How not to be an academic A-H during Covid


I’m popping a content warning at the top of this one: I’m going to talk about mental health and quitting the PhD. If that’s not good for you to read right now, feel free click away.

As lockdown closed on Australia in March, I posed a question: should you quit (go part time or pause) your PhD during Covid?  I got a number of letters in response. This one is fairly representative:

I’m 4/6 years into my PhD and it seems so pointless for me now to finish it. I haven’t made a decision yet and I’m not sure what I would do next but I had few options that I stopped exploring as people were telling me I was nuts for considering quitting. Reading your article made me feel like it was ok to ask myself this question.

This same sentiment can be seen in previous comment threads on posts about quitting. People who are thinking of quitting – and that might be you right now – are not ‘nuts’. Wondering if you should continue with a PhD is an entirely rational response to these dark and uncertain times.

A recent survey of over 1000 PhD students coming out of the University of Sydney, The Quiet Crisis of PhDs and COVID-19: Reaching the financial tipping point, was full of shocking statistics. Some PhD students are already experiencing homelessness as a result of Covid. 45% of people surveyed reported being so pushed financially that they do not think they can keep studying past the end of the year. It’s possible fully half of Australia’s PhD students are considering ‘disengaging’ from their studies right now.

Let’s dwell on that astounding number for a moment. Close to half of PhD students are contemplating leaving their studies in the next six months. Things are so desperate that 5% are couch surfing or sleeping in cars and 75% expect to experience financial hardship because of Covid. (ANU students: many of us are contributing to the ANU Urgent student relief fund out of our wages each week. Please don’t go hungry).

The last thing a person under stress needs is to be shamed and told they are nuts. If you are want to quit or ‘disengage’ from your PhD and you’re finding people around you are not particularly supportive – read on. If you are hearing others talking about quitting and feeling uncomfortable, definitely read on. If you are supporting a PhD student, as a supervisor or partner, and feeling powerless to help you might want to read on too. We need to be able to talk about quitting without shame and judgement.

First: if you are close to the end of your PhD and thinking of quitting, you are not weird and defective. Even before Covid, around 25% of people who start a PhD don’t finish, but most don’t quit until they are more than halfway to graduating. The decision to leave usually happens in stages and financial distress is often the thing that tips people over the edge.

If you are experiencing people around you as more of a hindrance than a help at the moment – this is entirely normal too.

As you can imagine, I’ve had a lot of “I’m thinking about quitting” conversations with students over the 15 or so years I’ve been Whisperering. I strive to create a safe space on campus for these conversations, so I get a lot of referrals. (My office is well stocked with tissue boxes that have pictures of puppies on them. And chocolate: those feelings won’t eat themselves).

Most students who find their way to my office complain bitterly that others are not taking them seriously when they say they want to quit. They tell me how friends, families and supervisors try to push their anxiety away. They tell me people tend to respond in one of three ways:

1) Your listener tells you not finishing is a ‘waste’ because you have already invested so much time and effort.
2) Your listener assumes, deep in your heart, you really want to finish, and it’s their job to remind you how you really feel.
3) Your listener deflects the conversation, either by making it into a joke or abruptly changing the subject.

The responses of people to quitting talk, particularly the last one (deflecting), remind me of the cancer patient experiences that Arthur Frank offers in his book  The Wounded Story Teller. Frank describes how cancer patients can have a hard time talking to their loved ones about their fear of death or end of life wishes. Instead of sitting with the swirl of negative emotions that talk of dying provokes, loved ones try to stop the conversation by saying things like “you can fight this” and “don’t give up!”. As Frank points out, these seem like compassionate responses, but they are not particularly useful – or kind – to the patient. Frank explains how unhelpful ‘you can do it’ talk makes the patient responsible for something they had no control over and denies them space to express their pain and fear.

A refusal to engage properly with quitting talk is usually (although not always) coming from a good place. Families encourage people to continue because they are invested in the student’s success and/or think that finishing will make them happy. Some supervisors see their students quitting as a personal failure; less emotionally attuned ones see quitting as a waste of time and potential. The more selfish supervisors do not want to lose a cheap worker and co-author. I find the response of other PhD students the most curious: I’m told they can be some of the quickest to shut quitting talk down. Are they triggered by hearing their own inner doubts coming out of someone else’s mouth?

How should you react to quitting talk? Usually, people who talk about quitting simply want to be heard and have their struggle witnessed, so the best thing you can do is just listen. These are not easy decisions. You can serve people better by creating space to have the feelings safely and without judgement.

It’s surprising how difficult it can be for people to listen without judgment in academia. I guess we are not trained that way.

One of the most popular posts on the Whisperer is Academic Assholes and the circle of nicenesswhere I talked about the tendency of academics to conflate meanness with smarts. Another feature of academia, which I haven’t really talked about before, is ‘toxic positivity’: not showing weakness and pretending everything is ok, when it’s really not.

Academia seems to be a profession where people seem to find it difficult to fully express grief, loss, disappointment and shame, possibly because of the competitive environment created by a scarcity of positions and resources. Toxic positivity stops people from admitting they are depressed, lonely or struggling to cope with the pressure and the pandemic has just sharpened this tendency.

Some academics have practiced toxic positivity so long they have become truly toxic people. I’ve heard gobsmacking reports of truly horrible behaviour in lockdown; disappointingly, some of it from our leaders. A special shout out to the VC who accused their staff of stealing equipment when they were actually taking it home so they could, you know – keep on teaching. This same VC roamed the empty halls, raging at the people who decided to stay home during lockdown because she hadn’t closed the campus. She even filmed herself doing it and sent it to internal staff mailing lists.

It smacks of the ‘back to work peasants!’ mentality we have got from sections of the right wing media and business elite. Speaking of oppression, don’t even get me started on how useless some of our Union leaders have been in this crisis. It seems some have been more interested in silencing dissent than creating #solidarity.

It’s not all bad of course. Our own VC, Brian Schmidt, has been fantasic. He shut our campus to keep us safe, Zoomed from his kitchen table and baked bread, just like the rest of us. We all deeply appreciated the gesture of cutting work hours so that people could do caring duties during lockdown. I also hear stories of compassion and thoughtfulness in our university communities. I witness the dogged determination of colleagues to keep teaching and researching – I particularly admire those who do this knowing their jobs will not be there next semester.

People are showing their true selves under pressure.

But toxic positivity, especially when coupled with poor academic leadership, has a chilling effect. People are even less likely to talk openly about their personal difficulties in an atmosphere of fear and uncertainty. The last thing people want, especially when redundancies are in the air, is the perception that they are ‘weak’. The weak get left behind on the frozen tundra when famine hits. Which brings me to a bigger, and much more unspoken problem in academia: mental health.

All of us are potentially vulnerable and can suffer poor mental health – even people who look ‘strong’. While we are happy to talk about PhD student mental health, even label it a ‘crisis’, we rarely turn the spotlight on the academics who teach and mentor them. This silence serves to reinforce an artificial divide between staff and students about the effects of academic cultures on our health and wellbeing.

I refuse to continue my own silence.

I’ve been a full time academic since 2000. I’ve achieved a lot in that time, sure, but I’ve also worked non-stop, with very little rest, for 20 years. My peers tell me my work ethic and output is an inspiration, but it can take a huge toll on me behind the scenes.

At the start of 2019 I literally collapsed while in the UK and then spent weeks in bed with a combination of exhaustion and vertigo. It took a lot of time, effort and therapy to find my way back to health, but ever since I have found I’m more vulnerable to the ordinary pressures of academic life. I also have a hard time resting properly and with the whole ‘self care’ thing. As a result, I created the conditions for a second collapse, which happened in March this year. My second meltdown was triggered by the disruption and general panic at the start of the pandemic in Australia, which was hard on the heels of our Black Summer.

I was in Sydney during Feburary on a bit of leave. Towards the end Mr Thesis Whisperer and I, who had been sharing a small hotel room, both developed a slight sniffle and cough. I went out and about socialising as usual (oh those innocent, pre-pandemic days) before I realised I’d given my low level coughing virus to a number of friends and colleagues. On March the 13th, after learning of asymptomatic spreaders, I went to the doctor. It wasn’t easy to get tested back then – you had to be really sick and I wasn’t. But my GP, hearing I’d given a lecture in Sydney the day before, muttered something about ‘possible super spreader’ and stuck a swab up my nose.

There is no ‘ordinary sick’ in a pandemic. While I waited for the results, I went into a spiral of anxiety and sleeplessness. I convinced myself I had killed people I love. In the end I tested negative but never did the term ‘worried well’ have such resonance.

I literally worried myself sick.

For me, extreme stress manifests as weird nerve sensations, breathlessness and dizziness. They call it mental health, but I definitely feel it in my body. I’ve come to view my mental health fragility as being similar to my bung right ankle – most of the time it’s fine, but if I walk 15km around Tokyo for 3 days straight, I can expect problems. I might even end up on crutches.

I had to take drastic action this time. I surrended my phone to Mr Thesiswhisperer so that I didn’t doomscroll social media or consult Dr Google about my weird bodily sensations at 4am. I started taking some valium to help me sleep. As far as possible, for the next couple of weeks, I did nothing but sit on the back deck in the sun. With the help of family and friends, I was able to pull myself together get back to work.

This second episode forced me to face up to my vulnerability and explore medication to help me cope better in the future. After just one pill, the continual knot in my stomach (which I thought was just part of being human) was suddenly gone. I could think more clearly and interrupt unhelpful thought patterns. What a revelation!

I’m such a convert to anti-anxiety medication I cheerfully tell people the pills help calm my inner anxious monkey, who wants to run up a tree at the first sign of trouble. But I’ve noticed the reactions I get to mental health talk are similar to the reactions around PhD quitting talk. Some people brush the revelation off, clearly uncomfortable with any kind of ‘weakness’. Others embrace the chance to talk about a ‘taboo’ subject and share their own medication stories. I had no idea so many people around me at work were on some form of pill or other to cope. I realise now how many academics who seem serene and strong are battling their own personal demons.

Thank you to everyone who was with my in my dark tea time of the soul and listened to me without judgement. I feel a bit vulnerable telling the rest of the world what happened, but I’m resisting the chilling effects of toxic positivity. It’s important to show that you can be successful in academia and struggle with mental health at the same time.

So, if you’re thinking about quitting, stressed out and having trouble talking with people you love about these feelings, the first thing to realise is: you are not alone. Recognising and resisting toxic positivity is a critical professional skill to cultivate and getting in touch with your own compassion is a good place to start.

Try not to be angry with people who think they are helping you but are making things worse. Recognise they may not be trained to listen and might be suffering, just like you. Maybe share this post with them. Or, try to find people who will listen without judgement – this is what university mental health services are for. Professional counsellors can show you how to have these important conversations with your loved ones and supervisors.

Just as talking about mental health does not make you weak, making a space for people to talk about quitting the PhD does not make more people leave. More than 90% of people I’ve had the quitting conversation with decide to continue. People who leave are more likely to do so in silence, often not even telling their supervisors or university administrators. I firmly believe that talking openly about quitting makes the agonising process quicker and easier. Sometimes people need to hear themselves talk to be able to critically examine their own feelings.

If you don’t talk about your decision with someone, and just decide to press on without help, you’ll just limp to the finish line, continually wondering if you’re doing the right thing. It’s also OK to come to no clear decision right now – uncertain times, right? Taking some kind of action about the indecisiveness can help, but only if you feel up to it. You can look for another job outside academia and continue your studies at the same time (ANU students, you have access to PostAc to see your options). Or you can just hit the pause button and take some time away to see how you feel without the PhD in your life for a while.

Remember: there is no right or wrong, only what brings you joy, peace and a good life: whatever that means for you.