Like last year, I’m almost too late with my tiny contribution to Mental Health Awareness week. In the previous edition I’ve compiled a masterpost about mental health crisis. I think it’s safe to say that by now we all know that yeah, things are bad. Instead of bathing in our academic tears, I’d like to offer a solution that did wonders for me – finding an online community. Let me tell you why.
Have you ever had weird backpain or mole that appeared out of nowhere and rushed to google to immediately diagnose yourself? Of course you did. That’s pretty much what I did around my 3rd year of grad school, when things started to get really weird and I seriously needed to figure out what was going on. In my labs, due to the general Belgian outlook on life and the reserved personalities of the group members, openly talking about personal stuff was not something we did very often. As much as we liked hanging out with each other occassionally and helped each other with scientific problems, saying to a colleague ‘hey, I think I might be having a breakdown’ was not really an option. So I went on google. And facebook. And twitter. And instagram. And tumblr. Hey, guess what! Here comes the least shocking reveal ever – my PhD crisis was absolutely not special at all.
Academia is confusing for newbies for so many reasons. There are rules out there that we are expected to follow, yet nobody explicitly states (aka. The Hidden Curriculum). There is stress that affects us all, and it afects us all in stagerringly similar ways. The problem is – if you don’t have any reference, you might end up thinking that you’re either absolutely bonkers (which you aren’t) or a special snowflake:
If anyone can see in a three part harmony
How alone (alone (alone)) I really am
If you haven’t watched Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, do yourself a favour and go find it on Netflix. Menthal health advocacy. Feminism. These songs! You can thank me later.
You’ll be surprised how many mainstream media outlets write about academic experience now. The Guardian is a great example, with its pieces on PhD students as cheap labour, absurd business model of acacemic publishing, obsolete format of most academic conferences, postgrad pressure, the whole point of doing a PhD and many more. There is even an ‘Academics Anonymous‘ section when things get more honest, personal and dark (like here). Nature and Science have also woken up to the fact that academics want to read about research, but also the issues related to their jobs. They regularly write about bullying in academia, grad school depression (also here), absurdly low postdoc wages in some countries and postdoc exploitation in other, sexism and harrassment, chosing your adviser, being a good mentor and mentee, a need to handle your career at your pace , think about what comes next and celebrate yourself. They also have blog sections, where you can find more personal stories and pieces of advice, such as this one by Liesbeth Aerts, a Belgian science communicator. I can also recommend the blog of London School of Economics (I’m afraid of economics so I have absolutely no idea how I first bumped into it, honestly) and its pieces on academic exploitation, dealing with rejection and many more. Oh, and The Irish Times wrote a piece that broke my heart a bit.
While it’s comforting to hear that the world knows now that academic life can be tough (and one of the professors I know was wrong saying “We are all here to have fun!”), what helped me most was finding out more cosy corners of the internet where people shared their personal stories. Yes, blogs. I’m a grandma who’d rather read a post than watch an instastory, bear with me. I’d like to give a special shoutout (not that they need a boost, they are already popular) to these bloggers who consistently send a message that it’s okay to struggle:
- Heidi, who is very open about her struggle with depression, yet maintains a optimistic attitude, has shared how her writing process went and commented on how not to take up any project that comes your way
- Nicola, who has recently finished writing and described how it went, but also made a 101 for all confused first-year PhD students
- Dr. Of What, refreshingly honest about their post-PhD confusion, hard aspects of writing and treating your PhD like a job (which I also consider crucial). She also wrote this very useful piece about all the reasons why you might feel tired and a short sweet motivational one.
- Soph, who diligently documented her PhD journey and gave lots of tips especially useful for these getting their degree in the UK. Check out her takes on the best and worst things about writing, thesis writing tips and what it means to be a good labmate.
- Erica, who is not only a plant scientist like me, but also a hero who manages to be an academic despite her anxiety (about which she is very open). She always sneaks a bit of self-care in her more practical posts about academia, like this one about tips for thesis writing.
There will also always be a special place in my heard for Dr. James Hayton, who offers PhD coaching and course, but also lots of free, short and sweet posts that put things into perspective. The examples are: the need to practice and make mistakes, taming the monkey mind, raising the bar for yourself, why writing gets harder and harder and how to set up your writing routine.
Another goldmine is Errant Science, not only a place to find top-notch comics but also advice we all wish we were given, a look back from a freshly-minted doctor, tips on taming the literature, a commentary of the temporary nature about basically everything in academia and a passionate plea to stop snacking in the lab.
The next tip is not for everybody (it’s a stretch but I’m trying really hard to empathise with people who don’t need to overshare online), but I would really recommend trying to find a social media platform where you could talk freely – and anonymously, if you want to – to other academics. After all:
writing a tumblr post these days makes me feel like im alone on an apocalyptic planet and i speak into a wallkie talkie every now and again to look for other survivors
This doesn’t only apply to tumblr (which, in case you haven’t noticed, I really enjoy), but all the other platforms. Twitter and facebook are really great for finding like-minded people. I use the first to follow all the academic drama and the second to join closed academic groups where we can actually motivate each other and talk more openly in a safe space. Of course, there is no need to share – just being a fly on the wall is fine and will help too. If you don’t know where to start on Twitter, I’d suggest the following: @Dissertating, @AcademicChatter, @WriteThatPhD, @PhDForum, @Ph_D_epression, @AcademiaObscura, @AcerbicAcademic, @IronyPhD, @YourPaperSucks, @AcademicPain and @ProfSnarky. That will fill up your feed in no time. You can also try looking for relevant podcasts, if that’s your thing (it definitely is mine). I’d recommend Hello PhD but I’m sure there are many more that I’m unaware of.
Also, memes. Memes save my life when I struggle to decide whether to laugh and cry at it all. I love Lego Academics but I don’t think I should really help you find memes. They will find you in due time.
To sum up, if I could re-do my PhD, I would do a million things differently. Getting to know all the academic lore would be definitely on top of my list. I wish I knew how to organize myself, talk about my struggles, who to talk to, how to spot the common mistakes from the very beginning. When I started, I didn’t know about the online classes, social media communities, blogs, all the writing references that are there for free, waiting for me. I wish I was told by an older colleague that I can be both glued to my phone and rescue what’s left of my sanity after the trash dumpster fire that is grad school, all at the same time. But then in my institutional colleagues don’t talk about it, so here we are.
Dear PhD student, I’m going to be your weary older colleague now: go on the internet. Find the academic community there. There are memes. There is advice. It will save you.