Tag Archives: academia

Anxiety in academic work

Hi everyone

This is a short blog post to accompany a YouTube video I posted recently, about anxiety in academic work and particularly among research students. It’s a fairly simple video in which I talk mainly about how own personal history and experiences of anxiety, and what I’ve learned about it along the way. No flashy data, no promises of solutions. Just an honest sharing of experience that puts anxiety out there as something that happens and is okay to talk about.

Why did I write it? Because of the work I do, I come into contact with students from lots of different universities and countries.  I got an email from a student who had experienced anxiety in relation to her studies. Part of what she wrote was:

It is a learning process, right? I’m still figuring out what works for me, like walking for long time is really good. But just recognizing that this anxiety is a problem, like a broken finger, for example, and that it needs some time, maybe medicine, to heal, has been a big step. And I know it goes away. Just being able to put a name on it, has helped me a lot. And what also help is to talk to people who experience such things, and realizing that it is so normal. For me, I’m having the ups and downs, and I have had some therapy. But I now somewhat accept this part of me, and that is why I want to make it normal for people to talk about.

This made me think. Anxiety is out there among research students. And I agree with her about how helpful it can be to recognise it and talk about it with others. I also agreed with her about how unhelpful it is to push things like anxiety under the carpet, hide them away.

So, I wanted to make a video about anxiety. But it’s not my area of expertise, either in terms of research I’ve done about doctoral students, nor in any medical or clinical sense. So I have to be careful. I thought it might at least be useful to reflect on my own anxiety, and lay out publicly what happened, what I tried to do in response, what worked, what didn’t, and how I view it all now.

If you want to follow up with a serious academic paper on this topic, I would recommend this as a good place to start: Wisker & Robinson (2018) In sickness and in health, and a ‘duty of care’: phd student health, stress and wellbeing issues and supervisory experiences. It is a chapter in a book called Spaces, journeys and new horizons for postgraduate supervision published by SUN Academic Press.



A PhD student receives a rejection from a journal. Here is how she and her supervisors responded

I was talking with a colleague recently who described an interaction with one of her students who had been rejected from a journal. The response of her supervisors sounded really interesting, so I asked if she’d mind forwarding the emails onto me for a blog post. Which she kindly did! There’s a lot here that is useful in thinking about how to respond when you get rejected. I should point out this is in a country where many students complete a PhD through publications, and in this case the article was written by the student, with all the supervisors helping her and named as authors.

First the student wrote to her supervisors

Dear supervisors,

At last I have got response from the journal regarding my second manuscript. Unfortunately they are not interested to publish it.

I´m very disappointed about that. I can agree with a lot of the comments, it is useful for me in the future process but it has taken over 6 months to deliver that answer and right now I don´t have so much positive energy to restart the work.

I think I can interpret their comments (at least from the first reviewer) as if I rewrite the manuscript I can try to resubmit it but I´m not really sure if that is their suggestion.

Then one supervisor replied, cc’ing the others

Thank you for your email. Yes that is somewhat disappointing, but from the comments, perhaps it is good that it isn¹t published in its current form: because from what the reviewers saw, I don¹t think the paper did full justice to your work and your thinking! Better to have a stronger paper published, even if it is later.

I have had similarly prickly experiences, particularly in this journal, with reviewers who really want accounts of research to feel as if the research was quantitative (a bit like reviewer 1 worrying about interpretation in ethnographic research etc).

On the plus side:

  1. Both reviewers appear to have read your paper in quite a bit of detail! (which is not always the case)
  2. Both reviewers have offered well-written comments that are quite easy to understand (which is not always the case)
  3. There is lots in the comments that will help to improve the paper.

I think both the reviewers offer largely helpful comments – they are not fighting the kind of story you want to tell, or questioning its importance. They do want to know more concrete detail about the study methods, want a clearer alignment between the question, theory, findings and discussion, and a very clear argument as to what is new and why it matters. They are all very achievable without having to go back and do more analysis!

I think the process now should be to wait a few days until you feel a bit less fed up, and then to start:

  1. Thinking of alternative journals (although R1 seemed to invite this the journal is definitely not asking for a resubmission as I interpret the email). XXX might be one possibility. Or YYY?
  1. Coming up with your own to-do list in terms of changes you think are worth making to the paper – and perhaps differentiating those that are small/easy, and those that require a bit more thought and work. You can also list those points the reviewers made that you¹re not so bothered about and don¹t want to make big changes.

So, when you¹re feeling you have the energy to take it up again, there are my suggestions 🙂

Then another supervisor added her voice

I understand that it feels a bit disappointing, particularly since they kept you waiting so long for the decision. But I can only echo what [Supervisor 1] is suggesting, once you have worked through the comments, your paper will be much stronger.  I think you should let it sit while you are completing the paper on the [different analysis], you are in a good flow with that one at the moment! And we should think of an alternative journal, I agree, we need to aim for one that is included in Web if Science.

And then a third supervisor added his voice

This is the kind of experience that is not only sometimes happening, but rather a rule than an exception. And just as S1 and S2 state; it will in the end improve the paper. But I do agree they could have given us this feedback at least half a year earlier….

I also think S2’s advice is right; go on with the paper on [different analysis] and let this paper rest (just like a wine; it will become better with time and maturation – ask your husband!).

So let this experience take its time and aim for a journal that is indexed in Web if Science, although the IF is not too important.

Then the student replies

Thanks for the support!

I totally agree with you all and as I said, the comments from the reviewers are very good for me in the future process and also for my paper regarding the [different analysis]. I  struggle with the same issues here I guess; clear arguments for the study, evidence for my findings and how to discuss that much more clear.

Brief comment from me

What I like here is:

  1. That we end up with the student being able to take the rejection letter as a way to identify some things that she needs to look out for in another paper
  2. That S3 normalises this kind of experience
  3. That S2 provides very concrete suggestions in terms of not getting distracted by the rejection when work is going well on another paper
  4. That S1 finds positive things to appreciate in the reviewers’ comments, even though it was a rejection
  5. That the student felt comfortable sharing this, and got such strong and immediate support.

Look before you leap (2): some things you might not know about academic work

Many students undertake a doctorate with at least the possibility of subsequent academic work in mind. Parking for now the issue that there are way more doctoral places given out each year than there are academic jobs, this post highlights a few things that have surprised me in my time since graduating with my PhD. I quite like the fact that my job remains an enigma to most of my friends, who have no clue what I do all day. But I reckon some transparency and clarity would be useful for those thinking of joining the ranks of academics. This isn’t exhaustive, and if you can add other bits, please do in the comments below!


I’m going to follow this up with a commentary on the ways in which academic work is both amazing and amazingly frustrating, which will touch on and develop some similar points.


You have to self-promote (I)

I had vague ideas that academics, with a few obvious exceptions, get on in their careers by doing good, solid research, teaching effectively, and making quiet contributions to institutional and disciplinary life. The quality of their ideas, discoveries, pedagogy and colleagueship would ensure that their recognition. If that was ever true (which it may not have been) it certainly isn’t now. You get, and get on in, an academic career by actively (perhaps aggressively at times) peddling your ideas, your effectiveness as a teacher, and your value to the uni or your field. You have to push. This comes from having the vision and courage to apply for grants when you’ll probably get rejected, to aim for top journals, to try out new teaching approaches, and to step up in working groups, push new ideas through committees, take on roles in your disciplinary organisation. But it also comes from capitalising on those achievements when you make them. An academic life is pretty much a constant sales pitch (see below). Here, I mean you’re selling your work to others.


You have to self-promote (II)

In many institutions, you’re not going to get promoted up the academic ladder (from postdoc or lecturer through whatever stages it is up to professor) automatically. It’s not even going to happen if you get on with what is expected and jump the right hurdles at the right time. Often now, promotion is something you have to seek yourself, and the slots for senior positions may be limited each year, so there can also be an element of competition. If you want to move up the ladder you have to be ready to self-promote. I have a somewhat cynical view that the system is geared up so that academics have to work above their level for a few years, in order to show they are worthy of promotion. Then they get their promotion, get paid and recognised for what they have been doing for ages, and are now expected to do more work at a higher level still, with the next promotion in mind. Back to the sales thing – to get promoted you have to sell yourself, but you also have to make sure there’s something to sell. And just doing your job at the expected level isn’t enough. (NB. Some people bypass all this promotion application kerfuffle by moving institutions and getting a new job at the next level up).


Did I mention sales?

I sit at home and watch ‘The Apprentice’ and think to myself how pleased I am I don’t work in sales. I’m not there trying to get people to buy things they don’t want or can’t afford. Or am I? Research councils in some ways read applications with a view to finding reasons to reject them because there isn’t enough money to go around. Journal editors have limited space each year and have to reject lots of papers. Yes they are looking for good quality research proposals or papers, but without the right sales pitch, you’re going to end up dead in the water. So in the proposals or papers themselves you’re selling your new idea and your credentials. In the letters to editors after revisions you’re selling your decisions to make some changes and not others.


You’re doing sales elsewhere too. When students get to choose modules or subjects, you’re writing summaries or blurbs essentially with the purpose of selling that option over others in a competitive marketplace. In many universities recruitment of students is as much an issue as selecting those for admission. Bums on seats. You’re out there selling the university brand, the quality of the course, the alumnus network, the great doctoral program. In many countries research output evaluations (such as the REF in the UK) require academics to write narratives about how good their work is: sales. So if sales isn’t for you, academic work isn’t either.


Helicopter parents

Parents ringing up tutors to ask why their son or daughter didn’t get a distinction on their assignment? Seriously?! At university level?! Yup. I haven’t experienced this myself, but colleagues are increasingly telling me of contact they have with students’ parents. Parents are becoming increasingly vocal and active in mediating their children’s university experience. You only have to look at my own university’s new web page to see how important parents have become: www.uts.edu.au – there on the top left – information for parents.


Legal stuff

Maybe I was naïve but I never really imagined academic work bringing me into much contact with laws and lawyers – unless I said or wrote something outrageous and got sued, and as long as I avoided misconduct at work, I should be free of all that. Well maybe not. As I look to the horizon and at my colleagues, I see working with legal teams as increasingly likely. When more than one university is involved in a research grant, there will be lots of legal to-ing and fro-ing about who does and owns what, particularly in relation to intellectual property (IP). Another thing I’ve realised is that universities are just like any other institution and they have their run-ins with people who trigger all sorts of long, messy, potentially dirty and highly stressful legal battles – students who appeal when they’ve been failed, staff who don’t behave appropriately, tribunals about employment or dismissal. An academic life seems unlikely to be devoid of these things.


Teaching and research do not a whole academic pie make

The everyday understanding of an academic is someone who does research and lectures university students. It’s not that this isn’t true, it’s that this is by far not all the picture. Academics also spend lots of their time doing other stuff, such as: admissions administration, internal examination of doctoral students, external examination for other institutions, committee work, working groups for university committees, responding to helicopter parents (see above), scanning receipts and entering minute amounts into expenses claims systems, managing budgets, managing other people, being managed by others, planning workload, measuring workload, reviewing papers, editing journals, examining theses, organising conferences, sitting on boards of disciplinary associations, maybe a bit of reading now and then, monitoring the job market, collecting evidence needed for promotion, nominating colleagues for awards (or applying oneself), moving offices from one building to another, moving back again, pulling hair out at broken photocopiers and printers, deleting useless emails, deleting useful emails you haven’t got time to respond to, managing online presence, checking twitter, meeting informally with students who want advice, asking others to meet with you to get advice, attending or running stuff like library workshops and software training, dealing with lawyers (see above), reading the detail of copyright statements, submitting word versions of papers to archives, entering details of publications into databases, filling in annual leave forms. You get the idea.

Early academic careers are messy

You finish your PhD and slip into a tenure-track lectureship with a nice balance of teaching and research, and then provided you don’t fuck up, you retire at 65 as a Professor with a nice pension. Right? Wrong. You finish your PhD and probably slip right into medium term unemployment, or at best a series of casual, short-term contracts. Many students end up taking teaching contracts in more than one university, trying to publish in their own time. The early career end of academic work is increasingly casualised (by which I mean fixed term, often less than a year and not full time contracts, usually without decent pension schemes attached). Want job security? I suggest you look elsewhere.


Even when you get a full job at a uni, chances are initially it will be for two, maybe three or four years if you are lucky. The balance between the teaching and research emphasis in these jobs varies greatly. In some countries, the standard is 100% teaching, and you use your free time to get research grants that buy you out of lectures. In others it can be 100% research (as with some postdocs or research officer jobs). Elsewhere it can be a mix. And there are some teaching-focused and some research-focused career paths now, too. I may have a rant about casualisation in a future post – for now the point is to make it clear that there’s a very messy beginning to academic careers – this mess has some flexibility in it, but doctoral life can seem like a simple, secure dream compared to what many face in their first few years Dr so-and-so.


Like I said, there’s probably heaps more hidden elements of academic life that aren’t obvious to many of those who aspire to be, or are at least flirting with the idea of becoming an academic. Please add your own comments and illuminate the shadows I’ve left.