Academic Envy 101
What can jealousy do to your mental health?
Written by Campbell Pratt
"That isn’t an individual problem, it’s a plague that follows researchers, writers, and scholars of every discipline."
To quote the old adage, you are your own worst enemy. I’d also like to nominate LinkedIn for the role. Here’s a quick overview of my feed at the time of writing this article.
There’s a paid research opportunity by a government organization with heavy influence in the field and I’m not qualified. There’s a full time job with a university in the area and I’m not qualified. There’s a temporary position with another local university and I’ve already applied there once to not even interview, so I know I’m not qualified. It’s a brutal cycle of not matching all the ticks on the preferred qualification list, applying anyways, and sinking further into my chair.
One colleague is posting travel pictures from her internship with disenfranchised children. Another is publishing his work. Former coworkers are stepping into academic advocacy positions in their universities. A friend got accepted into a university with a 9% acceptance rate (one I was too scared to apply to). Another friend is studying at her top graduate school with an assistantship lined up. I love this for all of them, and I’m proud of them.
The people I’m rooting for are succeeding. I like them, and I want them to keep moving forward. It should be enough that they look happy. It’s not. I know other people feel the same way I do, but how do you even start that conversation?
I’m not doing the work I want to. I’ve been rejected by countless jobs and internships. I’m not traveling. I’m still waiting to hear back from the journals I’ve submitted to. I haven’t submitted any of my research to conferences in the past six months. I’m worried what I’ll do if I’m not offered a teaching assistantship in the graduate programs I’m applying to. Worst of all: I’m standing still.
The mental health of undergraduate, graduate students and faculty is on a decline. Zachary F. Murguía Burton and Xiangkun Elvis Cao, in “Navigating mental health challenges in grad school,” discuss the mental health fall-out of academic conditions. More than a quarter of graduate students participating in the study experienced depression and anxiety. Sixty percent of Berkeley’s arts and humanities graduate students experienced depression, according to Inside Higher Ed’s “The Other Mental Health Crisis.”
Research staff and faculty have similar concerns. Dr. Sharon Tucker’s report, “A Model of Depression” in The Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, found high stress and burnout in university faculty. There’s even less data available on the mental health decline in adjuncts and non-tenured staff.
The working conditions in academia are exhausting. It’s the late nights writing. It’s the rigorous reading. It’s the constant performance, trying to be the brightest in the room. Academic envy is part of the problem, possibly a symptom of burnout. At the very least, it’s intensified by exhaustion and the irritability that follows. That isn’t an individual problem, it’s a plague that follows researchers, writers, and scholars of every discipline.
Academic envy begins because you want something better. You try, and you work hard. You don’t get it. This is normal. There are only so many full-time positions, pages in a journal, seats on a panel.
What isn’t normal is the competition academia pushes. You have to be the smartest in the room. You have to defend your research. You have to get all the accomplishments and accolades. But you don’t, and you see only a glimpse of somebody else getting the reward you were pushed to fight for. The feelings get worse. You want what they have. Maybe you don’t, and you want the prestige that comes with it. Maybe you just want to feel like you’re doing something. After all that fighting to get ahead, it almost feels like the world is falling apart.
A bubble bath and a warm cup of tea won’t deconstruct decades of academic rivalries and worsening labor conditions. That being said, we’re not obligated to single-handedly change the tide of academia. When the work feels like too much, do what you can. Take a break. You can always come back to your work, but you can’t always come back to yourself when you have a migraine and an ever-growing anxiety.
Do what makes you happy. Go outside. Talk to people. Sometimes a conversation with a stranger in the line for a coffee or passing by on the trail can make the world feel less scary. Ask your friends to block out an hour of their time to see you. If you’re more introverted, put on your favorite music and let it wash over you. Watch a movie. Pet an animal. Find something that would bring you just a moment of peace.
Earlier while writing this article, I couldn’t figure out how to try to talk to my support network about academic envy. This is me trying. People can’t get better by doing things alone. Vulnerability is difficult, but I’m not the only one who feels like this and you’re not, either. Now it’s your turn to talk about it.