Faculty

More Than a ‘Summer Slump’: How the Loss of Structure Affects Academics

June 15, 2017

Courtesy of Jamie Hagen
Jamie Hagen, a doctoral student in global governance and human security at the U. of Massachusetts at Boston: “It’s really hard to be vulnerable about these things to people that you then have to ask for a letter of recommendation from. Do you really want to say, ‘I feel overworked,’ and then be overlooked for an opportunity?”
Jamie Hagen has been preparing for this summer for a long time.

Ms. Hagen, a doctoral student finishing her dissertation in gender studies at the University of Massachusetts at Boston, works part time from home, sets strict schedules for herself, and is a tireless networker. The students and professors she came to know in classes have moved on or away, and working hours every day on the project that could decide her career, she said, is isolating.

For nine months a year at research universities, instructors and students build communities from a transient group of academics unified by one thing: classes. Professors invest time in students, committees, and teaching; students invest time in their assignments. Pushed to the side are research projects, dissertations, authorial goals, and, often, social lives.

That changes in the summer. The fixed schedule disappears, the community disperses, and the work that has been building up over the school year can loom dangerously close to deadline. Although professors sometimes teach summer courses, those classes are often less time-intensive, leaving weeks of unregulated time between sessions.

It’s in that solitude that professors and students say they experience what some call a "summer slump," a period of isolation that can heighten symptoms of depression or anxiety for those susceptible to such disorders.

“As wonderful as my adviser is, that's not a conversation that was ever shared. We never talked about what's important to your mental health.”
To cope with that slump, Ms. Hagen read personal testimonies and learned that the separation she feels is widespread, even normal. But her university never addressed it. "As wonderful as my adviser is, that’s not a conversation that was ever shared," Ms. Hagen said. "We never talked about what’s important to your mental health."

Ms. Hagen, who would like to remain in academe after she receives her Ph.D., from the university’s program in global governance and human security, said she feels that if she were to ask her instructors or other faculty members for help, she would threaten her postgraduate job prospects. "It’s really hard to be vulnerable about these things to people that you then have to ask for a letter of recommendation from," Ms. Hagen said. "Do you really want to say, ‘I feel overworked,’ and then be overlooked for an opportunity?"

So, like many academics, she internalizes her worries and copes.

The Thing ‘We Don’t Talk About’

Rosemary Joyce, a professor of anthropology at the University of California at Berkeley, said she has seen graduate students and professors do the same thing for years. Among academics, Ms. Joyce said, there is a feeling that the responsibility to maintain mental health is personal.

“There's so much shame about things in academia. People in all walks of life sometimes can't cope with their life, and academics are not different.”
"There’s so much shame about things in academia," Ms. Joyce said. "People in all walks of life sometimes can’t cope with their life, and academics are not different. But we don’t talk about it, and not talking about is unhealthy."

Three-quarters of a professor’s life are strictly scheduled, Ms. Joyce said, whereas one-quarter has no sense of structure. "There’s this time, and at the end of it, you’re going to look back on it as a critical time that proved your worth," she said. "Did you get the book done? Did you get the article done?"

“We have this mythical belief that everyone will come out of it at the other end OK. You don't end up as a faculty member unless you did survive it.”
Ms. Joyce said since many of her graduate students don’t have class in the summer, it would be easy for them to become so stressed that they change their career path or drop out of academe. "We have this mythical belief that everyone will come out of it at the other end OK," she said. "You don’t end up as a faculty member unless you did survive it. That doesn’t mean that there weren’t people in my generation who got so stressed out that they left. They did leave. We just never talked about them."

Stuart Blythe, an associate professor in the department of writing, rhetoric, and American cultures at Michigan State University, said students believe professors, as figures of authority, don’t struggle with issues like anxiety and isolation. It’s not that he didn’t face those problems, he said. He just learned to overcome them.

A Loss of Stability

Professors also face disincentives to talk with administrators about how their work affects them mentally. "Professors are promoted based on their research and the public work they do," Mr. Blythe said. "When we’re asked to do our annual reviews, you’re expected to show these great strides. There’s never any forum to talk about when you’ve stumbled, and sometimes it’d be nice to talk about that."

Nathan Hall, an associate professor of education and counseling psychologies at McGill University, in Montreal, said summer is sometimes a layaway space for projects he doesn’t have time to finish during the academic year, but it’s also when he wants to spend time with his family and travel.

He said he feels guilty about not being with his children and anxiety about finishing work from the past school year and preparing for the coming one. It’s that self-regulation that causes stress, he said.

Dafina-Lazarus Stewart, who is moving to the Colorado State University this summer after a 12-year stint as a professor of higher education and student affairs at Bowling Green State University, said that for those who are "neurodivergent," the loss of structure in the summer is not just a loss of social interaction and workflow, but a loss of stability in their lives. (Neurodivergence is a general term used to describe a range of disorders, such as anxiety, depression, ADHD, and autism.)

"This is not about grad students complaining and not being able to hack it," said Mx. Stewart, who uses the honorific Mx. as well as the pronouns ze, zim, and zir. "The problem does not lie within us. The problem lies in the mismatch in how the institutions and the academy is designed and how we operate."

Like other professors who spoke to The Chronicle, Mx. Stewart said there was no institutional warning of the isolation professors feel in the summer at the three universities where ze has worked.

"No one ever mentioned anything about the summer slump and the way that mental health can tank in that time. It never came up," said Mx. Stewart, who has clinically diagnosed depression, ADHD, and anxiety. "That was not part of the faculty orientation anywhere, at any of those great institutions."

Not knowing that the separation ze was feeling was common among professors increased the sense of isolation, Mx. Stewart said, adding that how academe handles the summer slump is indicative of how it disregards other issues of mental health and neurological or physical divergence.

"When you look at the institutional businesses and structures at the academy, they do not — and have never been — built to support people who think differently, who are impacted by the world in different ways," Mx. Stewart said.

Getting Over the Slump

Many professors who spoke to The Chronicle learned to cope on their own, but are sharing ways young academics can create and attain their own social structure.

Mx. Stewart said a step toward making the issue more widely known would be simple: talk about it. If universities started the conversation with their professors, professors could speak with their students, and the domino effect would normalize their experiences.

Mr. Hall bookends his summertime schedule with activities he looks forward to, such as going for a run in the morning or picking up his children at school in the afternoon. Setting those deadlines, he said, keeps him motivated throughout the day. He also runs the Twitter account @AcademicsSay, which he uses to comment on academic life. He said he interacts with many professors who feel the same way on social media.

Several professors recommended writing groups, where the focus is on work, but in a social setting.

Ms. Joyce plans conversations about what her students plan to do each week. The logic: If you’re asked to present a schedule, you must at least make a schedule, even if you don’t follow through. She said those talks provide more than just a sense of accountability for research or work; it’s a way to make sure her students are leaving the house and are healthy.

Courtesy of Richard Newton
Richard Newton, an assistant professor of religious studies at Elizabethtown College, in Pennsylvania: “If you’re sacrificing your health to be successful, it’s just not worth it.”
Richard Newton, an assistant professor of religious studies at Elizabethtown College, in Pennsylvania, said everything he does for the academy must satisfy two goals. If he’s giving a lecture during the summer, he focuses the talk on his current research. That way, he said, he can participate in college-sanctioned events and complete his research goals without sacrificing the time he spends with his children and friends.

"The model that students should follow is, How do you meet those ambitions and be healthy at the same time?" Mr. Newton said. "If you’re sacrificing your health to be successful, it’s just not worth it."

Corrections (6/16/2017, 10:43 a.m.): A previous version of this article mistakenly referred to Dafina-Lazarus Stewart as "she." Mx. Stewart uses the pronouns ze, zim, and zir. In addition, the caption for the photo of Jamie Hagen said she was a graduate student in gender studies. She’s in the Ph.D. program in global governance and human security.

Correction (6/16/2017, 2:05 p.m.): A previous version of this article mistakenly said Mx. Stewart was moving to the University of Colorado at Boulder. Ze is moving to Colorado State University.