How to stay on track in the high speed rail of academia?

Side by side I walk with Maureen over a carpet of yellow and brown leaves on one of the last sunny autumn days. She is doing well in her academic career. After a postdoc at a renowned university abroad she found a promising research job closer to home. Her publications are coming round nicely and she is positioned very well for the next major grant that will help her establish her own research line.

Yet she struggles. As if she is confessing a weakness she tells me: “I work almost every day, including the weekends, and more than a few evenings a week too. I work hard, really hard. Too hard perhaps. I cannot keep up. I have noticed that I am snappy around my daughter and my partner. We used to rely on my parents to babysit, but as they get older that will become impossible…”

She sighs and continues wearily: “Well, ever since my PhD I have known and accepted that you have to work hard to make it in academia. So perhaps I am just not the right person for an academic career after all.”

Suddenly I stop walking and look at her. “No,” I interrupt her: “That is nonsense. You have got what it takes. You just need to find a different way in which you can succeed, other than through working hard, harder, hardest.” Her face lights up: “That would be fantastic, that’s what I want! I love research. Only I am so worried that I will meet the same fate I see so many of my academic friends suffer. Three have come down with burnouts last year and several others packed their bags and left behind the research that once had their hearts.”

Many academics that I meet are like Maureen. What is more, I recognize parts of her story myself. Towards the end of my PhD I worked so hard, I had depleted my energy reserves so thoroughly, that I could barely function normally. Needless to say that the quality of my thinking about my research also suffered. Not healthy, not effective, not recommendable.

So I set out to find a way to work smarter. In the process I have discovered these two most important primary steps:

1. Create time

Before you realize what is happening, you run after items that others have put on your to-do list. Especially when you have reached that stage in your career where you also have to teach, guide students in their undergraduate-projects, or have administrative duties. So block some time each week (at least 2 hours a week, but preferably more than 4 and preferably daily first thing in the morning) to do something that you find is important. Whether that is reading a book just outside your main research focus, designing a new experiment, thinking about your next grant proposal, or just reflecting on your research agenda or your life in general. These are your priorities. Maybe your current priority is just rest. Be your own leader here.

2. Selfcare, selfcare, selfcare

If you have tapped into your reserves for as long as Maureen, your current state probably feels normal and unavoidable to you. The ways you currently perceive your situation is the ‘truth’. However, with low energy levels your perspective on the world is likely not the most objective, your thoughts are probably not as innovative and helpful as they could be, and your assessment of your options is definitely limited. First thing to do, therefore, is to make sure that you recharge your energy levels. Chances are that your current troubles will disappear simultaneously and that you ‘magically’ find new solutions to your issues that you could not otherwise have thought about.


You can imagine the situation like this: your mind is like an overcrowded train speeding along over the tracks. Even if you are not on a tenure track the metaphor holds. The train is full of people who each have their own concerns: demanding bosses, hypercritical peer reviewers, teaching overloads, debilitating anxiety about catching their next transfer. It seems impossible to leave the tracks and change the destination, or to stop the racing train and get off.

However, imagine that you suddenly see a door appear in the side of the train. The door leads to a wonderful, quiet and peaceful room. As you picture this, your analytical mind may protest that this is impossible physically and spatially. Just acknowledge this and enter the room anyway. You find a lovely bed made for you, with a warm cover and fresh blankets. You take a nap there and wake up fully restored as the train enters the next railway station.

You leave the train and walk effortlessly, against the mainstream current of passengers, to another platform where you are supposed to find your connecting train. As you wait for this train to arrive, you feel the sun shining warm on your face, you notice wild flowers in the field stretching out behind the tracks. You laugh and joke with your fellow travelers.

My advice? Find the door to the secret side-room in the train of your life…

Maybe a literal powernap in an actual, lovely bed is the trick that works for you. Or perhaps a daily walk does it, a 5 minute meditation or yoga practice, a good, long workout, or a healthy dinner with your loved ones, etc. Find out what honestly replenishes you and make time to do it. There is the possibility that in doing so you will go against the current of working habits in your research group. Given the hard-working culture in academia that may not be a bad thing. Plus, you can easily explain it to your colleagues (it makes you more effective, innovative, productive, and more social).

I do not have the key to the side-door in your train. I do know, however, that as I started to take better care of myself, my subconscious mind began to offer active input via my dreams on the issues that I struggled with in my waking live. So I actually gained access to mental faculties that helped me solve issues in my work, faculties that previously I did not think I had. One of the things my mind showed me is the metaphor of the train used in this blogpost: its tracks, its ‘impossible’ side door, and the powerful effect of restful sleep. I literally dreamed that I went to sleep in that room. The feeling of deep restoration as I woke up and woke up was very real and it made a big difference in the working day I had.

… and give it a 30 days trial period

To find your side-door I invite you to identify one tiny action that you could take to help you recharge your energy levels on any given day. With this tiny action you conduct a 30 day experiment. Take your action consistently for 30 days in a row. During the first week you will notice how addicted you were to constantly working hard and you still have to adjust. During the second week you start getting used to your new regimen. And in the third and fourth week you discover how this changes your life and your perspective.

Approach it like a research experiment and keep labnotes or a logbook of your observations. Don’t like what happens in week 3 or 4? You can always revert to your old ways. But no sooner than after 30 days. Who knows, you may start dreaming the solution to your scientific breakthrough, a healthy work balance, or how to take the next step in your career…



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