Running to stand still on the academic treadmill? Pursue happiness instead

Focusing on values and priorities while learning from failures is the key to maintaining scholarly well-being, say Alexander Clark and Bailey Sousa

May 31, 2018
Woman running on a treadmill
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Should academic careers come with a health warning? About half of doctoral and salaried academics report high anxiety and depression and postgraduates’ risk of poor mental health is up to six times higher than that of the general population.

Academic work is difficult. It is often isolating and highly competitive. It is distinctively demanding of our capacity to make choices – and of our intellect, emotions, skills, energy and creativity. And it is perilously boundless: we can never teach well enough, publish enough or get enough funding.

Research and teaching pressures increase and diversify as job prospects, pensions and pay deteriorate. Long working hours and lack of life-work balance seem like the new norms. These not only harm mental well-being but also increase workplace disengagement, bullying and even questionable research practices.

In response, those in or looking for academic jobs often rail against ideologies, administrations and governments: the evils and products of marketisation and corporatisation. Yet fighting such elusive enemies can be disempowering and often futile.

Two thousand years ago, the Roman Stoics responded to tough circumstances by establishing a philosophy focused only on what an individual can really control. As the emperor Marcus Aurelius put it: “You have power over your mind – not outside events. Realise this, and you will find strength.”

For academics, one trick is to put your values first. Demanding work leads us to dwell readily on what work needs to be done and how we should do it. However, personal values should form the foundation for academic work, and embracing a values-driven approach can reframe teaching a class as influencing a new generation, or getting a research grant as being given the chance to help a community.

Reflecting on and identifying your core values – perhaps by completing a personal “values inventory” – can guide your daily decisions and conduct and career choices. This does not involve dismissing either your own or your institution's values but finding the sweet spots between them – similar to the Japanese philosophy of ikigai. Often this is not about total convergence, but about working towards an approach that satisfies all parties without excessive compromise.

Taming the boundless nature of academic work and protecting your wider life from its demands needs daily attention and practical action. In the face of the extreme knowledge work of academia, most of us can be heard moaning that we “just don’t have enough time”. This is true. There is not enough time in our days and nor will there ever be. Academic work involves so many choices between what could be done in teaching, research and engagement. Even when tasks are allocated to us – such as teaching a course – millions of decisions have to be made regarding how to interact with students, on what pedagogical basis and to what end.

As such, our focus should be on doing the right work: on priorities, not time. This “effectiveness” approach, first pioneered by the management professor and consultant Peter Drucker, teaches that our personal sense of success in our daily academic work should not be determined by our sense of how many hours or how hard we have worked, but how well we selected those smaller number of actions that contributed most to our goals.

We also need to be more open to learning from failure. This occurs throughout our academic careers, while success simultaneously appears to surround others. Yet failure is more integral to creative and courageous work than boundless success. Recognising not only the inevitability but also the usefulness of failure reduces our defensiveness and reframes the wider cultural meanings around failure that contribute to poor mental health.

Instead of being secret and stigmatised, failure needs to be open and embraced. All those in the academy, but especially senior academics, should share their career failures more openly, with an emphasis on how these experiences helped them to grow and learn.

Working in academia has never been more challenging. Actively maintaining professional happiness in the face of such adversity is vital.

Alexander Clark is professor and associate vice-president (research) at the University of Alberta. Bailey Sousa is director of the International Institute for Qualitative Methodology, based at Alberta. Their latest book, How to be a Happy Academic, is published by Sage.

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Print headline: The secret of contentment

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