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Anxiety, Defense, and Tenure

Frankly, I've been stuck for how to start this story, because I know-as a white, straight, middle-class [mediocre] man-I have benefitted from a lot of privilege and structural advantages. I've suffered from depression to some extent since high school, but I've always had access to therapists and medication. I've suffered from anxiety since late in college, but I've still been able to get professional help. I was fortunate enough to snag a tenure-track position right after defending my dissertation, and while the anxiety has only multiplied and the burnout has become oppressive, I've had a wonderful support system in my wife, my family, and the friends I've made here in the greater University of Georgia and Athens communities.

I've been stuck, because the community here amazes me every day with its strength and beauty, and even though we always talk about how we can't and shouldn't compare struggles, I think about my own struggles and how I'd surely snap like a twig under a fraction of the pressures others here have faced and handled with grace.

What, then, could my story possibly offer?

The answer (it didn't come from me!) was simple: my story is another reminder that mental health issues and struggles are pervasive in academia and don't discriminate. Importantly, that means none of us are alone.

I can't even remember how early the imposter syndrome set in, but it was probably around the start of graduate school when, with guidance from a trusted mentor, I went from an undergraduate program in computer science to a Master's program in computational biology. I hadn't taken a life sciences course since high school; suddenly I was a graduate student in freshman biology, chemistry, and biochemistry. I threw myself into it and did well, but that feeling of being a computer scientist in a biologist's world-an imposter-never went away.

It got worse as I started my PhD, specializing in yet another area where I had no prior training: computer vision and bio imaging. It seemed like none of my previous training had prepared me for the research I was doing, all the while being surrounded by people who had done one, the other, or both for their entire lives. Even my student colleagues came from backgrounds that, to me, seemed better suited to the work.

Throughout my PhD, I constantly worried and self-scrutinized and set both impossible and moving standards for myself, while simultaneously minimizing all the victories. While I found a fantastic "dissertation group" for weekly therapy toward the end (a group made entirely of ABD PhD Candidates), once my tenure-track position began barely a month after my defense (yes, I managed to minimize both of those victories, too), I suddenly felt more alone than ever with higher expectations than ever.

To say the past 4.5 years have been difficult would be an understatement. I've had to re-learn, seemingly from scratch, many of the coping mechanisms that got me through similar periods years before, re-training myself and essentially re-wiring my brain to choose different default responses to certain anxiety triggers. It turns out, at the faculty level, good mental health resources are a lot harder to find (Athens in general does not have great mental health facilities, but even university-level resources for faculty are far less prevalent than for students), and making the time for regular therapy is almost as stressful as the thing(s) which motivated the need for said therapy in the first place.

This past year, though, I lucked into an incredible on-site therapist through our Psych Department's clinic, as well as an online therapist. Their styles were very different, yet complementary, and though the time commitment was correspondingly greater-so I can't recommend this approach to everyone-it helped to the degree that I felt like I had more time available as a result of the strategies we were building and the habits I was forming. I've spent a lot of time making these strategies into habits, especially:

  • Celebrating successes and victories

  • Accepting setbacks and failures as required parts of the journey (but NOT reflections on me as a person)

  • Taking time to ask what I can reasonably expect of myself at any given moment given the surrounding context.

It will be a lifelong journey, but I can already say the difference is night and day. I can compare the first day of this new semester to the first day of the past spring semester and see exactly how far I've come in the same year. I can't begin to enumerate how helpful it has been to know that I'm not alone; that nothing I experience as part of my anxiety or burnout is unique to me or suggests that I'm doing anything wrong.


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