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?”


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?

On Nature

I’m at peace when there are few humans around me. When I’m experiencing the sheer beauty and vastness of the scene before me and it’s just me and the world – a silent yet devastatingly expressive entity. I revel in my existence and my freedom, and feel truly, deeply grateful for being there to witness such a moment.


On Unconscious Bias

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You know, it’s funny. Sometimes, it takes days, weeks, months or even years to reflect on things that have happened to you and decide whether those experiences were good or not. Nearly three months after the event, I find myself offended and saddened by something I ignored at the time. I was on a cruise, about to begin an afternoon of kayaking in New Caledonia. The French kayak company owner tried to start a conversation with me by asking what I thought was “Are you on the cruise?”

He had a rather thick accent and didn’t fully grasp English vocabulary, so I paused before answering, thinking of other possible words of similar phonetics that would apply in this context. I couldn’t come up with any, so I said “Yes”. 

Then later when we had a break, we had another short exchange, and that’s when realisation dawned. He had actually asked me if I was on the *crew*. The ship crew. I didn’t hear him ask anyone else the same question. I was dressed in casual clothes, like everyone else. What was it that made him assume? What was it about my appearance that made me different? Well, I was the only person of colour on the tour. Is that what it was all about? Or am I reading into this too much?

I thought about it some more after learning about these brilliant online tests for unconscious bias and realised that we all have them, and some are more conscious than unconscious! I must say that it’s a sad reflection of the world economy and order that none of the wait staff I encountered on board were Caucasian and yet all of the ship’s entertainment team was, with the exception of one possibly Hispanic dancer (an assumption of my own). My point is this: it’s not enough to admit we have unconscious biases. We have to ask ourselves – why? And what next? Because if we don’t answer these questions, nothing will ever change. And I will never realise my dream of becoming a cruise entertainer! 



The Positive Stimulation Series – Part 2: Why is Research Boring?

I think the fact that research is so boring to most people is the reason why researchers themselves are not regarded as universally interesting or popular people. Their output only caters to a bunch of nerds that seem to get off on the same topic. Which is why their only source of entertainment is conferences. Research is behind the scenes stuff. Our world has improved phenomenally thanks to scientific research, but Nobel Prize winners and other prominent researchers are not popular figures because they simply don’t elicit that kind of hair-raising, laugh out loud, visceral emotion. When the average person hears about research, the reaction is something like, “Cool. Thanks”.

I think back to this lecture by Professor Brian Cox on how the universe works. I found it interesting – but why? At the time, I thought it was his public speaking skills that made the difference. He was able to simplify very complex topics and make them relatable to laypeople. But now I wonder – was there something more to it? Did I like the lecture not because of the way he delivered the speech, but because of the way I felt? Is relatable learning a form of positive stimulation?

When you can connect the dots and learn something new, that’s a good feeling. Not as good as comedy or sport, but it still registers as stimulation. Lack of learning stimulation explains why kids disengage from school when it isn’t making sense to them. Instead, they seek stimulation from other, less academically productive sources like games or friends. To be honest, it’s what I did also, to an extent. And now that I think about it, most of the positive stimulation I derived from studying for all these years came from the pleasure of fast comprehension. It can explain why I sometimes feel down about the PhD – because I’m no longer at the top of my game when it comes to learning. I feel like I’ve hit a brick wall, and it’s the most demotivating feeling. That’s why so many of us procrastinate – because we don’t want to be in a state of negative stupor. We naturally seek out those activities that make us feel good, and like we’re working towards something positive. So while this Wait But Why post on procrastination is very relevant to me, I can also add that my willingness to stick at a task and achieve a state of flow is related to my mental capacity to exist without positive stimulation for more than a few minutes.

Perhaps the lesson I can take away from this is that the difference between persistent people and procrastinators is that persistent people are better prepared to withstand long periods without even the smallest pieces of positive stimulation to sustain them, in the knowledge that their sacrifice will gain them ultimate positive stimulation in the long run. No pain, no gain. The weak ones break the diet regime and reach for the pizza; the strong ones suffer in the short term, even if that short term can last for years. It’s like the two marshmallow experiment about delayed gratification.

It is an important realisation to understand that a PhD is naturally not as stimulating due to its inherent nature (some people find it highly stimulating, but that’s because they’re passionate about the topic itself). In my case, I think I was more attracted to the high I derived from academic achievement. Other highs, like writing and listening to music, were merely hobbies. A career in those fields was out of the question. I guess over time, things changed for me. I began to develop and grow in other fields. I derived more and more positive stimulation from activities that were deemed financially unproductive. As I began to enjoy those activities more and more, I guess I liked research slightly less, particularly in the second half of my PhD. To add to my woes, emotional trauma halfway through my studies severely reduced my tolerance for negative stimulation. It fuelled my craving for good feelings. That wasn’t necessarily a bad thing – after such a horrible upset, positive stimulation is the best medicine – but now, as I consider myself mostly recovered and now find research fascinating and fulfilling, it is time to wean myself off this drug. Because that’s what it is – an addictive drug. When you look at poor people living in developing countries, you can see that they have never experienced the high doses of stimulation to which we in the Western world are accustomed. As a result, they live with less and are actually happy with less. The same goes for previous generations. This brings us to the existing movements around minimalism and mindfulness. These concepts teach us to derive pleasure and stimulation from simpler things. It’s all about reducing the dose of drug that takes us on a rollercoaster of emotions, and learning to stay calm and conscious of our individual goals. Positive stimulation is something like a legal drug that drives the entire world. Whoa.

The Positive Stimulation Series – Part 1: The Business of Positive Stimulation

I had a thought the other day about what makes people beloved, successful or popular on any scale. I think the answer is positive stimulation. Think about it; our lives would be dull as heck if we didn’t engage in activities that make us feel they are worth living. That’s why we enjoy entertainment in all forms, and love those that entertain us. Of course, stimulation can be negative also, but even experiencing the bad times can help us appreciate the good. I think it is possible to become very popular over time if you become a supplier of positive stimulation.

Nurses are loved by the public because they bring light to a dark situation. Entertainers and sportspeople trigger feelings of excitement and release. A good friend or partner is regarded as someone that uplifts you and/or makes you laugh. Another interesting group is models. Fundamentally, they provide positive stimulation by allowing us to derive pleasure from their beauty. It’s like they’re walking works of art. But because they are also human, many of us seem incapable of mentally separating ourselves from them. We are sold the idea that we too can become similar works of art if we buy certain products. And that is simply not true. Human-driven art can be dangerous for this reason. Additionally, in this age of breaking down role definitions and stereotypes, we will ourselves to believe that we can be anyone and do anything. But I think we need to apply some limits here, or at least wait until the concept of art is redefined with general consensus before diving head first into a career that will belly flop because you simply don’t look the part, and won’t for some time. Of course, there are pioneers that clear the way – ethnically diverse lead actors and larger models – but I think what they are doing is providing a new kind of positive stimulation to growing audiences with increasing market power. At the end of the day, what we see in pop culture at this moment in time is what makes good business. So these pioneers have tapped in to a growing market. They are not social activists in my opinion (as much as they may purport to be) – they are actually shrewd businesspeople seizing opportunities. They offer a new brand of positive stimulation that connects more readily with certain groups of people. For example, when it comes to ethnic diversity on television, people of colour such as myself were deriving plenty of positive stimulation from ethnically homogeneous shows like Seinfeld. It’s just that with ‘ground breaking’ shows like Master of None, we are experiencing a new and exhilarating variety of positive stimulation. It resonates particularly with the ethnically diverse, but it is also refreshing for those who are not. And that is why traditionally unpopular faces have suddenly become so bankable. It’s not about social change and representation – all you have to do is follow the money.

On a related note, when you think about positive stimulation as a resource, social media activity can be appraised in a new light. Take the attention-seeking people that post mundane things or show themselves off. It’s about attracting attention for the purposes of validation, approval, and an appeal to the most basic of human needs – to feel wanted and loved. It is essentially a request for the ultimate form of positive stimulation. It’s emotional fuel; it’s what keeps us going. And these kinds of posts signify a deep hunger that calls for refuelling through donations of positive stimulation. Unfortunately, many of these ‘emotionally needy’ aren’t in the business of giving back, and if they do, it is not a fair trade. Thankfully, there are others that don’t publicly solicit positive stimulation, but by providing it to others, they receive it in turn. This creates a wonderful cycle of giving and receiving. And it’s what we should all aim for. After all, you wouldn’t accept presents without giving some too! The same attitude applies for emotional gifts.

Anyway, that’s my theory: people in the business of giving positive stimulation do well, because let’s face it, that’s what we’re all ultimately looking for. It makes us feel like life has some meaning and that it’s worth living. It can be in the form of good food, fun exercise, an emotive movie, shopping, socialising, or watching entertainers and sports. And some lucky people can actually derive positive stimulation from work, which may explain ‘workaholicism’ in some. It’s basically the old cliché about loving what you do expressed in a different way. I don’t think this cliché is the best way to state life’s aim, because it places a burden on individuals to 1) have the capacity and/or will to love something so fiercely and 2) dedicate their lives to it with abandon. I am one of those individuals that have felt the pressure and even a degree of guilt when I haven’t loved my work most of the time. It’s as if I’m incapable of love; lost and unhappy. But I don’t think that’s true. There are many things I enjoy, but I don’t think I could make a career out of any of them without becoming skilled in the craft first, potentially losing my identity and financial security in the process. This path is possible in the aspirational sense, but unlikely in the practical. As Elizabeth Gilbert said in her book Big Magic, it is foolish to give up your day job in pursuit of a distant creative dream, but at the same time it is important to remain in tune with what stimulates you, and cultivate your craft passionately and naturally without the burden of financial expectation.

Analogous Encouragement for Reluctant Writers

If you are perpetually reading and researching topics, or reluctant to start writing and keep writing, it feels:

Like running the tap, but never actually taking a shower.

Like packing your suitcase for a trip, but never making it out the door.

Like trying to learn a sport by watching others, but never playing it yourself.

Like rehearsing fervently all year for a musical, then hiding behind the curtain on opening night.

Like mastering theory without doing the practical.

Writing is an active component of research, though you may be sitting while you do it. It’s the next step. It’s taking the red pill. Preparation is great, but there can be such a thing as too much. Nerves are normal, but are they hampering your goals?

People don’t want you to stink.

They don’t want you to be a hermit.

They don’t want you to stay on the sidelines.

They want you to perform!

They want you to show off your knowledge!

So freshen up! Go on an adventure! Play a game! Sing and dance! Do what you think is right…and write!

Let’s Get Social

Facebook and other forms of social media are all about networking – we advertise what we are up to in an attempt to link with like-minded people. The Twitter and Instagram platforms use hashtags to do so; in the Facebook world, the fact that you usually have to be a ‘friend’ of a person to view their content is the commonality you share. Facebook, as a result, potentially exposes you to diverse material, because your friends and acquaintances will probably have varied interests (unless you belong to a cult). These interests are more diverse than the Twitter or Instagram feeds to which one subscribes. Also,when it comes to range of content, news channels are a great source.

Facebook is an online local community – it’s a way of keeping in touch en masse. And that’s great, because it would otherwise take far too long to do so otherwise, and besides, the most unlikely of partnerships and networks can blossom in ways that would never have been possible offline. So it’s important to read news feeds as a way of staying connected. Online social networking builds (yes, builds) social skills and capacity, facilitates teamwork and enhances one’s sense of community. My offline world is different from my online world, as it should be. And I feel that in the information age, one cannot (and should not) exist without the other.

Tasneem xo

Review: Scrivener (Part 1)

This week marks 19 months as a PhD student! It’s been…interesting, to say the least. The first nine months were spent swimming in a sea of literature and drifting from island to island, seeking refuge and sustenance. I was discovering new worlds, but eventually realised that if I wanted to make any real progress, I would need to start mapping my travels and organising my mind. And that is when, via the beacon of light that is the Thesis Whisperer blog, I stumbled upon what has become the navigational cross-staff for my thesis – and it goes by the name of Scrivener.


In a nutshell, I would describe Scrivener as a super-streamlined take on the traditional word processor that is tailored to writers producing long documents, such as novels, screenplays, and, of course, theses. But it’s so much more to me than a fancy new brand of word processor – because it gives us writers a place for all of those side notes, ramblings and crazy random ideas. Ideas that usually have no place in a traditional draft and are simply cast away on a scrap of paper that vanishes when you need it most and magically resurfaces when you least expect it.

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Introductory Scrivener Tutorial

The toolbar across the top of the window, unlike Microsoft Word, is thankfully sparse and equipped with basic formatting and navigation tools. Just enough tools to get that crucial first draft out of your mind and onto the screen.

The navigation panel on the left is similar to Word’s once you add headings and sections to your document – except there are a few more goodies in Scrivener’s.

Sidebar Menu

Not only can you create sections and sub-sections, but you can also insert entire PDF files and photos, web pages or even audio for quick reference. No more trawling through folders for that file you know you had somewhere!

You can create sections for anything you wish – it doesn’t have to go in the final document. And all deleted items are kept in the trash folder until you manually delete them, so no need to worry about losing things forever.

Tasneem xo

8 PhD Lessons Learned at the Halfway Mark

I’m now officially halfway through my PhD (if I finish in three years, that is). How time flies! Here are some lessons learned at the halfway mark that I hope will help new and experienced researchers alike in their quest for productivity and success:

1. Create a comprehensive filing system
Filing will be mindlessly time-consuming, but helps organise your thoughts in the long term.

2. Handwrite more often
I know I’m researching in the field of informatics, which is all about electronic administration of health care (this includes electronic methods of data entry and access), but research has shown that hand writing aids information retention and creativity. I miss the days of writing furiously with my Pacer pencil on loose pages of lined folder paper, as messy as it was. I also use this awesome software called Scrivener which helps me organise my ideas, but nothing beats a good scribble!

3. Communicate more
With supervisors, administrators, researchers in your field and friends and family! All of these people need to know you’re alive and researching.

4. Establish balance and moderation
Excess is never pretty!

5. Be more decisive
First – plan. Secondly – write (and think) within your plan. A life without goals is wayward and ultimately unfulfilling. So is a paper without structure or purpose!

6. Read, read, read
Not all of it has to be work-related.

7. Each and every action or task must have a purpose
And that purpose needs to advance you in some way, shape or form. Be RESULTS oriented. Which brings us to GOALS – start broad and funnel down to specific tasks and time frames. Map out, hierarchically and chronologically, what you want and how you want to get there.

8. What other people think (beyond the boundaries of supervisory and constructive feedback) is not a primary concern
Identify those you can trust. Love and acceptance from a precious few is all you need. Those are the relationships you need to cultivate. You will never be able to please everyone, so stop trying.