Academia is Broken.

What is happening to me?

Tears rolled down my cheeks as I sat in the emergency department, waiting to be seen by a neurologist.

It started an hour earlier. I was on my lunch break, sitting in the café at the children’s hospital next door. I noticed an absence of peripheral vision on one side. Yet I was otherwise comfortable, so I finished my meal. I moved to a bench in the vibrant foyer of the children’s hospital, and began texting a colleague.

That’s funny. I seem to be making a lot of typos today. It’s taking me 3 tries to get a word right.

“I’m freaking out a bit rn…about 40 mins ago when I sat down to have lunch I noticed peripheral vision on my right side was gone. Left [cafe] early and it seemed to get better as soon as I walked away. But still freaking out because I am having trouble spelling simple words on my phone. I don’t know if this is the start of a migraine 😐 Or a freaking stroke lol”

Gosh, that message took about 5 minutes to finish!

Colleague: “Numbness?”

“No pain at all. Or numbness”

Colleague: “Tingles?”

“No. No kaleidoscope”

Thank goodness for autocorrect…

Colleague: “When you’re stressed, which eye twitches first? How’s the hearing on the right side?”

“Left is usually the worst ear. No different with twitch. But the strangest park [sic] is spelling. It’s still happening. WTF. Like I’m slightly slew [sic]”

Colleague: “Go to the back rooms. Close your eyes for a bit. Then massage the temple. Have you got your heated eye pads?”

“Just once a while ago”

Colleague: “Your eyes probably need some rest”

“Not here. And 3 hour combined after. *Coming”

Colleague: “If there’s no pain, tingles, numbness, then no stroke. Peripheral vision – we stare at screens all day. We look at little letters. No meeting ATM? Head down to the library and relax. Then head straight home after the IR meeting.”

I made my way back to the office. Something was definitely wrong.

“Few yes maybe a break ground. Feel like me brain has feeling shut down”

Colleague: “Yeah you were doing a lot of PhD reading.”

“This spelling is weird of all.”

Colleague: “Gooo head down to the library and rest your eyes for 15min”

(Colleague sends a photo of a sign found on most highways in Victoria, which reads ‘Trouble concentrating? Powernap now’)

Colleague: “VicRoads will tell you the same thing”

I didn’t have a chance to reply. Another colleague visited my desk to see if I’d be coming to the 2pm IR meeting. It was 2:03pm. I’d been so engrossed in my texting troubles that I’d lost track of time.

Yes, I meant to say. I’ll be right there.

But the wrong words came out.

Holy crap. Puzzled, I tried again, but to no avail. My speech was slurred and my brain felt jammed. I knew what I wanted to say, but had to fight myself to get a few key words out. Meanwhile, the colleague that came to check on me had summoned a couple of nurses in my department.

“Can’t…spell…vision…right side…”

They quickly assessed my pupils and motor function. All clear, but I still needed help. They escorted me downstairs to the emergency department. I was terrified, and began crying on the way there. When we arrived at the triage desk, my right hand went numb. It took me about 20 seconds to recite my date of birth. I was given a seat in the emergency department and my vitals signs were measured. Everything was within normal range except for my heart rate, which was elevated from all the stress. My partner was contacted. He arrived in 15 minutes, and I tearfully recounted the story to him, finally beginning to regain control of my speech.

What is happening to me?

The neurologist approached with a friendly expression, aware of my anxiety but thankfully choosing not to address it directly. I told her what happened. She asked if I was stressed.

“Well, I did wake up at 3am this morning, wondering if I would get my PhD done in time.”

“You’re doing a PhD?”

“Yes.”

She made a note. Her reaction spoke volumes, as if my symptoms all made sense now. She reassured me that I had experienced a migraine,  not a stroke. Although my experiences were common to both conditions, stroke symptoms occur simultaneously, whereas mine happened in waves over the course of an hour.

I was relieved, but of course shaken. Have I pushed myself too much? Was it really worth it? It got me thinking about the pressures in the academic industry. Life as a research student was the prequel to a career in which uncertainty and imbalance reigns supreme.

Here are just a few problems with academia:

  • Academics are rewarded by volume of publications, which can compromise quality
  • Bold headlines are more appealing, and can lead to unethical research practices and frivolous claims. Media-savvy academics and research centres are more ‘successful’ in terms of funding and career progression.
  • Peer-reviewing is by and large a voluntary, unpaid service. The publisher benefits unfairly from free labour.
  • If authors want readers to view their articles for free i.e. open access, they must pay a high premium, often in the thousands of dollars.
  • The academic industry is rife with phony publishers and conferences, feeding on the aforementioned desperation to demonstrate academic activity in the form of articles or presentations. My inbox was bombarded daily with requests to contribute to articles or attend events usually unrelated to my field of research. Publishing my university email address in academic articles does not mean I consent to be spammed. There is no industry regulation; nothing similar to the Australian ‘do not call’ telemarketing register currently exists for the academic industry.
  • Income is uncertain and dependant on grant money. Work-life balance is extremely difficult to achieve.
  • Ranking indexes for academics creates unhealthy competition. I have heard of academics deliberately choosing not to collaborate with certain people in their department to prevent being overtaken in terms of academic output. Promotions are also difficult to attain.
  • Ranked indexes for publications introduce an overinflated, often inaccurate, highly subjective estimation of prestige and credibility.

Academia is broken. Research is interesting to me, but is the mental and physical price of a research career just too high? Does the industry need an overhaul?

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