Research and academia seems to thrive in an unhealthy environment that leads to people developing mental health issues like imposter syndrome and anxiety. To start with, I think there is tremendous room for kindness, empathy and a greater sensitivity towards mental health and gender issues. Both within us and amongst us.
Here are a few things that have helped, and continue to help me navigate my anxiety and imposter syndrome.
You cannot compare your trajectory or abilities with those of your peers
This might sound painfully familiar if you are a researcher: being stuck in a rut and unable to write. Your analysis has assumed sloth-like speeds. Nothing seems to go right and there is a pile of unfinished work haunting you.
Chances are that as you are chin deep in your struggles, your peers have (seemingly) effortlessly published a series of papers, been invited for talks, are all over the news, are the center of attention, have scored a <insert one of a never-ending list of positions in the life of a researcher> at a great institution. To you, they are the epitome of efficiency and you feel, more than ever, like an insignificant smidge of dust who cannot even make a few lines of R code run without errors, or write a few lines of the introduction to your draft paper without your insides getting tied up in knots.
Ah, I know this feeling too well. And I am slowly coming to terms with it— oddly enough, from a realization that I was judging others poorly for not being productive enough.
For me, it helped to understand that despite how similar you might be to your peers in terms of your stage in your research career, personal trajectories are in reality very different. It has nothing to do with your abilities as a researcher, or your efficiency, or ability to multi-task. It is instead a combination of multiple factors that often cannot be controlled, including mental health, your work environment, your current circumstances, and so on. It also helps to internalize that the process of research is inherently prone to failures because it is so long drawn out. There will be stretches of time when nothing goes right, and we just need to develop coping mechanisms and kinder workspaces to weather these storms.
Developing kinder workspaces for people to grow
In our efforts to constantly question, to critique, to examine with objectivity—all the hallmarks of a good scientist—we sometimes forget what it means to be kind.
Our objective mind tries to blot out the human in the picture. But we forget, sometimes, that we are directing criticism towards a human. And in our efforts to expose flaws of reasoning, our criticism goes from being constructive to hurtful. In the extreme case, it becomes an attack on the person and their ability. There is jeering laughter, and the mistake or faulty reasoning or poor example is forever associated with that person like a badge of shame. Out of the fear of this happening, a lot of people stop themselves from asking questions and participating freely in discussions.
Unless you have insides made of steel, this absence of kindness towards others will only home steadily towards you. And if you prided yourself on being a critical thinker, your cold inner voice combines this ability along with a total lack of compassion, to systematically deal blows to your perceived weaknesses.
There is a lot of emphasis on toughening up and ‘developing thick skin’ in the research community, but not nearly enough people talk about how you can create a kinder environment where people can grow without the fear of being judged.
My favourite book about kindness is Wonder by RJ Palacio and I can’t recommend it enough. It’s a children’s book about a boy with facial deformities, who is to school for the first time and grapples with being different.
There is no mould for a perfect researcher
You know, I can’t tell if it is just my imagination, but there seems to be this idea of a perfect researcher/academic among the research community.
Someone who is intelligent, beams confidence, is engaging to read and listen to, never goofs up, never bores, asks the most intriguing questions, gives the best answers, is the life of the party, is always on top of their work and emails. Anyone else falls short. They are boring teachers or bad speakers, or distracting because of their speech tics, or just not good enough. I may be exaggerating just a little, but you get the idea.
In addition to creating unhealthy expectations of others, this boomerangs to how we view ourselves. We compare ourselves to this mythical researcher who, like some decorator crab, has collected the abilities of all the people we admire and wears them like a sequinned jacket. Compared to this formidable decorator crab, we find ourselves falling short. We’re just a lowly barnacle.
And imposter syndrome finds a cue to slide in, innocuously.
It’s not only your inner critic that is responsible for this though. There is also an unspoken expectation to be good at multiple skills and multiple disciplines as a researcher. And as a community, we tend to put people who show these qualities on a pedestal.
I’ve realized that I sometimes compare myself with someone with many years or decades of experience more than me, and feel like I am not enough, that I will never be that person. It’s silly, but as Andy Puddicombe’s voice of Headspace suggests, it is normal for your thoughts to be this way. And that, instead of trying to shoo them away, you just need to be aware of their presence and—although this seems much easier send than done— try and change your relationship with them to one of comfort, acceptance and curiosity.
Your self-worth is not tied to your outputs
Research and academia celebrates productivity in the form of grants and papers or some form of recognition, that usually takes years to materialize. This is compounded manifold by social media where, apart from a small minority that have started talking about rejections, only successes are shared and celebrated.
So it is only normal, that for a lot of us, our self worth is tied to big outputs that you can go to the rooftops and shout about. Our career then becomes a series of receding horizons. Where we don’t feel good or confident about ourselves unless we see a very solid outcome. And when it does arrive, it’s only fleeting, because our horizon has already receded to the next solid outcome. In the process, we find ourselves working all the time, and quickly get burnt out.
I’m trying— with some success— to celebrate the ‘minor’ triumphs that occur everyday. Sometimes this means making your to-do lists a little more bite-sized and achievable (e.g. ‘write 3 paragraphs of introduction’ instead of ‘work on introduction’).
Another metaphor from the shores? Okay. I’m trying to be that gastropod on a rocky shore, in the intertidal zone. That just makes itself comfortable and bides its time during the low tide. And contentedly experiences the return of the tide (and return it will).
There is so much more that is wrong with our workspaces and our work relationships and the way we support each other as a community. But to start with, it would help so much if, keeping with the signs of the times, we embraced diversity in thought, skills, professional and personal trajectories, experience, choice, voices, backgrounds. Both within us— because we are constantly changing— and among us.
If any of this resonates with you, here’s a big hug. You’re not alone.
Also, have you tried meditating? It does wonders to help make you a little more aware of the goings on in your mind.
EDIT (August 2022): This post only scratches the surface of making room for kindness in research and academia. I do want to add that navigating mental health challenges and the murkiness of academia sometimes needs professional help. If you can’t afford it, counselors at a few organizations and universities offer free therapy.
A few helpful resources: