Contagious anxiety

You may have seen the I Am Anxiety advertisements from beyondblue on television or in print. Watch with caution as it induces anxiety very effectively:

Stills from this video were on posters at bus stops near my university last year. Every time I saw one – “I am the tightening of your chest” – I felt anxious.

At the time, I was surrounded by anxious people. Colleagues and I were in midst of a “change management” process and stress was rampant and contagious (I alluded to this in a previous post). My daughter was participating in the fantastic Cool Kids program – I can’t recommend this highly enough if you have a child struggling with anxiety. A colleague shared her challenges with anxiety as a doctoral candidate in a book chapter we co-authored:

I experienced anxiety while writing my dissertation … It was a very new and scary experience how debilitating the condition can be. I found that former fears like my fear of heights were exacerbated to a point where I felt that I could no longer catch a flight, drive up or down steep hills, take lifts in tall buildings and stay in apartments that were a few floors above ground level.

Mid last year, my colleague Cathy Rytmeister and I presented a paper at Academic Life in the Measured University on the transmission of academic anxiety from institutions to individuals. We published an excerpt from the paper in Uni Casual and have plans to develop it into a journal article. In the relative quiet of the academic year here in Australia, I wanted to revisit some of these ideas. We start with the anxious conversations of early career academics:

I’m so flat out coordinating three courses – teaching, admin, marking, online stuff… I really don’t even have time to have this coffee…

We’re so vulnerable as casuals, so much of the work is unpaid but you can’t make a fuss – they’ll just say they don’t need you anymore. I’m just sick with anxiety over the uncertainty of it all.

I’m really swamped right now, by the weekend I feel shattered but then I need to write. I don’t know whether this is all worth it. 

We argue that early career academics’ lives are fraught with  anxiety and stress, pressure to perform, income insecurity and uncertainty about the future because of the transmission of institutional anxieties about essentially the same concerns. Our universities are anxious about income and performance and an uncertain future.

You can read the short piece here. We also offer suggestions for those struggling with precarious employment. And this article from The Conversation has some useful strategies for managing uncertainty. These ideas are similar to those I have mentioned before: find like-minded souls, have a voice in your institution(s) and nourish yourself.

Right now, having rewatched the I am Anxiety video, I am going to clear my head with a short walk across campus. What are you going to do?

Redefining early career

Colleagues and I have a new paper out: Redefining ‘early career’ in academia: a collective narrative approach.* This is a paper I am proud of and, perhaps not coincidentally, it is one that has taken many years from the initial research conversations to this publication.

In brief, we want to redefine early career to encompass the experience of academics and aspiring academics who do not meet the dominant definition of ‘five years post PhD in a Level A or Level B position’.

(This image is from the wonderful BLASST cartoons).

The paper is based on qualitative data from a survey  of 522 early career academics in three Australian universities, presented as a series of collective or composite narratives based on multiple survey responses. Here are two of the five narratives as a taster:

ECA1 completed a PhD six years ago and has since had casual teaching appointments at different universities (some concurrently):
I’m not sure I have academic career plans anymore after more than six years of semester-length sessional teaching appointments. My earlier dreams have been shattered. I have done a lot of teaching over the years to support myself during my PhD and since. I put a lot of effort into teaching because I love doing it – and I suffer professionally because of that. It takes all my time and is financially a catastrophe. Once you focus on teaching it is difficult to remain competitive in the academic job market because the immediate demands of teaching make research difficult. I would like a permanent position because without it I am crippled. It’s very hard to explain to outsiders like friends and family and this has led to a certain isolation. In the ideal world I imagined when I embarked on the PhD I would have been in a Level C position by now and I would have been publishing and attending international conferences keeping abreast of developments in my field and mentoring future scholars.
ECA3 has a PhD, a young family and is on probation in a Level B position.
When I first started in academia, my career aspirations were to climb the academic ladder, probably in about five years. But at this stage in my life, I just want to keep my job and get off probation. I am a female academic with financial and caring responsibility for my family. I had difficulty negotiating flexible hours to allow me to juggle work with my family life. I firmly believe in a work/life/family balance and I see many academic staff sacrifice this balance due to work pressures. It’s important to me that my time at home is not time spent marking essays or preparing for classes in a panic. My aspirations now compete with my desire to keep my family intact. I do not want to be in a managerial position. Let those who enjoy admin and management do those tasks and leave academics to be academics. I have been told that I should think about travelling overseas, something my family won’t do. I love being in academia but the cost is very high. My ideal job would be to pursue research and teaching at an institution that supports career progression, pays reasonably, has minimal bureaucratic nonsense, and does not require me to compromise my family (unfortunately, I am not sure such an institution exists).
Stories like this are one of the reasons I consider slow academia important, and this year on the blog I want to make space to explore whether how it is possible to be simultaneously slow and successful.
* If you do not have institutional access to the journal HERD, and find the paper blocked behind a paywall, free access is available to the first 50 readers (per author I believe)  from this link. Thanks to my co-researchers Alana Mailey, Kelly Matthews and Jason Lodge.

Career pathways

I spent part of this week – my final working week for the year – at the Macquarie Minds showcase. I wasn’t able to attend all sessions but those I did proved thought-provoking. Listening to these academics it was easy to see why they are at the top of their game: they are passionate, they communicate effectively to non-specialists and they show that their research and teaching matters.

The session on Pathways to Building  an Academic Career: From PhD to Professor is one with resonance for the ideas I discuss in this blog. The panel consisted of university leaders and senior academics. I have worked with many of them, I have been and continue to be mentored by them, and I enjoyed hearing the stories of their academic careers.

The session started with an introduction to the new academic promotions policy, which I think is a very positive step (the challenge will be changing the mindsets of promotions committees).

Photo by @uche_ngwabe via Twitter.

The idea of luck or the accidental academic career (as I have previously mentioned) was a dominant one. And one piece of advice was to say yes to lots of institutional service (“things no one else wants to do”) to open up career opportunities, to which Twitter responded:

But the title of the session seemed a misnomer, and I believe there was a mismatch with audience expectations. Casualisation was the elephant in the room. There was a lively Twitter backchat that raised some of these points:

I asked about this final point during question time – it is a difficult question and the panel responded thoughtfully. Colleagues and I continued to discuss the ideas for a long time after the session. I would like to think there are some ideas in the works for helping academic aspirants to have “lucky accidents” and for PhD graduates to be supported to apply their academic research to non-university contexts with minimal risk. Watch this space.