Academia as an ‘anxiety machine’

We learned recently of the suicide of Stefan Grimm, a successful professor at the prestigious Imperial College in London. Professors Grimm regularly published highly cited articles in the best journals. He was highly productive. Unfortunately, some of his colleagues felt that he did not secure sufficiently large research grants. So he was to be fired.

It is not that he did not try. He was told that he was the most aggressive grant seeker in his school. He worked himself to death. I am willing to bet that he was failing my week-end freedom test. But he still failed to secure large and prestigious grants because others were luckier, harder working, or even smarter.

It is not remarkable that he felt a lot of pressure at work. It is not remarkable that he was fired despite being smart and hard-working. These things happen all the time. What is fascinating is the contrast between how most people view an academic job and Grimm’s reality.

Other academics (starting maybe with Richard Hall) described academia as an ‘anxiety machine’:

Throw together a crowd of smart, driven individuals who’ve been rewarded throughout their entire lives for being ranked well, for being top of the class, and through a mixture of threat and reward you can coerce self-harming behaviour out of them to the extent that you can run a knowledge economy on the fumes of their freely given labour.


I know plenty of professors and star researchers who eat, sleep and breathe research, and can’t understand why their junior colleagues (try to) insist on playing with their children on a Sunday afternoon or going home at 6. ‘You can’t do a PhD and have a social life’, my predecessor told me.

It is simply not very hard to find overly anxious professors. I know many who are remarkably smart and who have done brilliant work… but they remain convinced that they are something of a failure.

Successful academics have been trained to compete, and compete hard… and even when you put them in what might appear like cushy conditions, they still work 7 days a week to outdo others… and then, when they are told by colleagues that it is not yet enough… they take such nonsensical comments at face value… because it is hard to ignore what you fear most…

And it is all seen as a good thing… without harsh competition, how are you going to get the best out of people?

Did you just silently agree with my last sentence? It is entirely bogus. There is no trace of evidence that you can get the best out of people at high-level tasks through pressure and competition. The opposite is true. Worried people get dumber. They may be faster at carrying rocks… but they do not get smarter.

Stressing out academics, students, engineers or any modern-day worker… makes them less effective. If we had any sense, we would minimize competition to optimize our performance.

The problem is not that Grimm was fired despite his stellar performance, the problem is that he was schooled to believe that his worth was lowered to zero because others gave him a failing grade…

Source: Thanks to P. Beaudoin for the pointer.

23 thoughts on “Academia as an ‘anxiety machine’”

  1. I think part of the problem is some binary rewards. You either get tenure or you don’t; almost getting tenure is a terrifying prospect. If you have tenure, your chairman either decides to promote you or not. Your grant gets funded or not. Etc.

    Outside academia rewards tend to be a more continuous function of results. There aren’t as many all-or-nothing milestones, though of course there are some.

    A chairman has more power over a professor than a boss has over an engineer, because the engineer is more likely to be able to change jobs quickly and without uprooting a family.

  2. Of course I know what you are talking about in this piece, Daniel, but it doesn’t quite ring true overall. I know a lot of profs and most of them seem to enjoy a reasonable work-life balance, and most of them seem generally challenged by their job as opposed to being killed by it.

  3. I agree with John Regehr. Why should we take one (very sad and unfortunate) suicide and extrapolate to this level about life in the academy in this way?

    [Indeed, I’ve just starting reading the articles for background, but why would we necessarily blame the threat of job loss for the suicide (except for the timing)? But perhaps that’s beside the point anyway.]

  4. I’ve never understood where one gets the blinders that John Regehr and Michael Mitzenmacher display. Maybe that’s why they’re academics whereas I decided to get out.

    It’s not an isolated phenomenon; a number of profs at CMU were in utter denial that students were at high risk of depression.

  5. Benoit —

    I’m not blind to the fact that graduate students are at risk for depression. I quite well understand that, in particular, graduate students can get depressed, though my personal experience suggests it does not have to do with “competition” or even, in the sense portrayed here, of “failure”. I’d be happy to talk about that with you offline. One point to note though is that graduate student experience is very different from the professor experience, so you should separate the two. (Daniel was focused on “professor anxiety” here, and the case we’re talking about was a professor.) Also, I’ve know depressed people in a variety of walks of life. Why do you associate depression with academia in particular?

    Anyhow, the main point is please try not to ascribe points of view to me that I did not espouse.

    A secondary point is that if you have references to data (such as “graduate students/professors commit suicide at twice the rate of others in their age cohort”) that would be interesting and worth discussing. But if you just say, “Some graduate students and professors are very stressed/depressed,” I don’t find that interesting or worth discussing. Some of the lawyers, doctors, and businesspeople I know all seem stressed and depressed, too.

  6. Reading this post, and the “week-end freedom test” one, *and* reading comments on the latter, makes me realize the different priorities and assumptions have about work and worth than I have.

    Perhaps I am a Dilbert-esque Wally. I work in industry, and rarely push past 40 hours. Others in my department do. On the other hand, I don’t see that I or my colleagues really do work so vital that it has to be prioritized over weekend and evening time with my family.

    That’s my judgement call, though, and others don’t make the same one. But the people I see working through the weekend, and seeing the nature of the work they do, doesn’t convince me I am wrong. They didn’t save lives or stop some dam from bursting; they usually make a PowerPoint with that time.

    Not worth it over Game Nights with my kids.

  7. Professor Grimm’s death is a horrible tragedy and a major blow to the community. He will be greatly missed by those who were fortunate enough to know him.

    Perhaps institutions that issue grants should require that the receiving organization not use these types of “quotas” in their internal policies.

    Condolences to Prof. Grimm’s family and friends.

  8. Im not sure you can’t have a social life if you do a Ph.D. My son is in his second year, doing Biomedical Science at a prestigious institution, he is already the lead author in a Plos 1 paper and he is on track for completing. He has a long standing relationship with his girlfriend, hits the gym three times a week, play soccer and cricket, still plays too much FIFA championship manager and really enjoy a few beers with non academic friends once or twice a week. Most of his peers
    are the same. His very limited experience (granted) may not be representative of a career in academia, but I would hate that stories of the brutality of an academic career would put off our best and brightest. All meaningful pursuits bring stress, it is a cliche, but it’s how we respond. My sons view to dealing with the pressure is use as much tech as possible to manage time and activity, take knock backs seriously but don’t allow them to get to you and spend time with the people wholove and support you. …

  9. The news of this case have triggered interesting comments across different social media -G+ was were I learned from this case and this entry.

    I’d always question a person’s education, or rather, upbringing, if she/he ended up committing suicide. It definitely points at a low self-steem as _one_ of the underlying causes. I’d have even said that would be the main cause indeed.

    I find it interesting, though, to think of the possibility that _schooling_, i.e., our social interactions may undo, and screw up, what initially could have been a sound upbringing within one’s own family, as this post seems to suggest.

    Other interesting points I find here, but fail to find often enough elsewhere, is pointing at some kind of aggressiveness of society when it keeps pushing us to _compete_ as the only way to be our best selves.

    There are still, what I think are, very primitive ideas entrenched in our society that are but rooted only in fear. That is one of them. Other examples are the (lack of/insufficient) awareness of several psychological syndromes, e.g., chronic fatigue or depression, that recently, within our lifetime, were still the target of jokes and contempt, as if the person affected would just be hiding their lack of resources, skills, and even motivation for delivering more.

    The reasons for Grimm’s suicide are obviously complex, and surely lie not only on the dynamics he faced at Imperial College. However, I hope that his case may at least help to raise the awareness of some silly dynamics we live by.

  10. The trouble I have with the remarks by Regehr and Mitzenmacher is that one could just as easily dismiss Regehr’s claim that professors are fine as anecdotal evidence. Commissioning a study to gather data, as Mitzenmacher suggests, is a good idea. However, the social stigma surrounding mental illness causes significant confounding effects that are likely to lead to underreporting, such as self-denial (“I’m not crazy”) or unwillingness to disclose (“I don’t want other people to think I’m crazy”, doubts about confidentiality).

    There’s circumstantial evidence to suggest that mental illness could be a problem in academia. Long hours and working 6-7 days a week often leads to neglect of self-care. As Mitzenmacher notes, this tendency towards long hours is by no means unique to academia, and professions like medicine, finance, and law have started to notice it as well, and are taking steps to deal with it (e.g., reducing hours for interns in finance and for medical residents). I don’t see academia doing something similar, because my impression and experience from academics is that denialism prevails. I’m glad to see a blog post on the topic, and disappointed in the comments.

  11. Timing…

    Dysfunctional behaviors are not the sole realm of academia. My current (mis?-)adventure at a very large company is somewhat of the same flavor.

    Spent the last several months building an initial proof-of-concept for backup on OpenStack. A few weeks into the exercise, found the *question* was wrong, and found the right starting point. Went in front of customers, to excellent result. Pretty much at the point where all they have to do is say “Yes”, and they can be clearly in the lead of what customers want. But … this might still die on social behaviors within the organization. (Yes, larger social organizations – commercial or academic – have dysfunctions, almost as a rule.)

    (The upside here is that next time at a startup competing with a very large company, I will be much, *much* less worried. Large companies tend to generate patterns of behavior that render them not competitive.)

    Might still turn this story around. (Corollary: the scariest thing for a small company is someone like me, if I succeed in altering the behavior of a large company. Also related, half expect to get fired.)

    Heard an interview of the radio as I was driving. The subject described success as having (easy) choices. I have sacrificed nights and weekends, to a success that might fail in the longer term. That hit home.

    Then again, was listening to the radio on the drive to Las Vegas, to attend a Lucent Dossier event. Not *quite* failed…

  12. Also, this, from here:

    What if this is the pattern of not just the successful, but of all of the driven academics, regardless of success?

    My study reveals that, in one way or another, each of the creators became embedded in some kind of a bargain, deal, or Faustian arrangement, executed as a means of ensuring the preservation of his or her unusual gifts. In general, the creators were so caught up in the pursuit of their work mission that they sacrificed all, especially the possibility of a rounded personal existence. The nature of this arrangement differs: In some cases (Freud, Eliot, Gandhi), it involves the decision to undertake an ascetic existence; in some cases, it involves a self-imposed isolation from other individuals (Einstein, Graham); in Picasso’s case, as a consequence of a bargain that was rejected, it involves an outrageous exploitation of other individuals; and in the case of Stravinsky, it involves a constant combative relationship with others, even at the cost of fairness. What pervades these unusual arrangements is the conviction that unless this bargain has been compulsively adhered to, the talent may be compromised or even irretrievably lost. And, indeed, at times when the bargain is relaxed, there may well be negative consequences for the individual’s creative output.

  13. I am another Professor. Long ago I learnt that my value lies in who I am, not what I do. Realise that and life becomes fun again, and “they” can’t touch you. Forget it, let what you do define who you are and you are at “their ” mercy. Constant vigilance is required. Good luck Prof Grimm. “They” may well have done you a favour if it allows a second chance to look at life.

  14. Excuse me! To kill oneself because of a failure in the scholarly rat race?
    I can only assure you that there is life outside academia!
    The fact that academia is now designed as it were not the case means that there is something deeply wrong with the academia.

  15. Daniel, thank you for your article. Very interesting comments (I respect all opinions shared).

    I was reading a second time your article, this time replacing the words professor to “Human” and removing “research”. There is still the “academic” point of view but reading it this way contributes to confirm that the competition is definitely a disease.
    I’ve been working in the private sector for more than 12 years (when most of my family are in academia) where it’s easy to observe the impact of competition. Competition’s rewards are only fulfilling short-term goal. Positive collaboration is the only true factor of success. Focussing on competition comes to a price. Less collaboration & cultivation. Do we really want that? Thanks again for your article.

  16. This man was extremely successful at a prestigious institution. He decided the best thing for him to do was to commit suicide.
    There are those, myself included, who are not successful (in REF terms, and that is after all, all that matters) and at a low ranked institution. I am starting to think it may be time to follow the example of my betters.

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