When we think about our careers, it’s very rarely that we see this as something plastic and amenable. Ironically, we pick our careers based on what study at university, which is usually informed by the subjects we enjoy in our early school years. Over time, we learn to no longer challenge or re-think our decision – it becomes the status quo, and part of our self-identify. To really thrive we need to start deprogramming ourselves from this narrative.
To compound the issue further, academic institutions are typically surrounded by other people who think the same way and who have come from similar walks of life. Due to the competitive nature of the academic world, most people start their academic careers early and then stay put. When you compare this to any other industry, you typically have people from a diverse set of backgrounds, including ethnically, socially, and educationally. This subsequently means you work with people who have experienced different career journeys but ended up in the same place.
This variability in experiences leads to a better understanding or representation of the real world – it can give you perspective. However, academia isn’t necessarily conducive to this perspective. It wouldn’t be surprising if the people you work with are all like you. This experiential gap can make it difficult to network, develop interpersonal skills or even think a in a more general or broad way. We can fall into habits where we use academia as the yard stick to evaluate our own competencies and what our ‘norms’ for work should be. These can be different for everyone, but are generally unhealthy which is why we need to start deprogramming ourselves from these norms. We’ll attempt to discuss some more tangible examples on what this might look like.
The first tangible example is perfectionism, or at least that desire to impress and not be thought of as a failure or inadequate for the job (*cough cough* imposter syndrome). This is usually most prevalent in academia, but it can be present for people in all types of professions. Due to the hyper-competitiveness and unstable nature of academia, mistakes, errors or even simply not meeting pathologically insane deadlines can lead to worries around the stability of your job. As other candidates or researchers wait in line, we feel the need to be on top of everything and operate at 100mph (or 160kmh). This feedback loop can push our standards up, which in the short term might be conducive and help you improve your productivity, but if we’re not careful this can be a significant hindrance to both our productivity and well-being over the long run. This is sometimes one of the driving factors for burnout and the need to take a break from the PhD.
Irrespective of our career path, this belief and approach can linger if we fail to address it. That need to always be perfect or strive for perfection can facilitate a range of compensatory behaviours which may not be good for us. A classic example of this is poor work-life balance. To be specific, due to the increased demands and pressures we place on ourselves (which aren’t always necessarily accurate) can mean we create additional work/targets that aren’t necessary. To reach the targets we’ve set ourselves we may have to engage in longer working hours to ensure they get met. This poor time management can be seen as a compensatory behaviour. In turn, these extra hours enable us to fulfil the targets, impress others and receive positive feedback, allowing the cycle to continue. A more sustainable approach would be to either not take things on in the first place and exercise some boundaries, or have more realistic, or un-perfectionistic targets.
At first this will be extremely uncomfortable. Sitting with the fact that it’s ‘not my best piece of work’, or ‘people are going to hate it’ will go against these perfectionistic ways. But this is good as here we’ll be developing skills around managing our emotions and letting go of some things we don’t need to hold so tightly too. In practicing this behaviour, we’re able to start deprogramming ourselves from the demand’s academia is so used to imposing upon us.
Moving away from perfectionism, academia can begin to have a negative impact on our self-esteem and confidence in the workplace. It’s very rare, if ever, to receive positive feedback about your work within an academia setting. It’s usually criticism, making mistakes, or getting negative comments back from peer-review as you try to publish. To compound things further, it’s quite easy to become isolated during the PhD. Small social circles (if any at all) and working in silos are the norm. This can then begin to skew our understanding of what really is good enough, due to the negative (or absence of positive) feedback without the social support system to buffer against it. Of course, this varies on a case-by-case basis and is largely dependent on your supervisor and how well you manage them – but generally speaking, there’s more bad ones than good ones out there.
This negative feedback can contribute to reduced self-esteem, confidence or just change our perspective about what is normal for a PhD student or an academic. Subsequently, to make up the short fall we may engage in those compensatory behaviours we’ve already touched upon – poor work-life balance and inefficient time management. It may also lead to us feeling like we always need to double, and triple check our work, unhealthy habits of perfectionism, imposter syndrome, or possibly even analysis paralysis – where overthinking and procrastination sets in to avoid ‘failing’ after all! As before, these are thoughts we should watch out for and aim to start deprogramming ourselves from. In the short term, they can be adaptive but over the course of your adult life it’s likely to be a bigger hindrance than anything. Can you really thrive if you’re always second guessing and doubting yourself?
The last tangible example that we need to start deprogramming ourselves from is our overall ambitions, career goals, or just life dreams. Based on all the points above, particularly around self-esteem and that warped sense of normality, they will most certainly seep into other areas of our lives. Due not feeling confident in ourselves, or just about what we’re capable of, can create a self-fulfilling prophecy around our achievements. We may be less inclined to take risks, less confident in solving problems related to our personal lives, and more doubtful of our long-term prospects so much so we may not even try in the first place. It’s far easier to stick with what we know, to remain on that academic treadmill going from one post-doc to another than see what else is out there.
This is why it’s integral to get in the right frame of mind first before leaving academia or exploring other career options. It’s about managing the process and to begin deprogramming our negative thoughts and attitudes about ourselves to enable us to achieve more. It’s about being aware of the compensatory behaviours we engage in so we can move towards the life we want, as opposed to living one that is unsustainable. It’s an extremely difficult process, but once we get there – the sky really is the limit.
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