Are you suffering from academania?

The escalating pressures of university life are resulting in all manner of exotic new psychological disorders. Adrian Furnham opens his casebook

December 23, 2021
Illustration of going crazy
Source: Miles Cole

Historically, it was often said that the academy attracts people with, shall we say, difficult personalities, who could not function in other walks of life.

But universities have changed a lot in recent decades, for many reasons. Far from being havens from the cruel world, they increasingly induce their own catalogue of semi-psychiatric disorders. Here is an incomplete list from my casebook. All, of course, warrant further research.

  • Chronic evaluation anxiety: This occurs when the end-of-course “happy sheets” count towards promotion or even job retention. Evaluation scores go up with funny anecdotes, amusing videos and non-taxing games, but down with tough assignments and exams. Some colleagues used to fiddle the books by designing the feedback sheet themselves, producing them at particular high points or “losing” the low-scored. Online centralisation means these remedies no longer work.
  • Periodic gadget fetish: The idea that students will be impressed by odd, high-tech gizmos. If arty-farty, cartoon-facilitated PowerPoint slides don’t draw the gasps, turn your lecture theatre into an AI lab. Play whale music. Try aromatherapy. Scientists are especially adept at this because they have better toys and know how to use them.
  • Naive public engagement compensation belief: Public engagement is demanded, but what does it mean beyond giving a few lectures in local schools and doing free consultancy for charities? Coming up with a better case study is a brain-pickler.
  • Adolescent lecture disorder: An increasing phobia about how ever-demanding and critical students will react to a lecture, either online or in-person. It is at the heart of chronic stress for introverted, obsessional dons who came into academia to write and research, not lecture.
  • Bipolar staff-meeting exhibitionism: A speciality of inadequate attention-seekers in Zoom meetings, who switch between turning off their cameras (and minds) and dominating the conversation in pursuit of quirky personal agendas.
  • Ethics committee phobia: This is driven by a recognition that most people get on to these committees to block their more productive peers’ research. Overcoming it involves barrister-like skills in hiding what is really going to happen in your project.
  • Silent seminar mania: The observation that all students think a seminar is like a Quaker meeting and refuse to say anything until some mysterious force moves them. It requires even the most taciturn academics to discover their inner chatterbox to fill the yawning silences.
  • Anxiety grant application delirium: The acknowledgement that grant money speaks to power and promotion committees whether you need it or not. Brexit has greatly increased this disorder in the UK, amid uncertainty about the ongoing availability of European funding.
  • Occasional reference-writing confusion: This occurs mainly when you are asked to write references for students you can’t remember, did not like or didn’t rate. How do you send that message without coming across as spiteful or opening yourself up to legal action?
  • Ego-dystonic sabbatical malady: Increasingly experienced by anyone even on a short break, this is a full-blooded phobia of going back to your institution after a respite from the demands of HR and the head of department.
  • Substance-induced early retirement impulse: The urge to spend hours on websites that tell you how much money you need to retire, following yet another ridiculous demand from admin. Also involves claret-tinted visions of running a start-up with smart PhD students and checking if you can get a local allotment.
  • Hysterical new broom syndrome: An affliction of newly arrived university leaders, who feel compelled to change the whole organisational structure in the mistaken belief that it will result in a higher ranking position.
  • Post-traumatic insubordination phobia: Another misfortune of management. Universities have very flat structures, with unmanageable and unclear reporting structures. Add to that academics’ insensitivity to rank and you have a recipe for being ignored, however big your office.
  • Fetishistic ethics, cyber-security and purchasing training avoidance: The overwhelming desire to avoid yet more dreary training in things that you either know already or don’t care much about.
  • Impactful journal paper dependency: The most serious and common ailment in modern academia. Sufferers fixate on journal impact factors, amid managers’ fixed belief that real researchers are a small and constant group whose output fits into a total of 15 journals worldwide, despite the number of universities expanding at a rate of 1,000 a year.
  • 747 upholstery fetish: The heavy reliance on extramural networking entailed by the peer review system means some academics can rarely stay in their offices for five minutes before rushing to the airport for the next overseas conference. Zoom confinement only makes their urge stronger.
  • Degenerative underpayment paranoia: Universities have always enjoyed secrecy, including about how much people are paid for comparable workloads. This reduces outright jealousy but fuels a nagging sense that you probably aren’t getting as much as Professor Flashywatch.

Times Higher Education’s word limits confine me to scratching the surface with this list of academic neuroses, but I hope it is a start. Just one request: if you are afflicted, please don’t expect your friendly local psychologist to cure you. As a sufferer from several of these disorders myself, I suggest we start a self-help group instead.

Adrian Furnham is an adjunct professor in psychology at the BI Norwegian Business School in Oslo and a former professor of psychology at UCL. 

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Reader's comments (2)

Is this a parody? What is new here? What is an actual studied and diagnosed condition? Come on!
Found this amusing and mainly true. This morning I learned what the USS pension scheme commutation factor is .