Don’t Let Fear of Other Academics Control Your Academic Career

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Anxiety is a constant companion for most graduate students. It doesn’t end after the defense, either–junior faculty members live in fear of not getting tenure, not getting articles submitted or not receiving book contracts. And tenured professors worry about

  • Getting articles rejected
  • Making their publishers and co-authors angry when they miss deadlines
  • What the other departmental members think of them
  • Getting promotions.

Why is Anxiety So Common in Academics?

Anxiety, which is really a free-floating fear, is frequently caused by fear of other academics. Worrying about what they will think of you, how they will judge you, and what they will say to you can cause such an unpleasant feeling in the pit of the stomach that it compels you to play solitaire in order to make it go away.

The pseudonymous Thomas Benton, writing in the Chronicle of Higher Education, describes typical angst-ridden academic situations:

We interview for academic positions and are told: One verbal misstep, and you’ve lost the job. We spend years on a book, only to have a reviewer attack a few ill-chosen words. We deliver an elegant lecture and dwell on an ill-considered response to a friendly question. We teach 10,000 students and feel our service is marred by the dissatisfaction of one.

Non-academics can graduate from college and leave academia. Yes, they may have performance reviews in their jobs, and sweat out whether they will get a raise. But the standards are rarely set as high as they are in academia.

“Failure” in academia is often public. If you deliver a poorly conceived presentation or lecture, you know it and you know that others know it. To make it worse, academia is set up so that in many situations, you can be humiliated then and there by people more expert than you pointing out the flaws in your logic or asking you questions that you have no idea how to answer.

Criticism is expected in academia. It is rare to receive a paper back from an advisor, reader or reviewer with the comment, “This is perfect!” Usually the good is taken for granted and the (perceived) mistakes are pointed out.


When is Anxiety a Problem?

You may not be aware of the extent to which anxiety is negatively affecting you.

Here are some behaviors I frequently observe my coaching clients engaging in. They might:

  • Delay finishing a draft of an article: “I don’t want them to see how little I know”
  • Delay finishing a chapter and handing it in to their advisor: “She’ll trash it — I’d better do more reading and rewrite the first 30 pp.”
  • Have difficulty finishing their proposal: “This is the first thing I’ve written for him — I don’t want to make him regret working with me.”
  • Fear joining a dissertation group or coaching group: “Everyone else knows what they’re doing and they’ll see I’m a fraud”
  • Avoid engaging in the kind of scholarly conversation that I advocate in “We Need Humanities Labs” — the kind that leads to creativity and more fruitful research: “I hate talking about my research to colleagues — I’m sure they’re not interested or think it’s sub par.”
  • Avoid networking in their department and in their field, leading to fewer career advancement opportunities: “I don’t want to bother that person — and who am I to write to someone that important?”

I’m sure you can think of more examples.

Almost more importantly, by fearing and thus avoiding others, academics miss out on the sense of connection that is important to all of us. Frequently that is the missing ingredient keeping academics stuck as writers and researchers.

What You Can Do to Surmount Your Fear of Other Academics

Take small steps as outlined below, and as Susan Jeffers says, “Feel the fear and do it anyway.” (See book review on the right.)

  • Be prepared to talk about your work casually, by rehearsing a one- or two-minute description of what you’re currently working on
  • If you avoid other graduate students or departmental colleagues
    • Start making forays into the halls, or showing up at your department more
    • Attend more departmental colloquia, brown bag lunches or social events
    • Join or start dissertation or writing groups
  • Don’t delay writing that publisher or co-author to ask for a deadline extension — it’s better to let people in on where you are then to keep them guessing. And you will be freed up to work at a better pace once you get that off your back.
  • Make a schedule for yourself to reach out to one person a week, whether by email (for distant colleagues or potential mentors) or in person. Meet people for coffee — not just to talk about work, but to get used to interacting with them.
  • If you’re very shy
    • Start by reaching out to the person you feel the safest with
    • Tell them about a part of your work that you feel stuck on — even if they’re not in your area, talking it through can be helpful to you and help you feel connected

Be aware that an important feature of being an academic is the sharing and open exchange of ideas. Criticism is meant to sharpen and improve your work, not wear down your soul until you’re a mewling, puking fragment or your former self. By repeated exposure to constructive criticism, you can develop a thicker skin, and start to look forward to getting feedback that will help you get that chapter or article off your desk and into the world.


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