• GradHacker

    A Blog from GradHacker and MATRIX: The Center for Humane Arts, Letters and Social Sciences Online


Academic Anxiety, Our Old Friend

Three tips for seizing the semester by feeding your confidence and starving your angst

September 8, 2019

Deidra Faye Jackson earned her Ph.D. in Higher Education from the University of Mississippi in Oxford, where she teaches in the Departments of Writing and Rhetoric and Higher Education. You can find her on Twitter at @DeidraJackson11.

Of all the TV commercials I’ve seen hawking prescribed medications to help relieve various mood disorders, the one that depicts depression as an ever-present nagging pest resonates with me the most. Over time and with therapy, it seems, according to the advertisement, the debilitating sidekick who prevents its victims from actively participating in life, eventually morphs into a supportive ally, a buddy, who leads you by the hand into the world and sits next to you, eyeglasses on, taking notes during sessions with your therapist.

When it comes to academic anxiety, I envision it not as a partner, but as a hefty knapsack slung across our backs that we carry with us throughout the academy. It’s a carryall that we overstuff with books (so many books) as well as scrap papers and pictures depicting the composite lists and images of the early career researchers and academics that we believe we should be.

With another new semester underway, there are ways to tamp down the building angst that comes with having to meet our many academic obligations while constantly relying on an incorrect appraisal of our abilities compared to others. We can take steps to starve our anxiety and deprive it of the oxygen it needs to flood us with negativity and cloud our self-confidence.

Do what you initially feel reluctant to do – As a new graduate research assistant, I immediately accepted the opportunity to lead faculty writing groups at my university. That is, I verbalized “yes” even while my mind was saying “no.” Internally, I was apprehensive about it; I had a crisis of confidence. Though this would be a chance to perfectly conduct related research and acquire meaningful data, I kept fixating on whether I could effectively garner professional respect from tenured and tenure-track academics whom I would be leading. 

Eventually tired of my self-doubt, I’ve begun to tell myself, “Don’t think, just do.” While this adage obviously isn’t appropriate in all situations, it propels me to act when I need to; I trained, I studied, I researched. I’m ready to prove myself and it’s time for me to lead.

Some 80 years ago, a handful of ambitious U.S. colleges and universities employed mental hygienists to address “mental disease and suffering” among its students; investigators found anxiety, discouragement, personal inadequacies, and fear of failure to be among the frequent maladies, according to The Background for College Teaching (Cole, 1940)  

Academic anxiety is not a contemporary anomaly. Today, we can lean on social media to convey public expressions of academic angst; #AcademicTwitter, for instance, reliably amplifies the real fears that often paralyze graduate students and other scholars engaged in cycles of performance.

Imposter syndrome. Academic angst. Isolation. Waffling self-confidence. Many graduate students employed in academia experience these and similar feelings while deep in the throes of teaching, advising, studying, writing, and researching. Another tip to deprive academic anxiety of its adverse power over you is to work on what excites you and show it to the world.

Start/advance work and make it your own – Since you’ve been slogging through those thesis or dissertation chapters with an eye toward the end, don’t forget to share compelling findings and/or discoveries and any noteworthy outcomes along the way. In addition to articles in research journals and presentations at conferences, you may feel just as gratified by revealing your research informally with peers and colleagues. Launch a real or virtual support group with your colleagues. Create or be a useful resource for other grad students in your department or school. Let a relatively low-stakes effort that you began serve a useful purpose and hopefully, continue to be of benefit to the other grad students that come after you.

Revisit the times you shined – The start of a new semester ushers in a whole new wave of students, projects, responsibilities, and anxieties. Try flooding your psyche with memories of the times you felt positive vibes from some success you experienced.

You remember when you nailed that research paper? When you successfully completed that task you dreaded? The time you drew meaningful correlations in your research? The unexpected teaching compliment you received from one of your students or colleagues? Let those pleasant moments wash over you – if only for a moment – and nourish your sanity. Know that you can, and you will feel those positive vibes again though they may seem few and far in between.

Certainly, all anxieties cannot be ameliorated by simply “putting your mind to it.” Deeper feelings of desolation, which can be crippling, may need more serious interventions and you should not overlook obtaining additional support when you need it.

What tips can you add for easing academic anxiety? What recommendations proved effective? Tell us about it in the comments below or on Twitter.

[Photo by Fernando @dearferdo on Unsplash.]



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