Academics are humans with human emotions and problems

When I wrote my post on crying in science, I never imagined that it would receive such an overwhelming and positive response. It apparently struck a nerve, in a way that I did not anticipate. The response to that post has made me think about how rare it is for scientists in particular and academics in general to admit to having human emotions and problems. In many ways, this is not surprising: these are hard topics that we often wish to keep private. But, of course, part of the reason for wanting to keep them private is that these things are stigmatized. Crying through one’s defense is a pretty minor thing to admit to, but even that felt big (for me, at least).

Someone who recently discussed something much bigger is Peter Railton, who is the Gregory S. Kavka Distinguished University Professor and a Thurnau Professor at the University Michigan. (His first title indicates research excellence, while the Thurnau Professorship indicates teaching excellence. This is clearly a remarkable person!) In February, Railton gave a talk at the American Philosophical Association, where he discussed his personal battles with depression. The overall reaction seems to have been enormously positive. Many students and faculty suffer from things like depression and anxiety, but openly discussing it requires a rare act of courage.

Why? Railton himself said:

Would people think less of me? Would I seem to be tainted, reduced in their eyes, someone with an inner failing whom no one would want to hire or with whom no one would want to marry or have children? Would even friends start tiptoeing around my psyche? Would colleagues trust me with responsibility?

And, in that same Inside Higher Ed piece, philosopher Janice Dowell is quotes as saying:

Many of the questions we hope to answer are highly abstract; a good deal of our research is done just through thinking carefully. It is no accident that rationality and clearheadedness are lionized in our discipline. To admit that one suffers from a mental illness, like depression, is to admit that one is prone to bouts of irrationality. If one’s audience is uninformed about mental illness or unempathetic, that admission is tantamount to an invitation to be taken as a less than full participant in our shared project of answering those questions. More bluntly, to admit to mental illness is to risk admitting that you don’t have what it takes to be good at our job. This is why [Railton’s] uttering the words he did, even given his standing in our profession, was an extraordinary act of courage.

I’m not surprised by the reactions to Railton’s talk – both that it would speak to so many people and that it would seem remarkably brave for him to discuss it publicly. But he is right – by no one talking about the human aspects of science and academia, we are contributing to the stigma people feel for being human and having human emotions and problems, we are contributing to their loneliness, and we are sending the message that science and academia are only for people who are hyper-rational. That is wrong. There are so many ways in which emotional thinking and intelligence can be important in this job. Of course, we need to ultimately be guided by rational thinking in our science! But, along the way, the process of science requires following intuition and being creative. And, most definitely, in my role as a professor, I call on emotional intelligence regularly.

Students (both undergraduate and graduate) face all sorts of hurdles along their way in school. Some of these relate directly to science or their coursework. But others have nothing to do with those. The American College Health Association says that 1/3 of students reported feeling so depressed that it was difficult to function, while half of students reported feeling “overwhelming anxiety” in the previous year. Think about those numbers. In my class of 600 students, approximately 300 had felt overwhelming anxiety in the past year. (Given that I teach many first-semester freshman, it’s entirely possible the actual number is higher.) I often feel that the thing I could do that would most help my Intro Bio students is connect them with resources that would help them recognize and deal with anxiety. I feel like my time as an undergrad would have been easier if I’d recognized my own anxiety. I’d like to think that now, as a professor, I am a more sympathetic ear to my students who struggle with anxiety.

So I very much agree with Railton and others that we need to be more open in these discussions. Being able to be a positive voice on these topics is a very important reason why I blog. When I write about crying through my defense, or suffering from imposter syndrome, or being anxious, I definitely feel vulnerable. I cringe a little bit when people say a post was “brave”, because it makes me wonder if they mean that it was something I shouldn’t have admitted to. Sometimes, I am so anxious about a post I’ve written that I go back and forth on whether to pull it from the queue. That is why this post on imposter syndrome appeared on a Saturday night; I felt that, if I didn’t hit “post” right away, I would lose the courage to post it. Because, even as an established scientist, it feels vulnerable to talk about these things. But I think it’s important to, because it is only by established folks being open about this that we can reduce the stigmas, and avoid turning away people who would have great contributions to make to science and academia, simply because they think those aren’t places for people with human emotions and problems.


Pre-emptive postscript: I’m not trying to say that everyone in science should be emotional (or that they should all be non-emotional)! Just that we need to be more accepting of diversity in science, including that people with different personalities and different attributes can contribute to science and academia.

Additional postscript: After writing this post, I saw this one, which deals with “the precarious balance between subjectivity and objectivity in science”. It’s a really interesting read.

18 thoughts on “Academics are humans with human emotions and problems

  1. *applause*

    I can’t speak for anyone else (particularly as my English is sometimes…unusual), but when I call someone “brave,” I mean it as a compliment, gosh darnit. I think academia would be a much better place if we all showed our humanity more often.

    • Thanks!🙂 This reminds me of how I feel about “ambitious”. I think that is a good thing to say about someone, but it something gets perceived as “pushy” or something along those lines.

      • Agreed–“ambitious” is mostly a good thing (nothing’s *always* a good thing…), and when I call someone or their work “ambitious” I mean it as a compliment.

    • Thank you for sharing this! I hadn’t seen it before. I’ve seen Nash tweet about these issues before, but had missed this post. It’s great.

  2. Nice post–those quotes are a great find.

    The belief that you need certain personality traits or personal attributes in order to be good at science isn’t as grounded in reality as many people (very much including me) sometimes think. As your post notes, it’s not true that you have to have unshakeable self-confidence, or a total lack of anxiety, or be “totally rational” rather than “emotional”, to be a good scientist. The same could be said about other personality traits, I think. You’ve debunked “You have to be an 80 hours/week workaholic to be a good scientist” in an old post. What about “You have to be aggressively sure of your own opinions”? Nope–we tend to remember the scientists who are, but there are plenty who aren’t. “You have to be outgoing, so that you can network and collaborate”–nope. I know quiet, shy people who are top scientists, including via collaborative work (in an old post, I made the mistake of arguing that current trends towards more collaborative work select for extroverts. I don’t buy that any more.) “You have to be comfortable in front of an audience”. Nope–I know of top people who have quite bad stage fright, and still give good talks. And so on.

    The same goes for physical attributes. Think of Geerat Vermeij, top paleontologist who has been blind since the age of three.

    I do think there are some traits you have to have to succeed in science, if you want to call them “traits”. Basic honesty and intelligence, for instance (aside: hopefully it’s obvious I’m not defining “intelligence” precisely…) But for the most part, success in science is a matter of what you do, not who you are. So people succeed by finding ways to do what they need to do and do it well, whether despite or because of who they are. You need to be able to come up with good research ideas and figure out how to pursue them. You need to be able to convey your ideas to others in writing. You need to be able to give and receive constructive criticism. Etc. But in order to do those things, do what works for you ( And yes, talking publicly about what’s worked for you is very helpful to others.

    And that’s without even getting into how “who you are” can change over time…

    • The question of what traits are required is a really interesting one. The traits I most look for in prospective lab members are things that indicate that they are curious, work hard, and have good time management skills. I’m not sure those are truly essential, but they sure help a lot.

      I will now give away my top-secret recruiting tip: I get really excited if I see that a prospective lab member was a competitive athlete (or musician or something else that takes substantial time and commitment), got research experience, and good grades. In my experience, those people do really well, because they tend to have the traits I listed above.

      • Yeah, I too take it as very positive if a prospective grad student is awesome at something else besides ecology. I don’t know that that’s a “trait”, exactly, but it’s definitely a feature rather than a bug in my eyes.

        I once had a prospective grad student who was a high-level athlete, and a professional writer for an online magazine about that sport. That was a big positive in my eyes. You say you can crank out editor-ready text on a deadline?! When can you start?!🙂

        My top-secret recruiting tip is look for students from liberal arts college backgrounds. They tend to be broadly curious, hardworking (as undergrads, they often overbook themselves with extracurriculars), good at coming up with their own questions, at reading and absorbing a lot of the literature, and at writing (a big one). And they tend to be comfortable talking to profs rather than being nervous or deferential or treating profs as “the boss” or whatever.

        And yeah, research experience, curiosity, and hard work are all very important, probably to every prospective supervisor.

  3. Meghan – kudos on both your ’emotion’ posts. And go ahead and cringe, but it is a little bit brave of you to put this out there; not because you shouldn’t “admit” to such things, but because unfortunately there are folks out there who aren’t as supportive of scientists’ human dimensions as they should be. But all of us are humans. That means we feel imposter-y, we get anxious or depressed, we do things we later have to apologize for – but it also means we sometimes do marvelous things for each other and it means we feel and should express joy in our science, too. I have certainly done all of those things. The notion that scientists are impartial, impassive, unfeeling automata doesn’t help anyone. Thanks.

  4. Reblogged this on This is a bit random, but… and commented:
    Really interesting post (and links to related content) from Dynamic Ecology with discussion on emotion and depression/anxiety. A nice reminder about diversity in emotional responses/expression and how this relates to expectations in academia/science.

  5. As a full-time student and single father, I can tell you I have definitely felt overwhelming anxiety. Last semester I didn’t think I could finish, and I could just drop out and hopefully find a job with only an associates degree. Thankfully, I stuck through it and managed to pass my classes (and did fairly well…). This semester has been much easier, as I try to exercise and calm myself other ways. But it’s reassuring to know I’m not the only one who struggles.

  6. Your post got me thinking. I’ve been blogging as an academic for a while, but I feel my blog is missing something. Reading this post, and some of the others posts, made me think it might be because my focus is too dry and lacking emotion. I’ve like how your blog is quite personal and informal, but still tackling big issues. Thanks for the inspiration!

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