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Monday, 11 May 2015

Using pop songs to maintain good mental health in academia

It is increasingly clear that mental health and wellbeing is as important as physical wellbeing. As most of the things in your body that can be physically broken can to, a greater or lesser, extent, be replaced or fixed, keeping the one thing that makes you, you, working is vital. Since it is Mental Health Awareness Week, I wanted to explore some of the challenges to mental health that come from working academia and how I attempt to cope with them.

I think I do need to make the following disclaimers:
  1. I have no psychiatric, counselling or any other useful type of training, this is just how I try and deal with the things that derail me.
  2.  None of these ideas are actually mine, most of them have come from discussions with my mate Alan (@alanvfoster).
  3. Everyone is different and every situation is different but these have worked for me.
  4.  I’ve probably put in too many, but was on a roll.
  5. If all else fails and you get bored – can you name the artists that sung the subheadings?

The only way is up?

An academic career is structured like a pyramid (to be honest, it sometimes seems like a Mayan pyramid, with a priest waiting to throw you off the top). At each step up there are seemingly fewer opportunities and these are in competition with brighter, more hard working, more successful individuals. Sadly the likeminded people on my final year course with whom I used to drink too much and play stupid games with at the back of the lecture hall have all left science and are now working in the city. That leaves only the people from the front of the class, the ones who turned up on time, read the papers, asked the questions (there is another whole blog here on education being wasted on the young, but I digress). This competitive feeling is only accentuated by the emphasis on high impact, big money etc and comparing yourself to other apparently more successful individuals can have a wearing effect. It can be most difficult at big conferences, I went to one once and the best description of it was a “Total Perspective Vortex”, in which ‘you are put into the Vortex and are given just one momentary glimpse of the entire unimaginable infinity of immunology, and somewhere in it a tiny little mark, a microscopic dot on a microscopic dot, which says, "Your research is here."’ (Heavily paraphrased from Douglas Adams. The Restaurant at the End of the Universe. 1981).
Coping strategy # 1. Compare Down, never up. Never bench mark yourself against anyone else. Don’t think Dr A is younger, faster, smarter, nicer and has 6 nature papers. Say I have just done X, I am based at Y and I am blessed. If you (like me) are unable to view the world as anything other than a competition, find someone whose job you would hate and thank your lucky stars, some possibilities – sewage worker, children’s entertainer or corporate lawyer. This may reek of smugness/ arrogance, but you don’t have to tell anyone you are doing it (unless you are blogging about it) and if it gets you through the bad days then all’s well that ends well.


The experience for many people in academia to a certain point is a string of successes, without any real failure at anything (except maybe sport – but we tell ourselves that sporting success doesn’t really count). Coasted through school, got into first choice university, PhD in some high prestige lab, Science paper in post doc and then suddenly failure, remorseless, relentless failure. Failure to get an academic position, first grant idea smashed, second grant idea crushed, third idea not even reviewed, promotion overlooked, first senior author paper rejected by the journal of negative results for being too negative. Academia is basically a litany of failure, punctuated with a few ephemeral beacons of success.
Coping strategy #2. Treat these imposters just the same.  Read Mindset . If you don’t have the time/ don’t like self help books, in a nut shell you need shift the way you view success and failure. View each knockback as an opportunity to learn, for example grant A was turned down because of a lack of clinical relevance: better find a clinician to collaborate with. I ruined a work trip to Thailand by sulking for a week about my first grant rejection, I have got my sulking time down to a lunch time, though I probably owe my colleagues an apology for my behaviour that lunch time – in my defence they had just told me they were voting Tory. My mentor has got this down to such a Zen like art that he viewed a recent grant rejection as a positive opportunity.

Nothing else matters

We live and work in a bubble, surrounded by other academics, comparing up to other academics (or not– since you are following coping strategy 1), often married to other academics, or worse still to people from funding bodies who constantly meet all the smarter-brighter-better people! Sometimes we can lose perspective. Falling out with someone who you’ve known for years over middle author order on a paper in a journal that most people outside academia might have only ever heard of in the guest publication round in ‘Have I got news for you’ in the same breath as Sandwich and Snack News, is probably an over-reaction.
Coping strategy #3. Step outside, smell the flowers. I am very, very happy to work in academia, at Imperial College with all the amazing colleagues and opportunities it provides. But occasionally, I need to remind myself it isn’t everything, there are other jobs out there – there are even other universities (though this is harder to imagine). Take time out to do something else and clear your head. The simplest thing that restores harmony for me is walking between campuses across Hyde Park, stopping to admire the Henry Moore or Peter Pan.

Love the one you’re with

There are going to be aspects of the job that you don’t enjoy, individuals that you have to give more to and get less from, marking, ordering stationery, marking, fixing the broken drains in the labs, marking. If you are having an underlying bad day anyway, doing some of these timekillers can really push you further down.
Coping strategy #4 (&5). Shape the job, ignore the crap. Now that you have finished reading mindset, read 168 hours . It has a lot of advice about maximising the fun stuff in your work and life and reducing the drudgery. One particular piece of advice that stuck with me was that there is no perfect job out there and you have to shape your job to the way you want (and that this will change over time). The other thing that works for me is just to ignore all the rubbish until it is screaming so loudly you can’t ignore it any more, this way you get more of the important/ fun things done before ticking everything else off.

Jealous guy

Every so often, I will see some high impact paper, conference proceeding or grant that I have unsuccessfully applied for and see the name of a colleague/ friend and have a moment of extreme jealousy. I call this the Bibby effect after a good friend who claimed his PhD was going nowhere right up to the moment he published two nature papers. It may just be me, but seeing the people who you are similar in career stage to getting ahead is always slightly challenging! When my wife was an academic and we were applying for the same pot of money, the idea that one of us would succeed and one fail in the same round was not conducive to a happy home!
Coping strategy #6. Be pleased for people. It takes practice, a bit of cursing in the office when they aren’t there and a bit of being prepped in advance so you don’t have to pretend otherwise, but be pleased for people when they succeed. It turns out that success is not mutually exclusive, it’s a big enough world and there are several bits of cake. Furthermore, success probably breeds success, being at an institute where people are doing good work rubs off a bit on you and is one of the things funders are looking for in an application. Finally if you can be happy for other people, they will probably do the same for you.

Pickin on me

Criticism is hard to take. Criticism about something you have thought up from scratch and taken months to carefully craft every word harder. Criticism about something you have thought up from scratch and taken months to carefully craft every word from someone close to you, can feel impossible. It feels like a personal attack or even a stab in the back.
Coping strategy # 7. They are helping YOU! Call it something else – instant feedback is a term we have borrowed from friends. It has taken a lot of practice and I am still rally bad at it, but I am slowly getting better at taking the feedback on board – if your mentor, boss, partner can’t understand what you are saying when they have taken time to read it, the busy reviewer doing it the night before the deadline on minimum sleep because their baby just woke up won’t either. Ultimately it is better to get the feedback before submission than after rejection.

Where’s your head at

Teach, write papers, submit grants, fix the plumbing, mentor students, write references, read papers and so on and so forth. Normally this ends up with waking up at 4 am with head in overload, especially if there is something acute and stressful at work – grant deadlines normally. I would like to claim to be a reasonably well socialised academic, not often shouting at colleagues or sending them have you done it yet emails too often (hopefully my students won’t read this). However when a deadline is looming I get a bit tense/ turn into grantzilla.
Coping strategy # 8. Mindfulness. Essentially meditation rebranded. This one works for me (Headspace). But there are others, find one, choke back cynicism give it a go.

The long and winding road

What will my legacy be? I haven’t got any “high impact” papers. No one else rates the work I am doing. I am worthless.
Coping strategy # 9. It’ll all come out in the wash. Who was the last deputy prime minister, who won the 2013 Nobel Prize for medicine, what was the most cited paper in Science last year? These things at the time seem incredibly important and probably are at the time, but in the long run, fade into the overall scheme of things. I saw a brilliant talk by Prof Jon Yewdell from the NIH in the USA, who said our job as scientists is to train the next generation of scientists, not to worry about what is high impact at the time. Who could have predicted that fluorescent jelly fish would change the way we do science. Likewise Commander Chris Hadfield (the real Major Tom) said one of the most grounding things after landing on earth was seeing the plaque from your mission go up on the wall and the machinery simply roll onto the next mission.  If you are having fun, training good people and doing good science, you are doing enough.

Everybody’s talkin’

I have been lucky so far not to suffer from poor mental health, but have experience of friends and family who have. With hindsight, it is easy to speculate what the events were that triggered these episodes and keeping an eye out for them. But talking about good and poor mental health is really important. Talk to people, several departments at Imperial run mentoring schemes. If you’re department doesn’t, find yourself one – choose someone in your field who you admire (and more importantly like) and go and talk to them about career, most academics love to talk and give advice so this should be straightforward. Talk to your friends/ family/ dog/ Vicar
Coping strategy #10. Talk.

Pop quiz answers
The only way is up – Yazz and the plastic population
Loser – Beck
Nothing else matters – Metallica
Love the one you’re with – Stephen Stills
Jealous Guy – John Lennon
Pickin’ on me – Skunk Anansie
Where’s your head at – Basement Jaxx
The Long and winging road – The Beatles
Everybody’s talkin’ – Harry Nilson

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