Resilience (1 of 5): does academia complement or conflict with who you are?

Emily Troscianko and Rachel Bray

Everything in life has its stresses, and academia isn’t necessarily more stressful than any other professional sector. But academia does have particular contours of cost and benefit, some of which we readily talk about while others are easier to ignore.

Opening a conversation is often the key to igniting personal reflection and action, and it’s in this spirit that we offer six posts over the coming months on the linked topics of resilience, self-awareness, and identity in academia.

They address two simple questions:

If staying in academia is so hard, why do so many people want it?  
If you do want it, how can you work towards it whilst preserving your sanity

And they propose and elaborate on two simple answers: 

Because it still offers so much that is intellectually and personally appealing. 
By being honest with yourself about what it's really like and what it really takes.
The series arises out of our personal experience as researchers juggling a range of academic and entrepreneurial activities, and our professional experience in support roles to early career researchers. The posts distil what we’ve learnt in our collaboration with wider groups of researchers in temporary and permanent positions about the value of acknowledging the daily joys and struggles of academia, and of thinking collectively about how to carve out a sense of personal achievement in what often feels like a maelstrom of incompatible values – or how to decide you can’t or don’t want to any more, and do something else.

A lot of what we’ll be thinking about is crystallised in the notion of resilience. Resilience is a dynamic, interactive thing. It’s about an agent acting and reacting in a context. In the career context, being resilient might mean optimising the dynamics that mediate between yourself and the context you’re operating in – or else deciding they can’t be satisfactorily optimised, removing yourself from the context, and finding a new context where they can be.

One route to optimisation is through enhanced understanding. So let’s start with the contextual side of things. What is a university like? Here are a few distinctive qualities:

  • The university is not (yet) a primarily commercial institution. Its real goals are less clear and possibly more flexible than for a company whose existence depends on revenue or shareholder returns. 
  • Teaching and research are the two main planks of any university’s purpose but the relative significance of each, and their interplay, varies between institutions. And the purpose of both teaching and research is always changing and being renegotiated. 
  • Those of us who work and study at university tend to be very familiar with the way things work and less so with worlds beyond, largely because many students come straight from secondary school and many employees used to be students (often, also, straight from school). 
  • Research and teaching are commonly treated as vocations more than as jobs, with few questions asked. And the importance of strategic, service, administrative, and other supporting roles within the university is often downplayed or dismissed relative to the ‘core’ activities of research and teaching.
  • The same can be the case for investing time or resources in professional development activity.

Against this backdrop of peculiarities lie some simple supply and demand economics: universities are producing more PhD graduates than ever before while their income, and ability to hire permanent staff, have not kept pace. Consequently, when we look at the proportions who progress from graduate study to permanent roles the picture now looks less like the familiar funnel or pyramid than an upside-down drawing pin.

What can these characteristics mean for the emotional aspects of studying or working at a university? The most commonly cited benefits include:

  1. the freedom to explore interesting, difficult questions without needing to demonstrate their commercial relevance,
  2. the possibility of generating new insights and methods that really change the world,
  3. the chance to stay in touch with those at earlier stages of their careers and gain satisfaction from ‘giving back’ in a tangible way through teaching and pastoral support, and
  4. the scope to take on collaborative and rewarding support roles, for example helping others to be more effective and happy in their research and teaching activities.
On the other hand, there are costs. For example:

  1. Teaching might be lauded as a noble ideal, but in practice it’s now typically the poor sister to research (attracting less status and financial reward), even though it necessarily takes a lot of time. Many feel drained by an unwinnable battle to maintain research activity during teaching-heavy terms, or to squeeze teaching into the gaps where research allows. 
  2. Because teaching and research are often valued more highly than other activities within the university, social/professional hierarchies are often entrenched between ‘academic’ and ‘admin’ staff (in some institutions that shall remain nameless some academics even resist being called ‘staff’ at all, and wouldn’t dream of calling their ‘studies’ mere ‘offices’…). Many career opportunities within the university ecosystem are thus often not appreciated because the connections between activities aren’t appreciated. 
  3. As student fees and calls for universities to demonstrate the ‘impacts’ of their research increase, commercial pressures are creeping into an environment not designed for them, whether through the student gradually becoming the customer or by research proposals having to sell their outputs before the project even begins. This can make for profound conflicts of interest and uneasy shifts in motivation and purpose.
  4. By definition your supervisors or senior colleagues are those for whom the academic career path has been outwardly successful, especially if they have the permanent academic position that very few early-career academics will now get. Despite knowing this, familiarity with the way universities operate makes it easy to assume that one can be the exception, and that ‘everything will work out if I just do good enough research, get the right teaching experience, and keep my eye fixed on the prize’. Intense focus on these activities can legitimise our personal ‘work ethic’ and related inclination to sideline other aspects of life. And the underlying sense of competition for scarce resource can mean that collaborative endeavours – often the most rewarding aspects of our professional lives – are sacrificed to defensiveness and efforts to clock up personal achievements such as papers and grant applications. Many do not stop to notice a declining sense of satisfaction and purpose.
  5. Somewhat ironically in this context, few people studying and working at universities have ever really asked themselves whether they want to be there, or what they might do if they weren’t. As a result, broadening one’s gaze to other possibilities can feel daunting and require a lot of cognitive-emotional effort, and is often undertaken far later than is ideal. One barrier to such thinking is that the real reasons why we do research and teaching tend to be taken for granted rather than clearly articulated, or tacitly assumed to be selfless ideals that elevate researchers and tutors above mere jobs or even careers. The net effect is that other professional possibilities are dismissed before they’re even considered, and that professional training is assumed to be unnecessary for staying within the university, thus closing the circle.

You’ll no doubt be able to add your own ideas. Comparing brute numbers of costs and benefits is not necessarily helpful: one single benefit to you may outweigh all the costs, at least at this point in your life. We suggest you consider how these pros and cons correspond (or not) with your own experiences of university life, and with your personal priorities and characteristics.

To help you, you might want to consider the personal qualities that influence your resilience within the university context: qualities that make you more or less able to take advantage of its benefits, and more or less able to absorb, accommodate, or resist its costs. Some character traits, skills, and habits that might increase your resilience are:

  • self-organisation, including time management and self-motivation
  • patience
  • attention to detail
  • problem-solving skills
  • conscientiousness (manifested by, for example, willingness to work long hours with little work-life separation and for relatively low pay)
  • integrity
  • creativity
  • networking and leadership skills
  • ability to work within institutional structures

Accordingly, absence of any of these may decrease your resilience. Of course, this list is neither exhaustive nor unique to academia; all of them (and many more) will serve you well in many other contexts too. Some are learnable, some less so. We are malleable, but not infinitely.

Take a good long look at this list and ask yourself how many of these characteristics you really have (as distinct from those it’d sound nice to have). Ask how many you feel you could – and want to – work on enhancing. Then assess which of them really are valued and supported in your current role. Ask, too, whether there are life circumstances, such as illness, caring responsibilities, financial or geographical constraints, that are currently reducing any of them. Perhaps, too, there are some which have themselves become traps: they may have begun life as qualities being rewarded, but now feel like they’re on the way to being compulsions that drag you down (like attention to detail intensifying into anxiety or perfectionism, or conscientiousness into low self-esteem or a life that contains nothing but work).

Do you think it’s possible for you to mitigate the costs of staying in an academic environment? If so, how?

Or might other environments have equal or greater benefits to you with fewer costs? If so, which?

Overall, what changes – to your circumstances or how you respond to them – might make your working life richer, calmer, or whatever else you’d like it to be?

Remember that you can seek support in thinking through these questions and their implications from Careers Advisers at your University or mental health services.

In our next post [2 of 5] we’ll explore the interactions between personal characteristics and the academic environment in more depth, introducing a way of thinking about these as negative or positive feedback loops, and looking at what happens when these loops are interrupted. 

Links to all posts in this series:

  1. Does academic complement or conflict with who you are? [this post]
  2. The feedback dynamics between you and academia [next post]
  3. Distinguishing between assumptions and reality
  4. Your working identities
  5. Having a strategy for cultivating resilience
For unabridged versions of these posts and full references, check out the Resilience Hub.

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