success.