Whilst many publishers and scholarly institutions do a great job of helping academic authors with technical blockers such as how to navigate the publishing process, how to select a journal, write to format or explain peer review – they rarely focus on the psychological blockers that PhDs and early career academics in particular find hardest to deal with.
Today, half of all doctoral students in the US drop out of graduate school before they’ve finished. Whilst attrition is lower in the UK some universities experience drop-out rates of over eighty five per cent – a whacking waste of time, talent, potential and revenue further down the line for publishers.
With PhD students citing overwhelm, stress and exhaustion as key reasons for dropping out, there’s never been a more urgent time for publishers and institutions to address some of the underlying causes.
Over 2018, we surveyed 600 academic authors and asked them questions about what and how they wrote, what pressures, blocks and barriers they faced, and how satisfied they were about their writing and publishing.
We wanted to learn more about the scholarly writing process and dig into how they got the work done. And our findings certainly tally with research that suggests that many early career academics (ECRs) and PhD students in particular struggle with the pressure of academic life.
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Our research finds four specific areas for concern at PhD and early career stage. All of which are likely to be linked:
1. They feel under more pressure than at any point in their careers.
Eighty five per cent of ECRs say they feel under pressure to write and publish more than they currently do compared with just over sixty percent at late-career stage. Academics early on are also more likely to feel high levels of external pressure – pressure put on them from their institutions, targets or publishers – which might account for why they’re also more likely to feel out of control and overwhelmed.
“I feel I need a shrink frankly as I cannot disassociate my life from my PhD.”
2. They experience barriers of the most challenging kind.
Academics experience blocks and barriers to their writing and publishing across their careers but the barriers they face at PhD and early career stage leave them feeling the most unhappy.
Whilst in mid-career academics (6-15 years’ experience) experience blockers relating to time-management or work overload, ECRs experience barriers which are predominantly psychological in nature. For example, they’re plagued by procrastination, feelings of doubt, overwhelm and isolation and frequently report feeling out of control. They struggle to remain upbeat about their writing and publishing progress and frequently feel blighted with negative emotions and feelings of low self esteem.
“I’m a novice researcher, how do I know if I’m living up to the expectations of my job?
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3. They feel more dissatisfied than at any other stage.
No doubt related to the above two findings, PhDs and ECRs suffer most acutely with feelings of dissatisfaction about their writing and publishing – with the first two years of their academic career being particularly difficult.
Our study asked academics how satisfied they were with their writing and publishing on scale of one to ten – with one being very dissatisfied and ten being very satisfied. Academics at early career stage were more likely to give very low scores for their satisfaction and least likely to give high scores – indicating low levels of satisfaction and high levels of dissatisfaction.
“Sometimes I feel physically sick at the thought of writing or reading anything that is related to my PhD.”
4. They haven’t found a system (or don’t think they need one).
We asked academics whether they had adopted any specific tools, scheduling tactics or personal systems to help them keep writing and publishing. Unlike academics at mid and late career stages, ECRs are least likely to say they have found a writing system that works and most likely to believe they don’t need to use one anyway – perhaps indicating that over-confidence might be at play.
Whilst scholars at early career stage struggle more acutely to fall in to a regular writing pattern, they’re also the least likely to think they need to do anything in particular to attain one. This again suggests that they haven’t yet developed the coping mechanisms they need to help them build their resilience.
“I’m paralysed by procrastination, especially in the face of large blocks of time. I play ‘chicken’ with deadlines…”
Overall, our research finds that whilst over the course of a career, academics naturally build their resilience and become better able to cope with writing barriers and blocks, age and experience don’t necessarily lead to satisfaction and productivity. We found examples of old experienced masters who were miserable and blocked and examples of inexperienced scholars who were super-productive and happy.
“I frequently face writing blocks and long periods of procrastination. I’m slowly learning things about my own writing process. It helps to take a step back and ask “what do I want to say here?”.
However, we did find a link between those academics who had found a system of some kind to help them keep writing and publishing with high satisfaction, low stress and high productivity. Having a system of some kind seems to help academics of whatever age or experience level become better at coping with the stresses and strains of a scholarly life.
Of course, there are many factors behind early career burn out and high PhD drop-out rates, but writing and publishing productivity is now so central to academic success (some might say it can make or break a scholarly career) that publishers and institutions can play a positive role in helping scholars navigate the technical and psychological barriers that many experience.
“I just wrote an entire monograph in less than four months and feel great about the content. My system works really well.”
Aside from the moral imperative of addressing mental health pressures head on, it’s also in the best interests of institutions and publishers to assist. Today, academic communities are built up around journals so helping those at the early stages of their careers build brand loyalty, productivity and retention.