Within academia there is a belief that academics should spend every possible moment working on their research. The academic, this conception holds, loves what she does and every moment spent working isn’t work at all. The tweet below from Igor Aharonovich, an Australian academic, exemplifies this idea.
This linking of academic work and individual self-worth, however, promotes unhealthy and destructive attitudes that can lead to mental illness. Aharonovich also endorses an academic exceptionalism that justifies this trade-off as the price for doing what you love—no matter how destructive it may be.
The realities of academics’ lives are more complex than Aharonovich suggests. Many people in academia can’t do their academic work on weekends. They have other responsibilities. Some have to care for children, elderly parents, family members, or partners. Others have to work outside jobs to help pay their bills. Graduate school stipends are pitifully low. Adjuncts and non-tenure track faculty (who account for over 70% of all academic appointments) lack access to health insurance, retirement plans, and stable employment necessitating outside income streams. Despite what Aharonovich suggests, plenty of academics cannot afford to devote themselves solely to their research and writing. It’s the height of arrogance to suggest otherwise.
Aharonovich promotes the psychologically damaging idea that academics should measure their self-worth solely through their work. But what happens to individuals when that academic work doesn’t go well? What happens when that article draft comes back from the journal, only to have been savagely reviewed by two unanimous readers? If you’ve wrapped your entire identity into your work, then those criticisms aren’t just of your work, they’re of you. Your argument lacks evidence. Your thesis is underdeveloped. Why should a reader care about this subject? It means that you’re not interesting enough. You’re not good enough. You start to spiral. What’s wrong with you? Why didn’t you do all those things that seem so clear to the reviewers? Where did you go wrong? Why did you your argument fail so badly? Why did you fail so badly? If you’re not a good academic, then what does that say about you as a person?
These unhealthy attitudes towards the self and the relationship between work and identity contribute to the growing mental health crisis in academia. A recent study in Belgium reports that the approximately one-third of PhD students are at risk of developing depression or other psychiatric disorders. Another study at UC-Berkeley revealed that between 42% and 48% of STEM graduate students were depressed. Additionally, students had little optimism about their career prospects. Many more students experienced some, but not all, symptoms of depression. These mental health problems have implications beyond just the personal lives of graduate students. Happiness and quality of work go hand-in-hand. As Berkeley researcher Galen Pranger points out, “Thirty years of academic research has gone into showing that happiness, apart from being valuable in its own right, is critical for performance on so many levels.” As tenure lines vanish and academic opportunities dry up, this mental health crisis will only get worse.
Aharonovich portrays academia as a unique workplace that allows you do what you love. That argument, however, is a damned dirty lie. Plenty of people outside of academia have rewarding careers doing what they love. They have schedule flexibility, intellectual freedom, and better pay. The efforts of people like Jennifer Polk, Maren Wood, and others who specialize in aiding the transition out of academia have shown that academics can find many of the same freedoms off campus. Arguments like Aharonovich’s discourage academics from questioning the structures of academia that have created this culture of unending work. Departments who admit grad students solely to fill the university’s demand for cheap and expendable labor. Administrators who battle the efforts of adjuncts and grad students to organize for better pay and working conditions, while holding out the few remaining tenure lines as incentive. Aharonovich’s arguments reassure academics that the decisions we’ve made in pursuit of higher education were the right ones. That trading away years of our lives for low pay and uncertain (or non-existent) job futures were all worth it. If we believe that we’re doing what we love, then we won’t question our own actions or the structures that benefitted from and encouraged us to make those decisions in the first place.
For any academics who might be reading this, academia isn’t the only thing that defines you. Make friends. Cultivate your hobbies. Get a pet. Take care of yourselves. Netflix and chill. Eat a pint of Ben and Jerry’s. Go for a walk. And most importantly, work doesn’t equal life. You’re worth more than that.