My PhD: Navigating Passion and Pressure in Academic Life

Two weeks before I defended my PhD thesis, my doctor told me that the severe stress, lack of sleep, and anaemia I was suffering from could result in permanent brain damage. She recommended I go on sick leave immediately. I told her that I did not have time to be sick. 

There are, of course, many different reasons for how and why exhaustion and stress-induced depression affects a person. However, many people in academia share similar experiences of mental as well as physical health problems, brought on by unreasonable work-related expectations (both internal and external).

In a way, this is not very surprising.

Research is by nature an ongoing process where you are never really done – there is always another paper to write, another conference to attend, another network to be part of. The results and theories we have today might be challenged by others tomorrow. As researchers, we are also driven by a certain amount of curiosity and ambition, a desire to know more, and to develop our understanding of the world around us.

Unfortunately, that desire combined with the structural, economic, and cultural aspects of the academic world can create an unhealthy and unsustainable situation, where real or imagined demands lead to stress, depression, insomnia, and other mental health issues.

In this article series, authors of newly defended PhD theses tell about their experiences from their doctoral studies at Nordic universities.

Overwhelming exhaustion

Although this is true for scholars at all levels, it might be particularly stressful for those in the beginning of their career, still trying to orient themselves and meet various expectations.

That day in the doctor’s office, my refusal to grasp the situation seemed reasonable to me, since I had coursework to finish, a thesis to defend, and had just started to work full-time as a teacher at the university. Accepting the fact that I was sick felt unimaginable and ungrateful, since I was lucky enough to have a job after the thesis defence, in contrast to many fellow PhD students. So, I continued to work with the help of sleeping pills and a strong sense of duty. I cried on the way to work, I cried at work, and I cried on my way home from work.

I remember one time when I was so tired that I couldn’t even bring myself to go home – instead I sat on the floor of my office and cried of exhaustion. Conversations with fellow academics and results from international studies tell me that my story is not unique.

A global survey by Nature shows that PhD students worldwide find their work stressful, and worry about their future to an extent that it has a negative impact on their everyday life – one quarter of the more than 5,700 respondents listed mental health as a concern. In 2016, the Swedish Higher Education Authority (UKÄ) conducted a survey with similar results among PhD students at Swedish universities. More than half of the respondents said that they felt stressed and depressed, and that this had negative consequences for them. It is worth noting that women reported this more frequently than men.

Impostor syndrome

The UKÄ study also reveals that feelings of anxiety, uncertainty, and worry can be found in all disciplines. Students in the humanities actually worry the most about their future, and whether or not they will get a job after graduation.

Internationalisation is another stress factor, both for those who need to manage the pros and cons of publishing – in either English or their native language (sometimes both) – and for international students who have additional stress to deal with, such as arbitrariness and long processing times for residence permits.

While not being an actual diagnosis, “impostor syndrome” is also something that many PhD students (and academics in all positions) experience. It refers to the feeling of being inadequate and out of place; that you are a fake who, at any moment, will be exposed when others realise you are not as intelligent or hard working as they thought you were. Some of you might even recognise how such crippling self-doubt can lead to stress over not being stressed enough, since constant productivity and an overwhelming workload is associated with being a “real” academic. 

Promote or perish

So, why is it like this in academia? And what can we do about it?

The studies mentioned above are pretty clear: uncertainty, precarity, and lack of control are key factors when it comes to mental health issues among PhD students. For many, it is not enough to complete the thesis work; in order to secure funding or employment in the future, we also need to teach, write additional articles, and contribute to grant proposals during our time as doctoral students.

A dedication to research and teaching alone is not enough either. A career in academia today has many similarities with the “hustle lifestyle” of the creative industries, where strategies of self-promotion are central for achieving and maintaining professional success. In addition to the actual work of data-gathering, analysis, and writing, we are expected to “brand” ourselves as scholars – to improve our visibility, and thus our impact, both within our field and outside of academia. While networking, outreach, and sharing results with others has always been part of academic life, recent shifts towards marketisation and self-branding has, as communication scholars Brooke Erin Duffy and Jefferson D. Pooley put it, heightened the need to not just publish, but to “promote or perish”.  

You are not alone

This development, and its consequences, are probably not new to any of you, whether you finished your doctoral studies or are in the midst of them. While a bit discouraging, it might also be good to know that you are, in fact, not alone with your self-doubt or stress (a feeling which many of us ironically share).

There has been an increased awareness of, and discussion about, mental health issues and working conditions among scholars for the last couple of years. I often see conversations about this in social media, both humourous and more serious, and everyone seems to agree that something has to be done.

As Kim Silow Kallenberg notes in her opinion piece about work-related stress and health issues, the pressure of academic life is not an individual problem that can be solved by better planning, more physical activities, relaxing mindfulness exercises, or dedicated supervisors. It is a structural and cultural problem, which we need to critically address at all levels of academia. Still, I feel a bit ambivalent about how we talk about these issues.

On one hand, it is positive that we have conversations about absurd working hours, the difficulties of juggling several different projects at the same time, and the increased administrative tasks of teaching. On the other hand, such conversations risk reinforcing and maintaining the idea that a 60-hour work week, and a never-ending to-do list, is an expected and normal part of academic life. Maybe we need to talk more about what “work” really entails?

A one-sided focus on publications and measurable productivity reduces what I like to call “thinking time” to wasted time, and obscures the role of creativity and contemplation in research. Maybe we would be less stressed, both before and after finishing our postgraduate education, if we would accept that staring out of a window for two days might be part of the process, rather than a distraction from it.

Recovery is a process

In the end, I just could not take it anymore. Two months after my thesis defence I was diagnosed with exhaustion and depression, and finally went on sick leave. I spent the following months watching makeup tutorials on YouTube – that was the only thing my brain could process – before slowly getting back to work again.

Recovering has been a process, and today I am very aware of the need to keep some kind of distance between work and personal life, while still feeling passionate about what I do. Per-Olof Eliasson points to the paradox that while many PhD student suffer from stress and depression during their education, a majority still thinks that it is worth it in the end. It is a privilege to have a job that offers opportunities and flexibility which others can only dream of.

We also live in a society where being busy is a sign of importance and success, supported by neoliberal ideals of entrepreneurship and self-realisation. In her book (Not) getting paid to do what you love (2017), Brooke Erin Duffy explores “aspirational labour” in the context of social media influencers and fashion blogging. The concept refers to the unpaid work many of these ambitious individuals perform, in hopes that it will pay off one day. As Duffy shows, however, eventual success is often more dependent on a range of structural factors than on personal dedication and effort. I cannot help but think that this rings true for aspiring academics as well. 

Johanna Arnesson defended her doctoral thesis in October 2018 at the Department of Journalism, Media and Communication at the University of Gothenburg, Sweden. She did not, however, complete her PhD degree until February 2020 due to the circumstances described above. She is currently working as a postdoctoral researcher at the Department of Culture and Media Studies, Umeå University, Sweden.

Thesis in a nutshell

Ethical consumerism articulated in different communicative practices

  • Title: Fashionable Politics: The discursive construction of ethical consumerism in corporate communications, news media, and social media
  • Day of defense: October 5, 2018
  • Object of study: Mediated discourses about ethical consumerism in fashion and clothing consumption
  • Findings: Corporate and journalistic discourses on ethical consumerism can be depoliticising, but the convergence of consumption and politics becomes highly political when these issues are discussed by the audience.
  • Structure: A monograph consisting of 7 chapters
  • Supervisor: Malin Sveningsson, associate Professor at the University of Gothenburg
  • Examining committee: Cecilia Soler, associate professor at the University of Gothenburg, Ulrika Olausson, professor at Jönköping University, and Orla Vigsø, professor at the University of Gothenburg
  • Opponent: Anna Roosvall, professor at Stockholm University
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    Photo: Sari Montag CC-BY SA 2.0