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If academic life is so difficult, why do I do it?

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If academic life is so difficult, why do I do it?

I feel that academic life is notoriously insecure. It seems like we’re constantly scrambling for grant funding, pushing manuscripts we’ve spent years of our lives working on through the arduous process of peer review, and attempting to find pots of money to fund conference attendance so that we can leave our desks behind for a few days.

I know what you’re thinking - If academic life is so difficult, why do I do it?

That’s a serious question. If the process of academic life is so difficult and unstable, then why are there still so many of us slogging away in this area? Clearly, I can only speak for myself, and I have chosen to stay in academia for two reasons.

1. I love the work I do.

2. The people I work with are incredible.

I’m not going to spend too much time on the first point. All I’d like to say is that I am a clinical trials methodologist, which means that all of the projects I’m working on have the joint aim of trying to improve the way in which clinical trials are designed and conducted. I strongly believe that if we can make clinical trials more evidence-based, then they will become more efficient; ultimately resulting in less research waste and more useful evidence for patients, clinicians and policymakers to use in healthcare decision-making. The fact that I love trials methodology does not mean that others will. I understand that interest is an incredibly personal thing.

However, the people that I work with are simply incredible! As academics, I believe that we have a degree of flexibility that is unheard of in any other industry (at least, in my experience). I love being able to come up with innovative ideas for research projects after a short conversation with a colleague, and then spending time and effort working on that project until it is a full grant application, with a group of team members across various different disciplines and geographic locations.

“You get to choose who you work with.”

When I started my PhD in 2015, one of my supervisors (Professor Shaun Treweek, also at the University of Aberdeen) gave me a few pieces of advice; the most important one being, “You get to choose who you work with.” That sounds incredibly simple, but having the awareness and understanding that you don’t need to work with people you don’t like can change everything about the way you work. I feel that the people who surround you can make or break your level of enjoyment at your job. In my own experience, I have found that the people who you get on well with, who can make you laugh, and who understand the way you work can help you love your job. On the other hand, people who are less easy to get on with and who work differently as compared to your own ways can be frustrating at best, and at worst, depressing.

When I was diagnosed with depression less than a year into my PhD studies, I was terrified. My mind was racing with questions – What would people think? Would people avoid working with me? Would I be able to complete my PhD after all? I was really worried that my PhD supervisors and colleagues would be weird about it. Although, none of my colleagues had ever done anything to make me think that my depression would be a problem, for me, explaining this new diagnosis was a weird conversation to have and you can never be sure how anyone will react when you start talking about something so personal.

The conversation itself was, perhaps unsurprisingly, quick and painless. I had been open with my supervisors about a number of unfortunate events that had happened in my life in the previous months, and they had both been supportive throughout. When I tackled the subject of my diagnosis with them, I think they were more relieved than anything. They let me talk for a few minutes about how I was feeling and what I was doing about it, they didn’t put any pressure on me to up my workload, they asked numerous times if there was anything they could do to help, and they congratulated me for seeking help when I needed it. Neither of them changed the way that they interacted with me, and at that point I was certain that they would support me all the way to PhD completion.

Excellent people make every difficult day easier to deal with

I have been living with depression for quite some time now. Some days I am absolutely fine; you would never even realise that I have depression – to the extent that sometimes I actually forget. Other days though, it’s not that simple. And as you can probably imagine, difficult days are not always predictable. Sometimes a difficult day means that I don’t get out of bed, sometimes it means I get to work and find that my brain doesn’t function as I want it to and I struggle to get words out coherently. Sometimes difficult days can even last more than one day, turning into difficult weeks with stunted productivity.

Difficult days and weeks are hard because I’m not only forcing my own productivity to come to a standstill, but when I don’t do the things I’m supposed to, it can have a knock-on effect on the people that I work with. However, I’m very fortunate. And I say this because the best bit about my situation is that the people I work with are consistently understanding and supportive. Somehow, both Shaun, and my other PhD supervisor, Dr. Katie Gillies, have managed to strike a balance between being understanding and sensitive, and giving me just the right amount of determination to pick myself back up and get on with navigating this unfamiliar academic landscape to build a successful career.

In sum, I’d like to say that whether you are an established academic, or a very early career researcher like me, pay attention to the people around you – if they are not supporting you and making your life better, then maybe it’s time to reassess things.  

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Published on: Jan 15, 2019

MSci Pharmacology with Industrial Placement; Research Assistant, University of Aberdeen
See more from Heidi Gardner


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