Pursuit of Truthiness

my gut tells me I know economics

Archive for March 2014

Why Academics Are Depressed

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Depressed PhD students are in the news again with two articles in the Guardian.
Depression among PhD students is no big mystery; they spend their 20’s beating their head against tough problems for ramen wages with the threat of expulsion constantly hanging over them. What is more surprising is that the problem continues once grad school is over.

On the face of it, professors have the sort of jobs no one should complain about. We have no real bosses. We get paid to talk and write about what we are interested in. We are teachers who only have to be in a classroom for 2.5-10 hours a week, 30 weeks a year. We have good pay and, after tenure, unparalleled job security.

But while the job really is objectively great, and I am annoyed every time I hear academics complain about it, I do see why it can lead to depression.

First of all, independence is a double-edged sword. Many of us were drawn to academia by the idea that we would have no boss, could choose our own projects, and weren’t even required to work closely with any coworkers. But if one side of a coin is independence, the other is isolation. Academics can do all of their research behind a closed door in their office, or at home, without talking to anyone else. Even teaching can mean talking at students the whole time rather than talking with them.

But I think the biggest problem is that academia makes us compare ourselves to the very best people in our field, and leaves us little room for self-delusion about how we are doing in that competition.

In most jobs, you might not think of yourself as in competition against anyone at all. If you do compare your performance to others, it is probably to others at your own company. It is easy enough to convince yourself that you are the best in your organization, or at least that you are above average. Only a few jobs like sales will have publicly shared, objective measures that can prove to you that you are below average at your job.

The biggest part of the job for most academics is research, and the biggest measures of research are published articles and citations thereof. Research is a national, or even international, game. As a researcher trying to publish articles and get them cited, you are in direct competition with the best and brightest all over the world. It is not enough to be the best in your department, or even the best in your state. The top journals publish only a few hundred articles a year, in a profession with tens of thousands of people.

Most journals have a 80-95% rejection rate. We are regularly told that our work is not good enough- sometimes in excruciating detail, with several pages of referee reports explaining problems with your paper, and sometimes with no explanation at all. Even many of the best articles by the best academics get rejected. This constant negative reinforcement is wearing, and keeps our opinion of ourselves from getting too high. There is a lot of evidence that most people are overconfident about their abilities in general; but depressed people seem to be the one exception, the people who know exactly how good they are. It is not clear how much this is depression-inducing brain chemistry reducing overconfidence versus people with realistic self-assessment becoming more depressed, but the later could explain exactly why academics are depressed.

Written by James Bailey

March 9, 2014 at 12:25 pm