Before we dive into this topic and discuss the obstacles academia creates in reaching your full potential, it’s important we provide a disclaimer. This post and much of the other content made available on this blog is deliberately positioned to be strong and bold in nature. The reason for this is quite simple, within an academic setting, whilst doing your PhD, or any other academic environment, you’re probably very unlikely to come across alternative viewpoints and narratives. Over time, this can start to distort your perspective, the way you see the world, and overall job market.
Because of this, it’s deeply important that the content made available on this blog provides an alternative viewpoint and can cut through that constant drone of ‘publish or perish’. To do so, we have to be bold. Thus, there will always be exceptions to the rule. There will always be individuals who feel differently, and there will always be positives to take away from having a career in academia. But we’re not here to talk about that. We’re here to provide you an alternative perspective on how to reach your full potential. To freshen things up and too upset the narrative of the academic career journey.
For those of you that don’t know, potential can be defined in a variety of ways. On the most part it can be a subjective term which you yourself are free to define. However, what may help with this definition is by turning to pretty popular frameworks when it comes to reaching your potential. The one we’re going to cover in this post is Maslow’s Hierarchy of needs. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is a pretty famous psychological concept that organises your human needs in a pyramid like structure whereby your full potential is at the top (labelled as self-actualisation). Reaching your full potential, or self-actualisation, can be thought of as a term that describes your desire to become everything you are capable of becoming. Furthermore, self-actualisation is a state where you seek personal fulfilment and when you come to find a meaning in your life that is important. Due to this, what everyone finds fulfilling is subjective and will vary. Your potential is specific to you. Another way of identifying when you’ve reached your full potential and self-actualised (although this is a continual process that is not static), is that you will experience euphoria, joy, and wonder. On this path to reach your full potential, Maslow outlines five key levels or ‘needs’ consisting of physiological, safety, belongingness and love, esteem and then self-actualisation that generally need to be accomplished before reaching the top. This is often depicted as a pyramid (see below).
Generally speaking, although not definitive, you must work your way up through the pyramid. First fulfilling your physiological needs, then your safety needs, and so on and so forth. In the context of your PhD this makes sense. You’re probably not going to do well in your PhD if you don’t take a break and rest (although burnout is really common), it’s substantially more difficult to publish in a top tier journal if you don’t have somewhere safe to live. This on the most part should feel rather obvious and quite intuitive. However, let’s take this a step further. For most in academia, there is a belief that studying your particular research field, ‘contributing to the evidence base’, and working on the topic you ‘love’ is what you find fulfilling. Despite this, many PhD students have poor mental health, struggle with imposter syndrome, have a lack of job security, poor work-life balance, debt, and so on. In fact, the list just continues.
Referring back to Maslow’s Hierarchy of needs outlined above, let’s think about whether your PhD, academia, or a post-doc is what will truly move you towards your full potential. Fortunately, for most have their physiological and biological needs met. Having adequate food, water, warmth and rest should be consistent in your life. Nonetheless, if you’re working strange hours or have ridiculous amounts of work to complete are you eating well? Are you eating consistently? It’s not unheard of for PhD students and academics alike to skip meals, not have lunch, eat food on the go to ensure they can maximise time efficiency. Similarly, long hours, stressful deadlines, or last-minute ad-hoc tasks from your difficult supervisor probably interfere with your ability to rest. In the short term it’s manageable and survivable – but if you pursue a post-doc or future academic routes it’s likely to continue or possibly get worse. If this happens, it may become increasingly more difficult to have your physiological needs met.
The same may also apply for your safety – although this may be unfulfilled due to other circumstances. The instability surrounding academia is widely accepted. The non-permanent jobs/contracts, the chance that in a few years or so you may be unemployed, your income is not guaranteed or even the fact a position in your current institution may disappear is pretty common. It’s also one of the driving factors for many PhD students moving into industry once they finish. This lack of job security, stability, and reliable income can directly threaten your second need – safety. If you aren’t earning or are unable to see where you will be in 5 years’ time, it’s extremely difficult to plan, predict your future, or even reach your full potential. You’re preoccupied forever in ensuring job security – not becoming your best self.
If for some magical reason you’re able to have your safety needs met or at least can ‘tolerate’ or are comfortable with the lack of predictability (which most people aren’t by the way), based on the hierarchy mentioned above, will your sense of belonging be fulfilled? Not having stability in the workplace will definitely sit in direct opposition for workplace belongingness. How could you feel welcomed and part of a team if you know for a fact that you could be out of a job once your contract is over? Furthermore, if you’re having to juggle a poor work-life balance, engage in late deadlines, struggling to say ‘no’ to tasks, and commit a lot of ‘overtime’ to do well in an academic setting, how much of an impact is this having on your personal and intimate relationships? Missing birthdays, social events, or family time because you’re so engrossed in your work or publishing can prevent you from reaching your full potential. Of course, some people may be able to juggle it, or possibly your family members are also academics, and they operate in the same way. Maybe being sociable and present in your close relationships isn’t a goal or an important life value for you – in which case you’ll thoroughly enjoy academia. But in reality, this doesn’t apply to most. And to be clear, there is nothing ‘wrong’ with you for wanting to spend time with your family and loved ones. Research can wait for tomorrow.
Esteem is the next need up the pyramid. This just pertains to feelings of accomplishment, success, or social status/prestige. Of course, this is likely to be directly linked to doing something you enjoy. You probably won’t feel a sense of success or accomplishment if you’re the best at something that you don’t enjoy. Also having a PhD and working within an academic setting can be considered ‘prestigious’ by some – but it’s not the only means to feel prestige. The last aspects of success and accomplishments is a tricky one. Relatively speaking, working in a research field goes mostly unnoticed by non-academic folk. Furthermore, those within academia love to criticise, point fingers and compete. The politics isn’t always fun. Sometimes you can feel the toxic competitiveness in the air.
This is likely to also fuel those long working hours in order to stay ahead. We already mentioned ‘publish or perish’, a common phrase that is thrown around academia in order to survive in the industry, not even do well necessarily. Publishing really is the epitome of being an academic, but this novelty wears off after a while. Many don’t even enjoy publishing. You spend so much of your waking hours problem solving, grafting, writing, managing projects, etc, only for very few people to read your work. Of course, some people make it with widely cited reports, but again it’s very detached and removed from your day-to-day life. It’s hard for this to add to your self-esteem. Then you’ve got imposter syndrome sitting underneath all of this. Constantly feeling like you’re not smart enough or not clever enough is a common feeling we all know too well. Academia fuels this feeling more so than other industries. Bringing it back to the context of reaching your full potential however, these negatives don’t necessarily sound conducive to a happy and productive life, do they? Or at least, not as happy as you could be.
The last step in the hierarchy is reaching self-actualisation or your full potential. If you’ve made it this far, please share your tips or what enabled you to get here. Up to this point we’ve highlighted how working in academia and staying in this place after your PhD can interfere with your journey to be your best self. It’s not necessarily the work which weighs you down (although it might), it’s the context and environment in which academic positions are situated in. For a second let’s think of it like this. Think about the number of hours and hard work you spend on your PhD or in an academic career. Think about all the struggles, sacrifices, and the difficult challenges you’ve had to overcome. Consider the skills and resilience you’ve had to demonstrate and tap into to get to this point. Now, think about the rewards and benefits you’re getting. Think about your life holistically. Are you happy? Are you ‘fulfilled’? Are you moving towards the best version of yourself? Are you creating a life you want to live? You may say yes, many other will so ‘no’ or ‘sort of’. But now let’s spin it on its head for one last time. Let’s take all those magnificent attributes, your dedication, your transferable skills, your resilience, your intelligence, everything, and imagine applying it to something else. What might happen?
How happy would you be if you applied all of that grit and talent to an environment that was conducive to you reaching your full potential? Where would you end up if you applied yourself in a career that was stable, paid you respectably, had reasonable working hours, and was supportive?
Hopefully you feel as though the sky is the limit. You could be anything you want to be. That journey of getting to that destination, freeing yourself from the ‘trap’ of academia, is you reaching your full potential, or at least moving towards it. But one thing for sure is that you won’t reach your full potential in academia.
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