How to thrive and keep sane in academia? Looking back to my 2+ years in TIAS by Minna Santaoja

TIAS Alumni Dr. Minna Santaoja

TCSM postdoctoral researcher Nicolino Lo Gullo brought up the issues of mentoring and mental health of academics in his recent post to TIAS/TCSM blog. These are issues I want to pick up as well, as I summarize my experiences in TIAS.

I was working as a postdoctoral researcher in TIAS from October 2017 to the end of 2019. It was wonderful and horrible time. The timing of the TIAS position was perfect, as I had just finished working in an Academy of Finland funded project on sustainable diets (POPRASUS) and did not know what, or rather where, I was going to do next. It was a self-esteem boost, at first, being a collegium postdoc, one of the selected few. But soon came the hangover and the familiar impostor syndrome kicked in. I was supposed to be doing some sort of top-notch research, but I was struggling to get any writing done at all. I had let the competitivity and the misplaced emphasis on publication metrics crawl under my skin.

In autumn 2018 I was diagnosed with severe depression. I have been rather open about it, since I think there is still too much stigma around mental health issues, and I know I am in good company: for instance a study in the UK showed how counselling demands among university staff are soaring. While it is kind of annoying to be a “statistics case”, somewhat paradoxically I would say the depression diagnosis was almost the best thing that could have happened to me. What took me to a doctor was that I had had trouble sleeping for a long time, and eventually I was in such a zombie-state I couldn’t function properly. I was exhausted, snappy at home and basically didn’t see any point in anything. I had been having depression symptoms for years, and got the first diagnosis when I was doing my PhD. At the time I was not ready to commit to treating myself. I felt even guilty for being depressed, since everything in my life was basically fine. But that’s the funny thing about depression – it may strike precisely when there is a bit of room to breathe and to start asking questions like who am I and what I want to do with my life. These things may be also hereditary, so the last thing one needs for recovery is feeling guilty.

TIAS provided an opportunity to ask those questions: what kind of a researcher am I? Do I even want to be a researcher in the current academia? How can I contribute with my work to the pressing environmental and societal problems? Is it enough? How do I relate to others? I got medication for depression and started intensive psychotherapy. I am still not convinced whether the pills have helped in my case, since I think the problem is not in brain chemistry but learned thought patterns and issues external to myself – for instance the working logic of academia. Individualism, competition, silence about problems, emphasizing “excellence”…all that stroke a chord of insecurity in me. Finally I had the wits to admit I hadn’t been well for a long time, which allowed to stop and examine my relationship to work and the roots of the problems. There are many things I love about research: the environmental social science issues I work with, the real-life cases that provide interesting insights, the people I get to meet as informants and colleagues, wonderfully written theoretical pieces, the freedom to think and create my own work… And while it might have been a sensible solution to let go years ago, these are the reasons I cling onto research work, even to the point of madness.

There is research how female academics with working-class background are especially prone to severe imposter syndrome (e.g. Käyhkö 2013), and I recognize myself in that. It has been difficult for me to take space in academia; my internal self-critic is always too vigilant, questioning whether I actually have something to say, and whipping me afterwards for not speaking up. In my previous work environment I had adopted the role of the quiet girl but TIAS allowed me to somewhat reinvent myself. When I started in TIAS, the collegium got also a new director with new ideas. One of them was that the researchers should have representatives in the Board of Management. Since I happened to be the newcomer, the director asked me to represent the postdocs in the board. I surprised myself in being like a fish in the water with all the faculty deans in the board meetings, not hesitating to take my turn. So while TIAS was for me a time for depression, it was also a time for empowerment.

Trying to develop a healthier relationship to work I applied and got selected to the mentoring programme organized by the university. In general, being depressed and going to therapy is not the most opportune moment for mentoring, but after consideration I decided I was well enough to benefit from it. Mentoring, just like therapy, is a tricky thing, since so much depends on the “chemistry” between the participants. I was lucky to get a wise senior female researcher as my mentor (and a wise and warm woman as my therapist). In defining the goals for mentoring I was in a “have to proceed quickly in my academic career”- mode, and my key goal was to discuss what would it take for me to apply for a docentship (adjunct professor title) – the “natural” next career step. My mentor stated rather straightforwardly what I already knew: my publication record was not strong enough yet.

I realized I was not in a hurry to get the title and could forget it until the time is right. But then I was a bit lost: what are we going to talk about then, if not the steps towards docentship? We ended up talking about writing, teaching, academic practices and many other things. I had been in a conference and told my mentor how my talk had inspired two writing requests: one shorter text for a newsletter, and a full-length article to a peer-reviewed journal. I said I had agreed to do the shorter text as I thought it would not take that much time, but had not promised anything on the longer piece yet. My mentor looked at me and said: “I wonder if you did right there.” I didn’t immediately get what she meant and thought I shouldn’t have promised anything in her opinion, having all sorts of unfinished things on my desk. But her point was that maybe I should have agreed to do the peer-reviewed piece instead, as writing the shorter text was going to take time anyway, but the peer-reviewed article would have brought more merit.

It was not a revelation that I had trouble prioritizing work. As it has been difficult to proceed with article writing, I have taken up all kinds of other tasks that would provide me with feeling of achievement I crave for. To get at least something done and published, even if it was not a peer-reviewed article. This has led to a vicious circle where the most important tasks, i.e. the scholarly articles are stalled, although getting them done would improve work-related wellbeing the most. My mentor reminded me that I had been hired to do research, not to participate in developing teaching, for instance, and research was what is expected of me. She said I should perhaps learn to sleep overnight before agreeing to various requests. This is something I have been practicing lately, and I think I am getting quite good at it. I get easily excited about all kinds of things and I feel privileged when asked to participate in different projects. But at the same time I have developed criticality towards the application imperative in academia. There seems to be a feeling that even people with a secure position or at least longer research funding must participate in all possible research funding rounds, which then eats away time available for doing research and writing. So for the moment I have decided I will not apply anything just for the sake of applying, until I really feel I want to get funding for some research.

While the mentor’s words may sound blunt, the delivery was emphatic. She said encouragingly that I certainly know how to write and how to produce an article, I just need to make it my priority. For a moment, one hasty lunch meeting seemed to uncork the bottled-up writing pressure, and in just few days I had submitted one manuscript to a journal and proceeded with two others. My mentor did not say anything I didn’t know already about the importance of prioritization, but hearing it from someone else, someone I respected, in a way I was able to receive, was much needed. But this is not that kind of success story that ends in me being “cured” and being a researcher happily ever after. I am still struggling with work, sometimes more, sometimes less. There are moments of flow, and I still lose my sleep periodically over it. But I have learned to draw boundaries and I try not to let work consume me. I’ve been going to therapy almost a year now. I have gone more to theatre with a good friend and read more novels in a year than in several previous years together. I have started to enjoy physical exercise again. I have learned to allow myself sometimes just lie on the sofa, doing nothing.

I refuse to think I don’t have what it takes to thrive in academia. And I’m not even sure whether I want to have “the right stuff” defined by the neoliberal university (Stengers 2018; see book review by Haila 2020), focusing on career and publication metrics. I am finding my own way of working, inspired perhaps by the marginal and quirky. And here I’m not alone either. In TIAS I had the privilege to meet wonderful and crazy people like Valtteri Arstila, who currently holds the Guinnes world record in fastest marathon in a toga – a wonderful example that it doesn’t have to be so serious. And in all its simplicity, I think the best writing advice I heard from TIAS colleague Peter Myrdal, who said “write just a bit, every day” – setting oneself to succeed rather than failing too ambitious targets. Some of the most memorable TIAS tasks were related to the “third task” of the university in societal engagement: a public lecture at the city library, making a video on my project, participating as a discussant in two art festivals.

What I hope to achieve with this post is to facilitate discussion on the toll academic work may take on mental health and to encourage others with possibly similar thoughts to seek help, speak up and support peers. When it feels like there is nothing more in life than work and that one’s whole worth depends on succeeding in it, it’s time for some alarm bells to ring. TIAS was for me an important place for growth. And I hope TIAS will grow further in developing supportive working atmosphere where constructive feedback is available. One important step in this is the director’s initiative to provide mentoring for all TIAS researchers.

Dr Minna Santaoja

TIAS postdoc 10/2017-12/2019

Currently working as a senior researcher at the University of Turku, Finland Futures Research Centre (Tampere office), on a project examining the dynamics of human-wasp co-habitance, funded by Kone Foundation.

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2 Responses to How to thrive and keep sane in academia? Looking back to my 2+ years in TIAS by Minna Santaoja

  1. mksant says:

    I was told that surprisingly many people have read this post, so if that keeps being the case, I’ll use this opportunity to share with you an excellent book on writing I recently discovered. Joli Jensen’s “Write no matter what. Advice for academics.” (2017, Chicago University Press) Many insightful techniques on how to overcome writing troubles, straightforward, empathic, no-nonsense ❤

    take care & fight to make writing work for you,

  2. limala says:

    Thanks for sharing Minna!

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