Guilt in Academia – Who invited you along for the ride?!

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On your marks, get set… go (back to bed).

This is a little different to my previous post (of which the link to my fundraising is still active for the next week or so!), but it’s nonetheless a bit of a hot topic in research right now.

Although I’m a student in an HE institution in Bristol, I’m not currently based in Bristol. In fact, I’ve spent the past month or so getting everything back in order in a new place, and embracing the “linguist in the wild” lifestyle (not quite to the levels of fieldworkers such as Dan Everett, but basically I’m in a new city with hardly any contacts!).

Understandably, displacement is never simple, and there has been a distinct change in my research output. It hasn’t stopped, but it’s certainly been knocked out of whatever synchronisation it was in, due to the numerous tasks that could come under the umbrella term of ‘life admin.’

I’m guessing for those reading this blog who are not in the world of academia, this next bit might seem a bit weird. For those in academia, you’ll know this all too well…

This morning I awoke and knew what I had to do: continue annotating my data, do a bit of reading and put together a more stable abstract for an upcoming presentation at a summer school. This was particularly pressing as yesterday I had done a grand total of zero seconds work on anything to do with research, my thesis, or academic life in general.

And that’s when it hit me.

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I felt so guilty that I had neglected my work. That I just left my data on its own. That I hadn’t continued editing that draft abstract. That I have the audacity to have a whole day off!

How rude of me.

As I mentioned above, this feeling of guilt is a common phenomenon shared by, I’d dare say, a large proportion of academics. It’s a less-than-pleasurable feeling, and it can be quite debilitating: from making your data analysis feel like it’s going backwards, to making your whole body reverse right back into bed!

Having berated myself a little for daring to spend time getting my life in order and not make a single scribble about my work, I took a step back… why was I feeling like this? It certainly wasn’t those around me who were making me, or telling me, to feel bad. Sure, they push me to be my best, but never to the point of guilt. Instead, it was that little voice inside of me telling me to feel bad, but where did that come from?!

We’re living in a time when you only need to click or tap a few times on a device and, as a result, you’re going to see what other people are up to. Seeing their productivity and progress, when all you’ve done is set up a new bank account, buy some furniture and register with a GP, could make you feel somewhat down, consciously or otherwise. But again, why should the fact that someone wrote 1,500 words on a day that I was pronouncing Swedish words for flat-packed goods make me feel guilty?

At a deeper level, and as espoused over the past few years, we seem to be in a state where ‘busy is the new black.’ The phrase “you should be writing,” while often used with an air of parody, is one known throughout academia. If you’re not busy doing something, you’re nothing. If you’re not rushed off your feet and working over the 9-to-5, you’re not doing enough. But, if you’re getting your revisions to a journal article written while cooking a meal for six and keeping the cat off the kitchen counter with an impressive yet complex home-made system of levers and pulleys, then that’s praiseworthy.

…okay, maybe the last one was a bit OTT, but that scenario doesn’t seem that farfetched as it could be nowadays.

While I managed to get out of this dip of self-imposed guilt after a while, I hate the fact that I was there in the first place. As academics, we seem to be in such a rush to get more out there and to do it faster than before. This causes issues with the accuracy and relevance of what we do, let alone the mental effects on ourselves that so joyously tag-along. But before I go on to rant about whether or not we are measuring academic output correctly (spoiler: we aren’t), let me end here: the ‘cult of busy’ is having a detrimental effect on us. As things get quicker, I can only hope that more is put in place to reduce these feelings.

To say that ‘you’ll get used to it’ just doesn’t sit right with me.

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