Note: This article was first written in Chinese on April 26, 2019 and translated into English in 2021.
A 2018 study published in Nature Biotechnology found that the prevalence of moderate to severe depression and anxiety among graduate students was more than six times the prevalence among the general population. Nature’s 2017 PhD survey revealed that doctoral students were most concerned about things like work-life balance, future career prospects, and financial issues. These findings highlight the significant mental health challenges faced by academics.
I used to struggle with taking care of my mental health. At the beginning of my graduate studies, I was worried that I couldn’t write a good MA thesis and I almost cried in front of my advisor. Later, I successfully defended my MA thesis, but I then started to doubt whether I could come up with a dissertation topic. Again, I discussed my “emotional panic” with my advisor. When it came time to graduate, worries over unemployment during my job hunt drove me to break down once more.
I did end up finding a job, but there was immense stress in my first year of working. I had to move, prepare materials for my lessons, apply for a work visa, and adjust to an entirely new environment. On top of all this, I had no time to develop any new projects, and papers submitted for peer review had all been rejected. This brought me to another breaking point with my advisor, as I worried that, if this trajectory continued, I would not be able to get tenure.
However, in my third year of working, my mentality had a drastic shift in a positive direction. I slowly started to accept that I was the type of person who gave their all to whatever they were working on. Even if a few years later I did not get tenure, I would be fine. I came to believe that, with my capabilities and work ethic, I could excel in other jobs even if academia did not work out. As I learned to prepare for the worst, hope for the best, and take whatever comes my way, I finally felt at ease to tackle anything the future had in store.
Because I am easily troubled by my mental health issues, I try to be mindful of practical strategies that help improve my mental state. I have found some tips useful to me and I will share them in this article. I am hoping that, by sharing my experiences, I can start a discussion about how to take care of our mental health. If there are techniques that you have found helpful, please feel free to share them.
Never compare yourself to others
This is SO important.
I have never been one to heavily compare myself to other people. In high school, I was in an “Olympic Class” in which students were trained for international science Olympiads and, for a long time, I scored in the bottom three of the class. Despite this, I studied at my own pace and was accepted into Renmin University of China, a prestigious university. Therefore, since high school, I have accepted that there are plenty of smarter people out there in the world. Rather than comparing myself to them, I should just focus on improving myself and doing what I need to do.
In academia, smart impressive people abound. From big names to rising stars to job market stars, intelligent and remarkable people are everywhere. Furthermore, in academia, everything is public information. If you want to see who won an award, what paper someone has published, or what research funding people have secured, all it takes is a quick google search. Surrounded by brilliance and bombarded with updates of these individuals’ every move, we understandably feel anxious about our status and success.
Fortunately, very rarely would I compare myself to others. When I began my PhD studies, I made very slow progress but I felt grounded with my pace. Although it was monotonous reading articles and writing papers all day and every day, doing these things calmed me down. Thinking back, in my six years of graduate studies, my mental health hit rock bottom when I began job hunting. I couldn’t help but browse the “Sociology Job Market Rumours” forum to keep tabs on who got campus interviews and who received job offers, which caused me to look at my situation with worry as I had not heard back from any of my applications. This addiction to constantly comparing my (lack of) progress to the achievements of others did not benefit me at all. Conversely, it triggered excessive anxiety, took up a lot of my time, and consumed my mental energy.
Among my current colleagues, some publish a number of first-authored articles in top journals every year, some have received millions in national funding for their research projects, and still others have countless awards under their belt. Nonetheless, I do not compare myself to those who work alongside me or those in my field. Everyone’s career path is different and everyone’s road to success is unique. Differences in research areas, scholarly interests, methodological approaches, and target audiences all lead to variations in research output. There is no use in comparing our own path to another’s.
Focus on the present
In the beginning, I mentioned how I struggled with mental health. In reflection, my biggest weakness is that I have trouble staying calm and tend to focus on worst-case scenarios (in Psychology, it is known as “catastrophizing”). This kind of mindset makes me very prone to feelings of anxiety. For example, when I first began my job, I was already worrying about the future. Would I be able to get tenure in the next six or seven years? What would I do if I couldn’t? During my PhD years, when I shared my worries with my advisor, he was always very patient with me. He would calm me down and tell me that, “Don’t worry so much. Don’t worry about what will come in three or five years. Just focus on the next three months. Think about what goals you can work on right now and do your best to accomplish them. We have no control over the things that will happen three or five years from now.” It took me a long time to understand what my advisor taught me.
Why do I emphasize focusing on the present? I have realized that, when I feel anxious and irritable, it is almost Zen to engage in self-calming exercises like analyzing data, writing papers, and editing papers. Doing these things allows me to momentarily forget all that is weighing on my mind and grounds me in a feeling of pure happiness. Rather than worrying about things that will happen half a decade from now, I like to try and appreciate the process of doing things I love. This is my understanding of how focusing on the present can help relieve moment-to-moment stress.
Focusing on the present moment can also help manage stress in the long term. When I was developing my dissertation proposal, I could only come up with the topics for two empirical chapters out of the three required. My advisor said to me, “It’s alright, just start writing. When you analyze data and write your first two chapters, a third topic will naturally come to mind.”
Later, when I began my job, I confessed to my advisor that I was not sure what my next big project should be. He said, “you are not a book scholar, so you don’t need to worry too much about what your next big project will be. Just think about what topic you would like to explore in your next paper. In the process of writing it, inspiration for your next project will come naturally.”
Things played out exactly as my advisor had said. My third dissertation chapter was finished with ease. My project ideas came flowing one after another and I tackled each project one step a time without feeling drained of ideas.
Let me give an example. I was once invited by a colleague to contribute a paper to a journal’s special issue. I readily agreed because at the time my collaborator and I were just about to write a paper that precisely fit the theme of the special issue. When we were writing the article for the special issue, I found another point of interest for further research. As such, my collaborator and I wrote another article that is now under review for publication. Moreover, through contributing to this special issue, I connected with an early-career scholar whose work I had been following. We agreed that once we wrapped up our articles for the special issue, we should collaborate. The resulting collaborative article that came from our informal conversation has now been accepted for publication. [Update: the three papers were about women's fertility autonomy in China, premarital pregnancy in China, and assortative mating in remarriage in China, respectively. All three papers have been published by now.]
The experiences I have had these past few years allow me to slowly understand that the best ways to deal with my anxiety are to be present in the moment and to enjoy the feelings of fulfillment brought about by “mindful working.” I earnestly work on every paper and challenge myself to think of new areas of research in the process. As I give my all to the current opportunities within my control, I worry less about what will happen in the future.
Find something that keeps you going
I feel that it is very easy for people in academia to question the meaning of their work. It is also easy to feel frustrated and fall victim to self-doubt. One reason is that every project takes several years to be fully completed (it takes an even longer time if people are looking to publish a book). Additionally, when papers go under review, they can be criticized harshly and rejected in an instant, turning the hard work that went into it to dust. At times like these, it is difficult to not question oneself.
Thus, I believe it is very important to find meaningful things to engage in. For me, that has been public sociology. I am very passionate about disseminating social sciences research to the general public (particularly when it comes to topics of marriage, family, and gender). The reach of most academic papers is very limited, so many important findings are not noticed by the average individual. I find that it is an extremely gratifying experience to convey scholarly findings in digestible terms to those beyond the academic sphere. Writing articles for popular media while staying true to science has become a creative hobby of mine. Over the course of writing, I have discovered that this creative outlet has significantly relieved me from work stress.
Some of my friends love to teach. They enjoy helping their students grow and that is a source of fulfillment for them. Another friend of mine specializes in research on gender and work. She served as a consultant for many local organizations in hopes of promoting workplace diversity and inclusion. Find something that keeps you going, instead of focusing all your meaning-making on publishing academic papers. This is something I find helpful for maintaining good mental health in academia.
Having a guilty pleasure
This tip was inspired by a friend. To put it simply, we need to find our favorite way to spend our leisure time. For a long time, my guilty pleasure was keeping up with new episodes of Gossip Girl every week or watching various music videos from my favorite singer Jane Zhang. Later, I followed a Chinese reality show about intimate relationships, which featured the interactions of three celebrity couples. I was really engaged with the TV series and entertainment shows I liked. For example:
Every week, when I was waiting to watch new episodes of TV shows, it became something that I could look forward to. Moreover, when I was watching those shows, I forgot all about work-related stress. In conclusion, I highly recommend everyone find their guilty pleasure, immerse yourself deeply (do it in moderation, however), and enjoy yourself. This is also another way to maintain positive mental health.
Of course, the aforementioned examples are all drawn from my personal experiences. Please feel free to share any well-kept secrets of your guilty pleasures or helpful strategies.
Here is the link to the original article in Chinese: "如何在学术界保持心理健康？." The author, Yue Qian, would like to thank Evalina Liu for her assistance with translations from Chinese to English.
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Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of British Columbia