At the start of my academic career, I was certainly one of the lucky ones. My first job was a permanent position at a Russell League University, which I got with an excessively ambitious “in-prep” list but no actual publications. Three years into my position, heavily burdened by publication targets and imposter syndrome with still no publications, my self-esteem was basically non-existent, replaced by the gruesome twosome—my new mates—Anxiety and Depression.
I don’t think I would have felt so helpless if I wasn’t actually trying so hard. I was working six days a week, long into the evenings, the only outcome of my labour a solid and consistent string of rejections. Like my fellow academics know, there is only one worse way to start the week than a “sorry to inform you email” at 8.37am and that is several of these emails before you have even finished your Coco Pops. Of course, I was jealous of my friends and colleagues who were getting published but this feeling also extended to my friends in industry that were rewarded for working hard and staying late. Thinking as a quantitative researcher, what I longed for was a positive significant correlation between my work ethic and my reward—but all I had found was a negative significant relationship between my work ethic and my mental health.
In 2015 (i.e. the year of 15 rejections), I developed a new ritual. On receiving the inevitable kind words from an Editor—that they were in fact ‘sorry’ to inform me—leading to a blur of negative emotions (anger, sadness, anxiety, frustration) and a fight or flee burst of energy, I would head straight to the gym. Here at the ‘Iron Church’ I was able to vent my emotions and burn this excess energy, through a mix of loud angry teenage boy music (e.g. Linkin Park) blaring through my headphones and the clinking of barbells. I started to spend a lot of time at the gym as I luckily had no shortage of rejections, and it was proving a healthier way than others at keeping my anxiety and depression at bay. Going to the gym four or five times a week, I started to see changes in my body—my self-esteem spiked when my grandma remarked on what a ‘strong young man’ I had become, buttering me up before asking me to reposition a number of heavy plant pots in the garden. My mind set started to shift a bit; though I would have been zero help if my Grandma wanted a publication in an internationally recognised journal, pulling the fridge-freezer out so we could get rid of the ants behind was a piece of cake.
2018, and I have the luxury of hindsight—my critical publications drought ended in 2016 and since then it has been London buses. Though I still go to the gym, especially when I am rejected, I go less than I did in the dark days. Looking back, though I was not conscious of it at the time, the gym was providing me with that much-needed cornerstone of well-being, a fair balance of input and output. Unlike the paper submission and review process, the gym is a simple beast—the more you go the stronger you get. With no exaggeration, I think if it wasn’t for the gym keeping my overall well-being a few centimetres off rock bottom, offsetting the relentless gravitational pull of rejection, I would have surrendered to my imposter demons and hung up my TK Maxx tweed jacket with elbow pads for good.
My advice for early career researchers who are tirelessly putting the effort into publications with no reward is to find something else in your life where there is a solid correlation between input and output. The Iron Church is where I found solace, but it really could be any activity—drawing, charity work, etc. It is too easy to relinquish all our self-esteem to the job. We as young academics need to work hard to diversify our self-esteem portfolio with other activities that are more within our control.
This article was first published on LinkedIn on 3/12/18.