This blog was first published on the Thesis Whisperer Website on the 7th September 2022 – Find the original and more great content at https://thesiswhisperer.com/
A little content warning first: I talk about depression and anxiety in this post. If that’s not for you today, click away friend. I’ll see you another time.
I have been trying to work out how to write this without sounding like a privileged white lady, but I can’t, so I’ll just say it:
I am very tired.
And I don’t just mean in the physical sense, although it’s true I am not always getting enough sleep. I’m talking about a weariness deep in the soul. A tiredness that puts you off going out about, doing things in the evenings after work. A tiredness that feels like this:
It’s a tiredness that gets in the way of creativity, making it hard to write or start new projects. I still take joy in things and laugh a lot, but I just feel … weary. I often go to bed at 6pm on the assumption that more sleep will fix it, but it doesn’t seem to make a difference.
This tiredness is weird. It doesn’t feel like depressed-tired, but I checked in with my doctor just to be sure. Surprisingly, after we went through a few checklists, it seemed my mental health was better than it’s been for years. My doctor even talked me through the process of coming off anti-anxiety meds and I decided to give it a try. With medical help, I came off them without any problems: the tiredness stayed, but the anxiety did not return. (This is not to say that coming off anxiety meds was ever a goal. I felt no shame about taking medication – I was happy to be on them forever and I’ll go back on them in a heartbeat if I need to).
This tiredness feels different to depressed-tired. It seems to be contagious tiredness if you know what I mean. Everyone else seems very tired too. I first noticed this mass tiredness amongst our PhD student cohort. People treated our online workshops as a lifeline during the pandemic – engagement increased 400% in 2020. It dropped back to normal in 2021, but then people started just… not showing up.
There’s always a gap between sign-ups and show-ups to events. We call the difference between clicking ‘yes’ on a sign-up sheet to actually turning up to a workshop the ‘conversion rate’. You are doing well as an event organiser if you have a 50% conversion rate. Our conversion rate went up to 70% during the pandemic but dropped back to 50% in 2021. So far, so normal. But this year it dropped further; to 30% and sometimes even lower.
I started to get worried, so I checked in with other researcher developer units in Australia, and around the world. Everyone told me the same story: PhD students have just stopped turning up to professional development, even to face-to-face events where food was on offer (normally a reliable draw card). We all had theories about the disappearing PhD students: lockdown fatigue, lack of motivation, social disconnection, lack of hope… I get emails from students all over the world, which seemed to confirm all these theories, especially the last one. The academic job market before the pandemic was tough, but the one emerging on the other side seemed even worse. Even more uncertain, low paid and precarious.
Given this reality, professional development aimed at helping people succeed in the academic workplace might seem just a little … pointless? And even if you still see the value in attending (I hope you do), finding time is probably harder. Even though people don’t like to talk about it, lack of money is a serious problem for most PhD students at all times. But the pandemic made the situation worse. The PhD stipend, always dipping above and below the poverty line, got hit hard by inflation at the start of the year. People had to work more – much more – just to make ends meet.
Added to that is the ongoing pandemic, with its own cloud of constant anxiety.
The more I thought about the conversion rate problem, the more I got in touch with my own internal tiredness. If PhD students were feeling the way I was, it was no wonder the conversion rate was in the toilet. The source of my tiredness is … everything… and yet nothing in particular. The tiredness is simply THERE.
I decided to check out my idea on Twitter. I shared my tiredness and invited responses by reply or DM. I got so many replies; too many to share them all here. Every reply affirmed my feelings and also demonstrated a strange reluctance to talk about it. Many replied in private, telling me they were worried about admitting to the tiredness against a backdrop of layoffs and redundancies. PhD students were reluctant to tell their supervisor how the tiredness was affecting their work and just carried loads of guilt.
I started to wonder if I was falling into the trap of treating a systemic problem as an individual one. We humans are herd animals: feelings spread. The tiredness might be the smoke from the factory of mass anxiety. Certainly, there are so many systemic explanations when you start looking for them.
The first, most obvious place to look is the lingering effects of lockdown. People have written about ‘re-entry’ trauma: the difficulty just dealing with people again, after only experiencing them two-dimensionally for several years. There’s something in this: our workplaces have certainly changed. One of the things I used to most enjoy about academia was the social side of things: meetings, symposiums, workshops; chances to get your nerd on with like-minded others. These opportunities are still absent for the most part. It seems only the boring, administrative socialising of committee work is left. It hardly needs to be said that this kind of socialising is not energising.
When you think about it, our whole environment is different now: it’s not just #WFH, our socialising is still largely online and most of these spaces are not healthy. Doomscrolling is the verb of the 20s. Social media is designed to deliver what Tim Miller calls ‘Outrage juice’ in carefully measured doses: just enough to keep you scrolling, even as you hate it. Social media is our window on the world and it’s not great out there right now.
Existential dread is tiring, and there’s more than enough of that to go around. The climate crisis is clearly accelerating and it’s coupled with civil unrest in many places, which is scary. At the start of the pandemic, we used to jokingly talk about ‘the before times’, ironically pretending we were in a dystopian fiction novel. Now we’ve accepted we are actually living in a dystopian fiction novel. ‘The before times’ is a figure of speech we use routinely to talk about anything: from the state of US politics to how shit Qantas baggage service seems to be now.
And there’s a certain amount of survivor guilt in just being a university professor. I’m not here to complain about my job (I love it, even when it pisses me off), but there’s no doubt the structure of work in our profession is profoundly fucked. The boomers are finally retiring, which means most of us Gen Xers and Millenials now on tenure have directly experienced this precarious job market. Here’s the thing no one tells you: if you come up through a ‘gig economy’, the feeling of precariousness never leaves you. Part of the reason I work so hard (no small contributor to my mental health issues), is the feeling that all THIS (gestures wildly around my book-lined office) can all disappear in a heartbeat.
Guilt of any sort is tiring, but I’ve recently learned about ‘Moral Injury’ from one of our 3MT participants, Victoria Thomas, and I think this might be part of the tiredness too.
Moral injury is the effect on your mental health of doing something against your values, within a system that doesn’t seem to care about the wrongs that are being done in its name. Unsurprisingly, moral injury was first noticed in soldiers who had terrible experiences on the battlefield. Victoria is working on a diagnostic tool that broadens the definition of moral injury from soldiers to frontline health workers and police. These people have struggled through the pandemic having to make impossible decisions at work, sometimes about who will live and who will die.
Look, I might be drawing a long bow here, but it seems to me there’s a certain amount of moral injury being perpetuated every day in our university workplaces because of the false scarcity that is imposed by neo-liberal economic policies. I don’t blame ‘management’ – they are more exposed to moral injury than the rest of us. I blame the government which doesn’t fund it properly and sets the rules to make it worse. I am watching the new government closely: there are signs of change, but not heaps. I still feel like universities are a low priority for our leaders, which is really demotivating.
In summary, as one of the hosts of one of my favourite podcasts, Maintenance Phase, put it: “We live in a world where we are complicit with a lot of awful shit… it’s no wonder a lot of us carry around a lot of fucking anxiety”.
So in conclusion: everything is making us tired and it’s not going to lift easily. The solutions to this collective tiredness require collective action of all kinds and that feels exhausting too. But, you don’t come to Thesiswhisperer to dwell in negativity. I want to finish on some kind of positive note, but honestly, it’s hard. I can only encourage you to find out what helps makes the tiredness lift – even temporarily. Here’s what helps me:
Telling the tiredness to f*%k off
Check-in with a medical professional and also make sure you are sleeping ok, but if you are feeling soul tired, like me, it might help to recognise this is more of a feeling than a fact. If the tiredness is systemic, it is with you but doesn’t have to belong to you. Thinking about and writing this post was really helpful for me. I had to overcome a wave of tiredness to even start, but I consciously told the tiredness to fuck off and it worked, at least for a little while.
Getting in touch with creativity
It’s easy – oh so easy – to put that creative work, but it’s what nourishes and sustains us. When I feel tired at even the idea of writing, I try taking the pressure off myself to finish something or do it well. I just try doing it for its own sake. I’m always surprised where I end up (for example, I can’t believe I have nearly finished this post!). The other way to approach getting more creativity in your life is to look for collaborative projects: I love doing podcasts and books with other people. Their energy lifts me up.
Dialing back the social media
Ironically, for a person who made their name on social media, I find spending too much time there really draining. It’s no secret that big tech companies design apps to be addictive. I now think of myself as a conscientious Facebook objector… I’m still there, but I never go there. Less exposure to the outrage juice is helpful.
I find I can alleviate the existential dread of climate change by doing something positive about it. I work with the Greens, door-knocking and volunteering time to help run the party. Other people I know go and plant trees or volunteer time at shelters. Being around others with a common sense of positive purpose can really help: you come home feeling actually tired, not soul tired.
Joining the union
Look, I feel conflicted about our union, the NTEU. I quit in disgust in 2020 over the national job protection framework which I thought was, as Thesiswhisperer Jnr would put it: borked. But sitting out didn’t make me feel better. So I re-joined and volunteered to join the enterprise bargaining round. I don’t have as much time to dedicate to this as I’d like to, but maybe there’s slightly less exposure to moral injury.
Would love to hear more of your strategies – when I’m on the socials it’s almost always Twitter: @thesiswhisperer
The Thesis Whisperer is written by Professor Inger Mewburn, director of researcher development at The Australian National University. New posts on the first Wednesday of the month. Subscribe by email below. Visit the About page to find out more about me and my books. Listen to my podcasts: On the Reg , Your brain on writing and WhisperCollective. Send me a message on Speakpipe.
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