Crushed by the ivory tower — a personal account of mental health in academia

Researcher Prize winner Joe Bathelt, PhD opens up about the pressures that lead him to having a breakdown and what you should watch out for to avoid it.

Guest post by Dr Joe Bathelt, postdoc at the MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit, University of Cambridge

For many researchers the ivory tower of academia can turn into the dark Tower of Sauron if they neglect their emotional wellbeing and work/life balance

The tone was set on my first day at university. After a tough year of sitting exams to get the grades required to be admitted to a competitive undergraduate science programme, I was sitting in my first lecture. The professor stood in front of around 300 excited undergraduate students and began their first lecture with the statement:

“A year from now around half of you will be gone”.

Indeed, what followed were three gruelling years of constant pressure with exams every 6 weeks and term breaks filled with additional lab work, seminar presentations, or essays. By the end, only around a third obtained their degree.

Living in a culture of myths and pressure

Rather than protesting this brutal pressure that robbed us of our intellectual and social breathing space, we students were largely complicit. On the contrary, a culture developed that aggravated and justified the pressure. After all, this level of sacrifice is to be expected if you want to make it at a top university.

Plus, the recession had hit hard and obtaining jobs was seen as a struggle for life at an institution that offered little perspective on employment prospects outside of academia.

“It seemed like there was no chance to find employment without top grades and extracurricular activities to make you stand out.”

I observed a similar culture as an MSc and later PhD student at a different institution in a different country. Senior academics told us that the commitment necessary to obtain their position had taken a substantial toll on their private lives. Again, there were myths floating around that made the pressure balloon to even more crushing proportions.

“Apparently, getting a position as a university lecturer is impossible without a Nature or Science publication, students working less than 45 hours per week might as well give up, and if you really took it seriously you should consider emulating Professor X who gets through his enormous workload with caffeine pills and nicotine gum.“

I adapted to this culture by working extremely long hours, working on weekends, taking on additional projects, and neglecting my social life.

Something had to give: the first breakdown

After bearing the pressure stoically for a few years, I had my first breakdown during the second year of my PhD. I had fallen into a vicious cycle of caffeine-fuelled work during the week and heavy drinking on weekends — the abundance of cafes and pubs around university might indicate that this is a common pattern.

“One Monday morning, I did not find the strength to get up. The isolation and constant pressure of my PhD had sucked the joy out of my life. By sacrificing almost everything for my work, I had eroded all the support that might have provided some resilience.”

Fortunately, I could get professional help and managed to start building a healthier relationship with academic work, which is still very much work in progress.

Lessons learned — people matter and the grass is not greener

I think I learned a few lessons about triggers that make academic work problematic for people with a predisposition for depression and/or anxiety like myself:

  • unclear or unrealistic expectations: We often don’t know what leads to success and if it is attainable
  • isolated work: In my experience, scientists often work by themselves and identify a lot with their work
  • high standards, abundant criticism: from anonymous peer review to seminar questions, scientists have to deal with a lot of negative feedback
  • comparisons: the golden boy from lab X just received a fellowship right after his PhD, the people I follow on social media publish papers in high impact journals all the time, X is not only a great postdoc but also an accomplished concert pianist…

No magic formula, but this can help

I wish I had a good solution for dealing with these triggers, but, unfortunately, I don’t. However, I think that there are things to all of us can do to change this culture of pressure and make life more enjoyable for all.

First, we should acknowledge that longer working hours and higher workloads are not the route to success. In contrast, leisure time is essential for building creativity and resilience.

Second, share your difficulties as well as your successes. Even the most accomplished scientists are not some sort of Übermensch and will have experienced some setbacks.

It is important for junior scientists to hear these stories and learn how they can be overcome.

Third, we should all monitor how we communicate with other people. You may disagree with another scientist’s work, but you should acknowledge that this scientist’s time, sweat, and blood went into this work.

So, in reviews or Q&A sessions at least try to find something nice to say.