States of Knowledge

Anxious in Academia (and Early Career)


Well, it has been 2.5 years since I have posted on this blog. My homepage explains it all by saying maybe I’ll update in my second year (it is now my third since graduating), or after tenure, we’ll see how it goes. It is not for a lack of blogging ideas, nor my regular reading has stopped since 2015, but I have been preoccupied with some major life changes. 

In fact, that is the topic of this first blog post since my post-PhD graduation hiatus. As I mentioned, there has been a lot of life transition since that time. Presently, those transitions are manifesting in bouts of anxiety that were not a regular part of my life prior. In fact, I am typically fairly laid back, positive, and upbeat about life. But that has been different over the last 9 months. This post adds to the litany of writing about mental health and anxiety in academia: here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, or the other more than 20 million hits on an “anxiety and academia” Google search.  

So why add to all of this? Will I say anything new? Probably not. I am under no illusion that a lot of people read this blog, though my site traffic suggests that people wander into different posts over time. So, perhaps this is just for me. Or, perhaps, other early career researchers (ECR) who are experiencing the upheavals associated with establishing their career will wonder on here and find some solidarity. I know hearing others’ stories has helped me to figure out my own anxiety issues. So here goes. 

Like I said, I have always been pretty laid back. I’m not a perfectionist. In fact, I’m pretty good at figuring out what I need to do to move forward with my goals, but don’t worry about making sure every detail is perfectly lined up. I’m fine with rolling with the punches. That said, major milestones – like comps – do stress me out. At these times a deeper fear of failing manifests (pretty sure at this point that this is my core fear), but it subsides after the event passes. I also have a tendency to catastrophize at those times. 

Much began to change as I arrived at the end of my Ph.D. program. First, the process of obtaining my first position was complicated and difficult for our family. There was a lot of transition, with my wife and I moving from relatively equal career positions to my taking the career lead and her taking a greater role at home with our new baby. In addition to the major role change, we moved to coastal New Jersey for my first academic position. It was not our first choice of places to live and was vastly different than Happy Valley. Isolated, learning a new place, with no existing local relationships and a new baby, the first year was a struggle.

I started having anxiety issues in the fall of my second year. By that time we were building better relationships at a great church and I was becoming more connected at work. That was great, but I also started the every-other-year contract renewal process. The catastrophizing came back. While I was fairly confident that I was doing what I needed in terms of teaching, research, and service to progress through tenure, the fear still came back. And now it brought with it physical symptoms. For those who may not know, the physical effects of anxiety are frighteningly similar to early signs of heart disease or an imminent heart attack. It just so happens that my Dad had his first heart attack around 31 or 32 and died of his fourth by the time he was 44 (I was 13). So, when the physical symptoms started, I immediately went to a cardiologist. After blood work, an ultrasound, and stress test, I was assured that nothing was wrong with my heart. But anxiety is not rational.  

By February of 2017, I received support for a second two-year contract at Stockton. My wife and I were feeling a lot more grounded in New Jersey and were even looking at houses there, in the event that I did not make a job move within the next year. Incredibly to us, and after chatting with a friend at work that Penn State Harrisburg would be a great place for both my wife and I, a job ad popped up for a position in public policy and administration at PSU Harrisburg. This was perfect. I truly enjoyed my colleagues and the pace of work at Stockton, but moving to the Harrisburg area would shorten the drive to Becca’s parents and put us 30 minutes away from my widowed mom. She would be much closer to her only grandchild and we would be able to help her more as she grew older.

Four days after submitting my application, I received the call that my mom had completed suicide. It was the start of what I now characterize as the hardest year of my life. Though, the difficulty continues beyond the year mark. Beyond the emotional toll, I am her only child and thus sole executor of the resulting estate. While planning her funeral, I also had to start all of the related legal mess. We eventually returned to New Jersey and I went back to teaching and writing, plus spending some time most days working on estate paperwork. According to my wife, I didn’t seem that fazed. During the funeral week I received a request for a phone interview at Harrisburg, then during spring break (when we were back in Lancaster to start the process of cleaning out my childhood home) I received a request for an on-campus interview. Four days before what would have been my mom’s 61st birthday, I received the job offer. We were off to Middletown and my mom was gone. 

The semester ended, and so did my normal evenness. Driving to Lancaster to clean out the house on weekends, and for a week in May, and then preparing to pack up our life in New Jersey and move back to PA took a toll. Right after moving we had a massive yard sale to get rid of the remaining things at my mom’s house. Cleaning out that house was a huge task. Then, it went on the market in August and was sold in three days. I was happy to have a young couple move into the house, but it was another loss. 

Meanwhile, we became pregnant with our second child not long after mom’s funeral. The fall brought a new job, with new colleagues, and a new organizational culture, as well as a baby that was not growing as fast as the doctors would like. Noah came healthy, but early and small. He is a joy, but also a sadness as my mom missed out on being a nana of two.

During it all, the anxiety attacks started. They generally came in the lead up to events, like selling the house or bringing Noah home. In addition to fearing a heart attack, the attacks brought (and still bring) sleepless nights. My wife will tell you, I am not great on short sleep. In fact, as others have written, all of the physical, mental, and emotional repercussions of anxiety tend to create a feedback loop that makes things worse. The entire month of February 2018 (the anniversary of my mom’s suicide), and even much of March, brought near constant anxiety. In fact, the last few days been relatively bad in the midst of some pretty good days. I cannot tell you why, I am still figuring out what is causing this. 

So why do I share all of this? Well, it makes me feel better. But if it was just that, I would type this out and never post it (like the journal that I recently started) or just share it with my counselor. No, I post it because I know there are a lot of other early career academics that face the anxieties of feeling unmoored by moving from position to position early in their career and the uncertainties of a tough job market and even the early years of tenure track positions. And I am totally aware of the privilege I have of leaving a tenure-track position for another one. In some sense this is all easier for me than for others. There are many out there that live contingent labor lives in academia and I can only imagine that the psychological impacts are even greater. But regardless of whether an ECR is moving into a tenure-track position or from job to job, this period of life for many is one of multifaceted transition, not just career. 

The inherent mental health-challenging features of academia receive a lot of attention. But many of my friends who are also working to establish themselves are likewise starting families, moving from place to place, building new relationships, and experiencing losses. I write this because I am in the midst of working through everything. I see a counselor regularly to help me do that. Though mental health challenges can also increase professional challenges for ECRs. Anxiety and depression, among other mental health issues, affect our ability to do our work and build relationships in our departments. I am normally fairly affable and positive, but have found myself more withdrawn. Not to mention conferences are difficult places for those struggling with social anxiety. General anxiety and the after effects of panic attacks are demotivating and distracting. I could go on. 

Unfortunately, I don’t have an advice list of how to do this well. In fact, I could probably do better at a list of things not to do. But this is the beginning of reflection and an invitation for others to engage and perhaps share their own stories. There are lots of invitations out there, but maybe this is more meaningful to you for some reason than what you have already read. Men, in particular, still have a hard time talking about this stuff, but we must. For ourselves and for our families and friends. It is encouraging to see more scholars step up and share their stories.


The New Left

sixtiesMy latest book took some time, particularly given a hectic May, but it was a fascinating journey into the leftist movements of the 1960s. Writing from the perspective of a first-hand observer, Todd Gitlin (former president of Students for a Democratic Society) processes through the rise and ultimate fracturing of the New Left from the late 1950s through the early 1970s. He paints an intriguing picture of a movement of young, post-scarcity, college students that could not articulate what they wanted, but wanted change. From the initial fissures between the New and Old Left through the final fracturing of the movement into disaffected and violent components, the book reads one part history and one part reflective essay. It does not evolve linearly, making it somewhat challenging to piece together specific historical details, but the thematic chapters are useful for establishing larger narratives. One particular aspect that I enjoyed was how Gitlin wove in popular culture, from movie plots to music lyrics, in order to help the reader understand the evolving zeitgeist.

I will spare a detailed summary and instead offer some thoughts. The book challenged some of my pre-conceived notions regarding the New Left, but the most important lesson I drew was the movement’s lack of focus. Throughout the book, it was clear that the movement could not articulate exactly what it stood for, or was demanding, beyond its particularistic components (Vietnam and Civil Rights being two of the most important). New Leftists aligned themselves with a global “revolution,” but it was unclear as to what the revolution meant practically. Much effort went towards organizing and growing the movement, without a clear path forward once organized. Gitlin talks personally about not being able to answer the question of what the movement sought. This lack of focus resulted in disappointment at the end when the movement fractured.

The story of the New Left reminded me of John Adam’s criticisms of the French Revolution. Adams expressed concern that the French revolutionaries were tearing down the institutions of society (i.e., the crown, the church, among others) without a guiding theory of how to replace them. Meaning, there was a plan for tearing down, but not for building up. Ultimately, this led to dictatorship instead of democracy. The New Left’s “revolution” had this same feel. It was able to grow quickly by remaining agnostic to its ultimate purpose – creating a big tent, if you will – but the lack of direction resulted in disappointment among the movement’s original leaders (including Gitlin). It also prevented the movement from tempering violent elements that arose to replace earlier non-violent tactics. This book, and its personal lessons, should be interesting to social movement scholars and anyone interested in the history of the 1960s.

Teaching for Money

I was once given the advice to not start down the path of depending on summer teaching as a source of income. The point was a general one, meant to inspire me to allow time for research and writing in the summer. Well, this summer both my wife and I are transitioning to new jobs. I graduated in May and her postdoc is ending during the summer, so we have a gap in income over the summer before my new job starts. This is not uncommon for graduate students, and one approach is to pick up some extra teaching to fill the gap (we also spread the gap out through our annual budget). So, I taught a Maymester course on the Bureaucratic State for money. I freely admit it. But I learned a lot from the experience, am thankful to have had it, and wish to share a few observations.

The month was difficult, that I will also admit. We are still juggling doing our own daycare for little man, so my days consisted of teaching prep and daddy daycare. My wife was incredible, picking up a lot of the load while still doing her job well, but it was certainly stressful for us at times. There were moments when I wished I had taken the advice above, feeling like I was selling out instead of acting on a sense of passion or desire to teach. Not to mention, I quickly ran out of prepared material and had to prep a day-ahead for part of the course, which can be anxiety producing. But my perspective was completely different each day when I entered the classroom. I was richly blessed with a small, but very talkative, class. As many of us do, they have strong opinions about bureaucrats and the bureaucracy, so there was never a shortage of conversation. I relished the two-hour class format of Maymester, which allowed for a better mix of lecture and discussion. I do love teaching, which helped the class sessions remain fun and enjoyable.

Here are a few observations from my experience of teaching for money:

1. Do not be ashamed

I think the advice I was given was good advice, particularly for providing yourself with the freedom to accept or decline extra teaching, depending on your present circumstances. But, I think it is important to not be ashamed if you need to pick up some extra teaching in order to provide for you (and perhaps your family’s) needs. I say this because I know some other recent-grads in a similar situation. We would talk in hushed tones, and somewhat ashamedly, about why we were teaching when we had already secured jobs for the fall. Then I had the opportunity to have this same discussion with the grad director, who affirmed the gap that scholars often face when transitioning from graduate school. Providing for yourself and/or your family is important and academia is our chosen method of provision, thus we sometimes need to pick up extra summer work to do so. Do not be ashamed of it.

That being said…

2. It is not an excuse to slack

Ok, so the deeper motivation for offering a class may be practicality, not passion, but that does not mean that we can sluff off our responsibility to offer a good class for the students. I whole-heartedly agree that college is not a commodity, but we have a responsibility to our students to show up and do our jobs. Ok, soap-box done.

3. Get more out of the class than a paycheck

Going into the class, I knew I had the opportunity, and the difficulty, of prepping a new course. Yes, this was a lot of work for an intensive class, but it gave me the chance to mold the course to better fit my scholarly interests. In this case, I structured the class in a way that allowed me to work through some ideas for a book project, right alongside my students. It became a conversation about the very literature in which I will be working for the near future. Thus, it was immensely helpful for getting me out of my dissertation, and into something new. Furthermore, the course gave me the opportunity to generate additional ideas by refreshing my understanding of where there are gaps in the related literature. There were moments when I thought, “Hmmm, I did not realize that no one has addressed that yet.” It is good not only for us, but also for the students, when our teaching meshes with our research. We had a richer dialogue when I could discuss with them the gaps in the research and how we might address them. Think of teaching the class as an opportunity to generate new ideas or prepare for a new project.

If it is a class that you have offered often, take the opportunity to re-structure the course, engage with new material, or try new teaching techniques. Yes, these require some additional investment, but they produce benefits beyond the paycheck. 

Pace of Social Change in America and Baltimore

The unrest in Baltimore represents the latest episode in the surfacing of simmering racial tensions in the United States. It was with that frame in mind that I was struck by a recent report published by Bloomberg on the pace of social change in America for six major social issues: interracial marriage, prohibition, women’s suffrage, abortion, same-sex marriage, and recreational marijuana. The authors’ description of the resulting plots of state action across time could have come from any standard study of policy diffusion: a few early movers followed by a rush of subsequent state action and a federal response. It looks like the typical “laboratories of democracy” scenario. There is a a lot more communicated in those plots, however, than a simple display of how punctuations occur in our normal policy equilibrium (Baumgartner and Jones 2009). On the contrary, I think the most interesting component of this report is the thing that is not like the others.

While most of the issues reflect r-shaped patterns of state events (in this case repeals) over time which denote rapid action (Boushey 2010; 2012), interracial marriage is notably different. In the cases of women’s suffrage, abortion, and gay marriage, the states rapidly act shortly before federal legislative or judicial action. Prohibition also exhibits different behavior, but I think this reflects the ebbing and flowing of the temperance movement and its connections to the Progressive and women’s suffrage movements. Of all of these event curves, interracial marriage stands out as particularly different, with a long, slow, trajectory. Americans apparently can rapidly change their minds when it comes to many social issues, but perhaps not for racially-charged social issues. I think this chart speaks volumes about the lasting racial tensions in our country. Policies are in some sense the tangible, practical, extension of the values and priorities of the majority. This can be seen in the recent debates about gay marriage. The Supreme Court is presently considering whether it should move ahead of some states in requiring recognition of same-sex marriages in light of shifting majority opinion (see especially Justice Kennedy’s comments from yesterday’s session). Therefore, the difference between social change in the case of interracial marriage and the other issues presented speaks to the “stickiness” of the values of the majority.

There is a potential alternative explanation for the difference between gay marriage and interracial marriage – perhaps we are just more enlightened now. Or perhaps our access to 24 hour sources of news and opinion help us change our opinions faster. Maybe, but that seems unlikely. Racial cleavages have been a challenge for America since its founding. Instead, I think that the Bloomberg report demonstrates how policy behavior by the states reflects broader social cleavages in society. We may be able to change our opinion rapidly, but racially-charged social issues appear to be a lot more “sticky” than other issues. Perhaps sustained attention to events like those in Ferguson and Baltimore will result in a punctuation and policy action, but it appears that, for racially-charges social issues, the equilibrium is substantially more difficult to puncture.


Living Like Nothing Has Changed

We have been following “the schedule” for about three weeks now, and truth be told, it has not been easy. That said, life is starting to take on a certain flow. Until, of course, that flow gets disrupted by the inevitable variety of life and adjustments in Peter’s sleep schedule. Last week, for instance, a last minute change in a dental appointment altered the flow of the day. No worries, I’m learning to be flexible, but it was not that easy to adjust. Why has it not been easy, juggling work and taking care of our little one? For both of us, it seems to stem from trying to do everything that we used to, but with the added challenge of a two month-old. For me, it is the generic pressure of needing to be productive as an academic, as well as the more short-term pressure of prepping a new course for Maymester. For Becca, it is the pressure that comes from working in a lab setting, with others depending on you. Both of us have been trying to have our cake and eat it too, and that just does not work. I end up just being bad at all of it. But that also does not alleviate the pressure. So what do I do? I have to remind myself that this is a special time that I get with my firstborn. True, I am now on a tenure clock, but that is a blessing, not a curse. And my career is not totally in my hands, so it is ok to chill.

The lesson I have been learning is how to put my career in its proper place. As something that is important, but not the most important thing. I have always believed that, but it is more difficult when I actually have to live it. I am not convinced that for either sex it is possible to “have it all.” There are always trade-offs. Yes, men face fewer systemic disadvantages, but I still have to make trade-offs to be a good Dad. So that is what the last few weeks of following our work/baby care schedule have been teaching me. Balancing work and home requires some short-term sacrifices. I cannot live like I am trying to have it all right now. So, we pull back and adjust; learning to be flexible.