On academic culture, mental health, and why I didn’t love “Lab Girl”

My high school biology teacher sent me the widely-read scientific memoir Lab Girl by Hope Jahren about a year ago, saying it made him think of me. I enjoyed reading the story of another female biogeochemist (ours is not a story frequently told), and I hoped that the similarities between our areas of study were the reasons the book reminded Mr Roche of me. Because on a deeper level, this book bothered me. Jahren (beautifully and courageously) tells the story of her life as a scientist with manic depression, and though she does eventually get treatment, the book seems to treat her tendency to work all night, to be consumed by science, and to use her work as a way to define herself as a human being, with reverence. I remember being horrified after reading Lab Girl, knowing that I didn’t work that way and that I didn’t want to.

And yet the story of working in manic bursts and feeling intense pressure to publish papers, win research grants, or die trying, felt eerily familiar. These are common experiences in science, and habits that would be rightly recognized as signs of a mental health disorder outside of academia tend to be praised within academic culture. Personally, I have spent the past ~4 years of my life learning to recognize and manage an anxiety disorder that had not manifested until graduate school. I suspect that I have always been vulnerable to this condition and academia did not “cause” it, per se, but the fact remains that the demands of graduate school, and academia at large, preyed on and amplified my vulnerabilities and anxious tendencies until they became too apparent to not notice.

Anxiety for me is a gripping vortex of fear, a certainty that I am not enough and never will be, a pervasive sense of loneliness and longing, an inability to sleep, and a searing pain in my stomach that can prevent me from eating solid foods for days to weeks at a time (luckily my longest bout of this particular symptom was during a heat wave, which is a good time to subsist off of smoothies anyway). Anyone who says that mental health problems are all in your head should try occupying my body when I am experiencing an anxious peak. It is not an experience that I would recommend. My anxiety has ebbed and flowed throughout graduate school, and for years it would drive me to work harder and harder to stave off my feelings of inadequacy. I was tremendously productive during these periods, but I was not happy. About two years ago, I started to recognize that perhaps this wasn’t quite right and started to dabble in yoga and meditation to calm my mind, though changing my relationship to my work did not occur to me. I didn’t seek professional help until six months ago, and doing so scared the shit out of me. It was terrifying to learn that doubting myself, fixating on my inadequacies and flaws, and all of the other thought patterns that drove me to my greatest levels of productivity, were actually immensely unhealthy. Worse yet, the ONLY way for me to start feeling better was to do the very things that academia did not encourage me to do. I’ve been consciously working less, disentangling my concept of who I am as a person from my work, and learning how to shut my science brain off when I’m done working for the day. I hear a lot of academics say that their work always comes home with them, that they can never stop thinking about their work, and I think that we generally hail this as the pinnacle of being a true scientist. But after months of therapy, it doesn’t sound any different to me than the times my bran’s been caught in a holding pattern of articulating my own inadequacies. This is obviously not healthy, and I’ve been learning to cut those patterns off. So why do we praise people for this tendency within academic culture?

Maybe we love the idea of the tortured and brilliant soul, the scientist driven to madness by his own genius, the hero consumed by a scientific question who cannot focus on anything else. It’s a romantic concept for sure, but I’ve been there at times and it’s not much fun to live that way. Throughout my PhD, I’ve put in my time of letting my life be run by anxiety, by letting it increase my productivity at the expense of my health and sanity. I have watched myself and so many of my friends convince ourselves that we are succeeding, even as we were failing our own bodies and minds. I have privately wondered how long I could last working at the expense of my well-being, until enough conversations with friends and colleagues convinced me that this was something I should not have to do at all. I may not be literally Done With This, because I am a scientist and that’s what I want to do, and I’m not walking away from the academic system just yet. Figuratively, though, I am Done With This, if This is “allowing my job to exploit the anxiety disorder that I’m not even entirely sure I had before this job.”

This summer, I took the academic equivalent of a vacation by spending three months working on a side project in another state. I didn’t take on extra work while I was there and I rode my mountain bike a lot and gave myself permission to spend my evenings cooking, crafting, and painting instead of working. I picked blackberries, drank tea, laughed a lot, looked at wildflowers, and spent as much time outside as I wanted. I felt good, grounded, and saner than I’ve felt in years. I also felt resurgences of anxiety plenty of times, but thanks to some space from my regular academic environment along with skills gained from months of therapy, yoga, and a meditation practice, I was able to sit with that anxiety and let it go, rather than use it to fuel a frenzy of productivity that would surely be praised by others but leave me drained. And you know what happened? I got my work done. I could have done more, could have probably written another chapter of my dissertation, but I didn’t, and the world didn’t end. So this narrative, that you have to work all hours to be worth your salt as a scientist, that exploiting your internal vulnerabilities in order to get more work done is something praiseworthy, can go to hell as far as I am concerned. I liked my summer of science and sanity, and I’m looking forward to many more months of both of those things.

I am an early-career scientist not yet finished with my PhD, and I know that we don’t have much room to bargain. There are too many of us and not enough faculty positions. Realistically, those jobs will go to those who have published the most, won the most grant money, and at the rate that I’ve been working, that’s not going to be me. That’s okay. I am smart, creative, a good problem solver, and a decent writer. I’ve had good working relationships with all of my advisors. My PhD was funded by a fellowship from the National Science Foundation, and I’ve been pretty successful at picking up research funding throughout my budding academic career. I work hard, but within reason now, and I will openly admit to loving my cat and my friends and my family more than I love my job. If these traits and accomplishments aren’t enough, if that last sentence puts me out of the running for my next position, so be it. This is, after all, just a job. But I’d like to stick around for a while and keep asking questions about the world around me (it’s a cool way to make a living), so here’s to hoping that as academics, we talk more openly about our work culture and shift towards something that’s healthier for everyone. In my heart I’m still a lab girl, I just can’t be Lab Girl.

2 Comments

  1. Thank you Katy, the feelings you express are eerily similar to my own. You are not alone in this; thank you for reminding me that i am not either.

    Like

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