Daniel Lemire's blog

, 3 min read

Academia as an `anxiety machine´

We learned recently of the suicide of Stefan Grimm, a successful professor at the prestigious Imperial College in London. Professors Grimm regularly published highly cited articles in the best journals. He was highly productive. Unfortunately, some of his colleagues felt that he did not secure sufficiently large research grants. So he was to be fired.

It is not that he did not try. He was told that he was the most aggressive grant seeker in his school. He worked himself to death. I am willing to bet that he was failing my week-end freedom test. But he still failed to secure large and prestigious grants because others were luckier, harder working, or even smarter.

It is not remarkable that he felt a lot of pressure at work. It is not remarkable that he was fired despite being smart and hard-working. These things happen all the time. What is fascinating is the contrast between how most people view an academic job and Grimm’s reality.

Other academics (starting maybe with Richard Hall) described academia as an ‘anxiety machine’:

Throw together a crowd of smart, driven individuals who’ve been rewarded throughout their entire lives for being ranked well, for being top of the class, and through a mixture of threat and reward you can coerce self-harming behaviour out of them to the extent that you can run a knowledge economy on the fumes of their freely given labour. (…) I know plenty of professors and star researchers who eat, sleep and breathe research, and can’t understand why their junior colleagues (try to) insist on playing with their children on a Sunday afternoon or going home at 6. ‘You can’t do a PhD and have a social life’, my predecessor told me.

It is simply not very hard to find overly anxious professors. I know many who are remarkably smart and who have done brilliant work… but they remain convinced that they are something of a failure.

Successful academics have been trained to compete, and compete hard… and even when you put them in what might appear like cushy conditions, they still work 7 days a week to outdo others… and then, when they are told by colleagues that it is not yet enough… they take such nonsensical comments at face value… because it is hard to ignore what you fear most…

And it is all seen as a good thing… without harsh competition, how are you going to get the best out of people?

Did you just silently agree with my last sentence? It is entirely bogus. There is no trace of evidence that you can get the best out of people at high-level tasks through pressure and competition. The opposite is true. Worried people get dumber. They may be faster at carrying rocks… but they do not get smarter.

Stressing out academics, students, engineers or any modern-day worker… makes them less effective. If we had any sense, we would minimize competition to optimize our performance.

The problem is not that Grimm was fired despite his stellar performance, the problem is that he was schooled to believe that his worth was lowered to zero because others gave him a failing grade… Source: Thanks to P. Beaudoin for the pointer.