Daniel Lemire's blog

, 21 min read

Academia as an ‘anxiety machine’

23 thoughts on “Academia as an ‘anxiety machine’”

  1. John says:

    I think part of the problem is some binary rewards. You either get tenure or you don’t; almost getting tenure is a terrifying prospect. If you have tenure, your chairman either decides to promote you or not. Your grant gets funded or not. Etc.

    Outside academia rewards tend to be a more continuous function of results. There aren’t as many all-or-nothing milestones, though of course there are some.

    A chairman has more power over a professor than a boss has over an engineer, because the engineer is more likely to be able to change jobs quickly and without uprooting a family.

  2. John Regehr says:

    Of course I know what you are talking about in this piece, Daniel, but it doesn’t quite ring true overall. I know a lot of profs and most of them seem to enjoy a reasonable work-life balance, and most of them seem generally challenged by their job as opposed to being killed by it.

  3. Michael Mitzenmacher says:

    I agree with John Regehr. Why should we take one (very sad and unfortunate) suicide and extrapolate to this level about life in the academy in this way?

    [Indeed, I’ve just starting reading the articles for background, but why would we necessarily blame the threat of job loss for the suicide (except for the timing)? But perhaps that’s beside the point anyway.]

  4. I hope you have a nice one!

  5. @Leonid

    *I* will not be working this week-end. 😉

  6. Benoit Hudson says:

    I’ve never understood where one gets the blinders that John Regehr and Michael Mitzenmacher display. Maybe that’s why they’re academics whereas I decided to get out.

    It’s not an isolated phenomenon; a number of profs at CMU were in utter denial that students were at high risk of depression.

  7. @Benoit, students at CMU have time for depression? This is quite novel, tell me about it!

  8. @Lemire

    not working on weekends? Think about all the interesting things that you are missing.

  9. Michael Mitzenmacher says:

    Benoit —

    I’m not blind to the fact that graduate students are at risk for depression. I quite well understand that, in particular, graduate students can get depressed, though my personal experience suggests it does not have to do with “competition” or even, in the sense portrayed here, of “failure”. I’d be happy to talk about that with you offline. One point to note though is that graduate student experience is very different from the professor experience, so you should separate the two. (Daniel was focused on “professor anxiety” here, and the case we’re talking about was a professor.) Also, I’ve know depressed people in a variety of walks of life. Why do you associate depression with academia in particular?

    Anyhow, the main point is please try not to ascribe points of view to me that I did not espouse.

    A secondary point is that if you have references to data (such as “graduate students/professors commit suicide at twice the rate of others in their age cohort”) that would be interesting and worth discussing. But if you just say, “Some graduate students and professors are very stressed/depressed,” I don’t find that interesting or worth discussing. Some of the lawyers, doctors, and businesspeople I know all seem stressed and depressed, too.

  10. Michael Mitzenmacher says:

    BTW, on the other side of the argument, professors are (incorrectly) cast again as one of the least stressful jobs! (Another point of view I don’t entirely agree with.)



  11. Matt says:

    Reading this post, and the “week-end freedom test” one, *and* reading comments on the latter, makes me realize the different priorities and assumptions have about work and worth than I have.

    Perhaps I am a Dilbert-esque Wally. I work in industry, and rarely push past 40 hours. Others in my department do. On the other hand, I don’t see that I or my colleagues really do work so vital that it has to be prioritized over weekend and evening time with my family.

    That’s my judgement call, though, and others don’t make the same one. But the people I see working through the weekend, and seeing the nature of the work they do, doesn’t convince me I am wrong. They didn’t save lives or stop some dam from bursting; they usually make a PowerPoint with that time.

    Not worth it over Game Nights with my kids.

  12. Dave Conyers says:

    Professor Grimm’s death is a horrible tragedy and a major blow to the community. He will be greatly missed by those who were fortunate enough to know him.

    Perhaps institutions that issue grants should require that the receiving organization not use these types of “quotas” in their internal policies.

    Condolences to Prof. Grimm’s family and friends.

  13. Richard Hall says:

    The genesis of the anxiety machine idea emerged from conversations between Kate Bowles and me rather than Plashingvole. There are more detailed arguments at:




    Take care.

  14. Pete says:

    Im not sure you can’t have a social life if you do a Ph.D. My son is in his second year, doing Biomedical Science at a prestigious institution, he is already the lead author in a Plos 1 paper and he is on track for completing. He has a long standing relationship with his girlfriend, hits the gym three times a week, play soccer and cricket, still plays too much FIFA championship manager and really enjoy a few beers with non academic friends once or twice a week. Most of his peers
    are the same. His very limited experience (granted) may not be representative of a career in academia, but I would hate that stories of the brutality of an academic career would put off our best and brightest. All meaningful pursuits bring stress, it is a cliche, but it’s how we respond. My sons view to dealing with the pressure is use as much tech as possible to manage time and activity, take knock backs seriously but don’t allow them to get to you and spend time with the people wholove and support you. …

  15. Pol Nasam says:

    The news of this case have triggered interesting comments across different social media -G+ was were I learned from this case and this entry.

    I’d always question a person’s education, or rather, upbringing, if she/he ended up committing suicide. It definitely points at a low self-steem as _one_ of the underlying causes. I’d have even said that would be the main cause indeed.

    I find it interesting, though, to think of the possibility that _schooling_, i.e., our social interactions may undo, and screw up, what initially could have been a sound upbringing within one’s own family, as this post seems to suggest.

    Other interesting points I find here, but fail to find often enough elsewhere, is pointing at some kind of aggressiveness of society when it keeps pushing us to _compete_ as the only way to be our best selves.

    There are still, what I think are, very primitive ideas entrenched in our society that are but rooted only in fear. That is one of them. Other examples are the (lack of/insufficient) awareness of several psychological syndromes, e.g., chronic fatigue or depression, that recently, within our lifetime, were still the target of jokes and contempt, as if the person affected would just be hiding their lack of resources, skills, and even motivation for delivering more.

    The reasons for Grimm’s suicide are obviously complex, and surely lie not only on the dynamics he faced at Imperial College. However, I hope that his case may at least help to raise the awareness of some silly dynamics we live by.

  16. G. Oxberry says:

    The trouble I have with the remarks by Regehr and Mitzenmacher is that one could just as easily dismiss Regehr’s claim that professors are fine as anecdotal evidence. Commissioning a study to gather data, as Mitzenmacher suggests, is a good idea. However, the social stigma surrounding mental illness causes significant confounding effects that are likely to lead to underreporting, such as self-denial (“I’m not crazy”) or unwillingness to disclose (“I don’t want other people to think I’m crazy”, doubts about confidentiality).

    There’s circumstantial evidence to suggest that mental illness could be a problem in academia. Long hours and working 6-7 days a week often leads to neglect of self-care. As Mitzenmacher notes, this tendency towards long hours is by no means unique to academia, and professions like medicine, finance, and law have started to notice it as well, and are taking steps to deal with it (e.g., reducing hours for interns in finance and for medical residents). I don’t see academia doing something similar, because my impression and experience from academics is that denialism prevails. I’m glad to see a blog post on the topic, and disappointed in the comments.

  17. Timing…

    Dysfunctional behaviors are not the sole realm of academia. My current (mis?-)adventure at a very large company is somewhat of the same flavor.

    Spent the last several months building an initial proof-of-concept for backup on OpenStack. A few weeks into the exercise, found the *question* was wrong, and found the right starting point. Went in front of customers, to excellent result. Pretty much at the point where all they have to do is say “Yes”, and they can be clearly in the lead of what customers want. But … this might still die on social behaviors within the organization. (Yes, larger social organizations – commercial or academic – have dysfunctions, almost as a rule.)

    (The upside here is that next time at a startup competing with a very large company, I will be much, *much* less worried. Large companies tend to generate patterns of behavior that render them not competitive.)

    Might still turn this story around. (Corollary: the scariest thing for a small company is someone like me, if I succeed in altering the behavior of a large company. Also related, half expect to get fired.)

    Heard an interview of the radio as I was driving. The subject described success as having (easy) choices. I have sacrificed nights and weekends, to a success that might fail in the longer term. That hit home.

    Then again, was listening to the radio on the drive to Las Vegas, to attend a Lucent Dossier event. Not *quite* failed…

  18. Matt says:

    Also, this, from here: http://www.bakadesuyo.com/2012/06/is-there-a-dark-side-to-becoming-the-best/

    What if this is the pattern of not just the successful, but of all of the driven academics, regardless of success?

    My study reveals that, in one way or another, each of the creators became embedded in some kind of a bargain, deal, or Faustian arrangement, executed as a means of ensuring the preservation of his or her unusual gifts. In general, the creators were so caught up in the pursuit of their work mission that they sacrificed all, especially the possibility of a rounded personal existence. The nature of this arrangement differs: In some cases (Freud, Eliot, Gandhi), it involves the decision to undertake an ascetic existence; in some cases, it involves a self-imposed isolation from other individuals (Einstein, Graham); in Picasso’s case, as a consequence of a bargain that was rejected, it involves an outrageous exploitation of other individuals; and in the case of Stravinsky, it involves a constant combative relationship with others, even at the cost of fairness. What pervades these unusual arrangements is the conviction that unless this bargain has been compulsively adhered to, the talent may be compromised or even irretrievably lost. And, indeed, at times when the bargain is relaxed, there may well be negative consequences for the individual’s creative output.

  19. Geoff Mitchell says:

    I am another Professor. Long ago I learnt that my value lies in who I am, not what I do. Realise that and life becomes fun again, and “they” can’t touch you. Forget it, let what you do define who you are and you are at “their ” mercy. Constant vigilance is required. Good luck Prof Grimm. “They” may well have done you a favour if it allows a second chance to look at life.

  20. Adam Chmielewski says:

    Excuse me! To kill oneself because of a failure in the scholarly rat race?
    I can only assure you that there is life outside academia!
    The fact that academia is now designed as it were not the case means that there is something deeply wrong with the academia.

  21. Ariel says:

    Daniel, thank you for your article. Very interesting comments (I respect all opinions shared).

    I was reading a second time your article, this time replacing the words professor to “Human” and removing “research”. There is still the “academic” point of view but reading it this way contributes to confirm that the competition is definitely a disease.
    I’ve been working in the private sector for more than 12 years (when most of my family are in academia) where it’s easy to observe the impact of competition. Competition’s rewards are only fulfilling short-term goal. Positive collaboration is the only true factor of success. Focussing on competition comes to a price. Less collaboration & cultivation. Do we really want that? Thanks again for your article.

  22. R says:

    This man was extremely successful at a prestigious institution. He decided the best thing for him to do was to commit suicide.
    There are those, myself included, who are not successful (in REF terms, and that is after all, all that matters) and at a low ranked institution. I am starting to think it may be time to follow the example of my betters.