An academic life or career is a strange one, not in the sense that it’s bad or anything, but just that it deviates quite a lot from your traditional working environment. For some, this may be a positive or a good thing. For most however, this usually leads to blurred lines regarding hours, a lot of isolation in the workplace, and possibly other negative factors which might mean we have to put all the other things in our life on hold. The academic work culture is a difficult one to describe – it’s close nit, but also hyper-competitive at the same time, it can be difficult to have open and transparent conversations with others, and to compound this issue further you don’t have much of a reference point. You might find yourself saying ‘is this normal’ either out loud or in your head. For sure, it’s not all doom and gloom – but the work culture in an academic setting may not always be the healthiest.
As we reach the end of our PhD, we have the inflection point to take stock and evaluate things to see what we want to do next. The longer you spend in this ‘reflecting mode’ the better. Whilst doing this, it’s encouraged to think about your current work culture now. Do you dread going in on a Monday?, Do you have interactions at work that leave you feeling negative? Do the people you interact with at work foster an environment where you can prosper and thrive as an individual? Not just as an academic, but as an individual, an all-encompassing person. In short are you ‘seen’. In practice, this might look like sharing parts of your heritage with others, finding people who have a similar sense of humour to you, being able to relate to others, having social interactions that aren’t always work based, the list continues.
It’s not unheard of, and to some extent quite normal, to have two personas – your work persona, and your home persona. The work version of you is likely to conduct themselves differently (which is probably a good thing to some extent), whereas your home persona is likely to be a lot more authentic, not as fearful of consequences, and a bit bolder in other dimensions of your personality. Your work persona is still you, but in efforts to be perceived as more professional, “academic”, or “capable”, we may mute or tone down the louder parts of who we are to “fit in”.
As mentioned above, doing this to some extend is relatively normal and adaptive. It doesn’t make sense for you to roll into work on a Monday still hungover or in your pyjamas for instance. It can also make you more likeable. Adapting slightly to fit in can help build relationships and support networks at work. On the other hand, when the gap between your work self and your home self becomes too great, it’s likely to have a negative impact on our happiness and well-being.
If you’re having to present yourself in a way that’s so outside your normal self it can begin to be a big mental drain on who you are. Coming home and taking off the mask of your “academic personality” is not a routine or habit you want to have. Similarly, this is why it’s so important to have a life outside of your PhD, managing your work-life balance to invest in hobbies, interests, time with your family and/or loved ones can help ground you and keep in touch with the multi-facets or other dimensions of your personality.
So, what’s the point on writing about this? In short, the work culture you find yourself in will not only have a direct impact on the more tangible things in your life, like your income, place of work, time spent at home etc, but it will also have a direct impact on how you develop and feel as a person. If you’re not careful, being stuck in environments that aren’t nurturing will only lead to an unfilled version of you. The work culture isn’t just there to get things complete from A to B, but it should also challenge you, support you, inspire you, and provide a space for you to be who you truly are.
Yes of course, the tangible structure of your work, what you do in your 9-5, and what you’re working on matters. But so does the people you interact with, whether they’re friendly or not, whether you have team support, whether you can relate to people at work, if you can talk to them and have them relate to your hobbies, humour, or anything else that makes you you. Whether your organisation encourages discussion, is open for feedback, is receptive of open dialogue, invests in developing you both professionally and personally, is understanding of your personal circumstances and so forth, all matter.
Without these things it’s hard to show up at work, bring your best self, and then go home and continue being great. Many of us convince ourselves that “it’s just a job” where you’re going through the motions getting from A to B and try to have a life outside of it. The reality is, you spend most of your time at work, more so than anywhere else, so it’s important that that’s a place helping you to become the best version of yourself. If it’s not, then it’s likely to spill over and have an impact on your personal life too. Very seldom do we manage to keep the two things distinctly separate.
The core takeaways then are to check-in and see if the work culture you’re currently in is what’s best for you, or if you’re in the process of searching for roles post-PhD, be sure to identify what kind of work culture you want to work in. Of course, it can be hard to truly understand a work culture before taking a job, but there’s a wealth of information out there. Your interactions during an interview, check out employees or even message people on LinkedIn, or have a browse through Glassdoor as they provide a more transparent and honest overview of what a company’s culture is like. At the end of the day, there’s a reason that the majority of people are unhappy in their jobs – make sure you’re not one of them.
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