I began writing this blog post yesterday, but abandoned it because I felt I couldn’t quite tackle – or disentangle – the various complex issues on which I’d inevitably have to touch if I didn’t want to sound like an ignorant, naive idiot. The post was sparked by my recurring desire to cry out: “PhDs don’t have to be stressful! They don’t have to be isolating! You can be just fine, and so can your supervisor!” Immediately, however, I wondered if what the post would propose would be read as an encouragement of laziness, unreliability, or uncolleagial behaviour, ignoring the various competing pressures which, in different constellations and manifestations, affect higher education staff and doctoral researchers. Then I saw the following Guardian blog post from earlier this week run through my Twitter feed this morning: “Studying for a humanities PhD can make you feel cut off from humanity”. Enough of a reason, I think, to try again.
As most of you know, I’m an advocate of people telling their stories and having their lived experiences in academia heard, be those experiences defined by their financial situation, their mental health, or physical health, or other factors. I genuinely think that those individual narratives, together, can cause change, but not on their own. What they should be – implicitly or explicitly, individually or as a body of voices – is a call to action, a step towards destigmatisation, and a factor in our considerations of how we can affect change within the sector. They are evidence of the things are right and the things that are wrong withing academia in the UK at the moment, and they are testimonies of how the real-life, often vastly diverse impacts these rights and wrongs have on individuals.
However, acknowledging issues and effecting change are, still, two different steps in this process. In particular, reiterating a certain problem again, and again, and again, can also be counterproductive if no action – personal or collective – arises from it. Repeatedly, for example, I read and hear that PhDs can be isolating, especially in the humanities (see the Guardian piece linked above), and that this can lead to tough working conditions, mental health problems, and a very problematic sense of self worth. All true, of course. PhDs and academic jobs are stressful, we hear again and again, from colleagues who are stressed, from doctoral students who are stressed, and all of whom, of course, have a right to express and draw attention to this undesirable state of chronic stress. There is a very fine line, however, between drawing attention to an issue and, even if involuntarily, creating a sick, harmful norm in the process, a norm which dictates that this is what it’s like; this is how you do academia; and you can’t do it without stress and isolation. This is the point with which I take issue, and where I think constructive action is becoming increasingly important as a way of building on the valuable individual narratives that keep emerging.
Arguably, a lot of the factors which can make academia a stressful and isolating working environment are not immediately changeable. The marketisation and commodification of higher education stands as a major example here. What we can do, however, is develop individual and collective ways of dealing with the implications of these factors instead of simply surrendering to them. I actually know a lot of colleagues across the UK who don’t work twenty-four hours a day, and who take regular holidays and time off.
But these aren’t the narratives that are being told. This is one of the reasons why I do that thing that might annoy so many of you: I tweet pictures of my walks with Maya, I write about my running and cycling, and I tell the world when I’m having a lovely evening at my neighbours’ house. Not because I think you must all be waiting for the next update on how long Maya can possibly chase her tail, but because I want to help create an alternative narrative of academia. One where it’s perfectly normal that I don’t work all day every day, and one where it’s evident that I make use of the privileges my job affords me. If I feel like writing on a Sunday evening and I have no other obligations, then I make use of that desire and drive there and then, knowing that there will be a day when I can’t get a single word onto the page, for whatever reason. This, especially in the last couple of months, has also really brought back the fun of research and writing for me, while it seemed a looming, threatening obligation earlier in the semester, when piles of marking were covering my desk. I’m now able to relax while I’m working, instead of seeing the two as binary opposites. This isn’t to paint academia as the promised land, but what I would like to try and do is negotiate between those two extreme types of stories we often hear: that either we are over-privileged, lucky moaners who should be forever grateful for every extra hour we’re allowed to work; or that academia is one of the most exploitative environments with the most undesirable and unrewarding working conditions.
Too often, flexibility is translated into being able to work all the time, instead of meaning you can choose when and where you work in accordance with your circumstances and other commitments. What I try to teach my students, especially my postgraduate students, is that you need to make things work for you, not for others. That someone else is stressed, doesn’t mean you should be, or that you should feel guilty of having a day off. I’m also convinced that we can only teach and pass on the skills of how to be a happy academic if we make an effort to be one. How can I teach my students to manage their workloads and maintain a good level of wellbeing if I can’t do so myself?
This also means taking action at departmental, faculty, and institutional level. In his Guardian blog post, Michael Perfect already helpfully suggests strategies PhD students can adopt to avoid isolation. However, I think we – as mentors – and our institutions have a responsibility to ensure that PhD students do not feel isolated, just like we have a responsibility to provide them with professional training. Organising a simple monthly meeting – PhD picnic or otherwise – is a good first step to bring postgraduates together and provide a space in which we and they can foster a healthier working culture within higher education.
But who has the time to organise this, I hear you cry! Well, this is where the complexities come in that put me off finishing this piece yesterday. High workloads mean that taking on such extra, voluntary responsibilities is often left to those who perhaps already struggle to maintain a healthy relationship with their work, and even those who do may feel that one more commitment might tip that delicate balance over the edge. I can’t answer these concerns coherently. One way of seeing the situation is that, perhaps, this is just the opportunity you, as a member of academic staff, need to force yourself to sit down and reflect, just as your postgraduates will do in the space you provide them. See it not as having to give up yet another hour of your time, but as a means of creating a better, healthier working culture together. This sounds – and perhaps is – idealistic, I know, but it’s as much as I can suggest for now. We need to make a start somewhere, and the more we do this together with our postgraduates, the greater the likelihood that there will be a happy, well-balanced new generation of academics who help to push forward this slow shift in attitudes and practice.
There are, of course, individual levels, too, on which we can affect change, if only for ourselves, but what else could make a better starting point? If there is one thing I have learned in the past two years in my first permanent post, it’s that you can be collegial and helpful without working yourself into the ground and making others feel like they should be doing the same. As many have said before me, in reality, asking to push that submission deadline back by a couple of days will most likely not lead to apocalyptic scenarios, and neither will answering that email tomorrow morning instead of late tonight. Naturally, there are exceptions to this: some deadlines can’t be moved, some situations demand an immediate response, but we too often fall into the trap of not evaluating which is which; what can wait, what can’t, and what – realistically – are the consequences if it would have to. Short bouts of stress can be helpful – they can get me writing, they can get me excited. A permanent state of stress and anxiety will result only in a lack of productivity and deep unhappiness for all involved.
If there’s one thing I’ve become quite good at, it’s stopping to break out in stress and worry as soon as something unexpected comes up or an issue lands in my email inbox. The likelihood is that it’s not a big problem and can be dealt with. I should also say that I think I’ve managed to arrive at this point without offloading responsibility or causing much trouble to anyone else, something I was afraid I would be accused of promoting with this post when I first started it. Overall, then, I sympathise and am excited about the SLOW university concept Professor Maggie O’Neill is beginning to develop (see here). I think the issues I have highlighted here have an impact on absolutely everything: the quality of our teaching, the securing of an excellent new generation of researchers and educators, and the quality of our research. It all begins with the quality of our lives and our wellbeing, something which the REF doesn’t yet ask us to assess.