grad school · guilt · mental health · PhD · productivity

The Trap of Perpetual Productivity

After a tough week involving a lovely dose of strep throat and a major chapter deadline, I wanted to post a brief follow-up to Jana’s repost from last week, which was a vital reminder to “take the time for self-care.” The article to which she linked is indeed important as it opens up a conversation regarding the pervasive but often overlooked problem of mental health in academia. But while this Anonymous Academic is concerned with the pervasive “culture of acceptance” that encourages academics to keep silent about their own mental health issues, I’m concerned about the culture of guilt that disallows us from taking relaxing, enriching, non-academic-related mental health breaks. I want to know, that is, how exactly we unaccept the culture of acceptance.

As I’m now finally in the dissertation-writing stage, I’m finding this more than ever: with this behemoth of a paper looming over me, I am faced with a constant sense of having to be productive.  Academics with families, I think, may have an easier time structuring their schedules, setting aside dedicated time for work and dedicated time for family; and they have a defined life outside of academia, giving them fulfillment and balance and perspective. But for a night owl and worrier like myself, who has spent the last seven weeks sans partner and even sans teaching, I feel like I am supposed to be working on my dissertation all the time.

There is a culture of guilt in academia that demands not only that we churn out articles and research at an alarming rate, taking few breaks, but also that when we do take breaks, those breaks be designed to make us more productive. I so often hear academics guiltily confessing that they ended up watching TV instead of working (at like 9 pm at night), or posting statuses akin to “this chocolate bar with help me work, right?” Or reminders that breaks are important because they’ll help us work that much harder when we get back to it. Why does everything we do–even the breaks we take–have to hinge around how productive we are? Why can’t we eat a chocolate bar and just enjoy it for it’s own sake?

How do we learn, that is, to structure our time such that our breaks do help us establish more generative work-time, without falling into the trap of perpetual productivity? Especially during a time when our futures are precarious and we non-tenured must learn to accept that academia may not always be our home, it is more important than ever that we cultivate lives and passions outside of the ivory tower (though the catch 22 is that this is not always possible due to the very nature and structure of the system).

Atsuko Tanaka, 93G (1993)–at the Armory Show 2014 
Photographed by me

I recently tried to take a full day off, the first in weeks and weeks. I visited the Armory Show, located inside a massive passenger ship terminal on Piers 92 and 94 on the Hudson River. I saw so much art that challenged me or confused me or made me think (and I also marvelled at the fact that I was in a place where, if I had thousands of dollars to spare, I could feasibly purchase a Pablo Picasso or a Kandinsky. And have it in my home.) I tried, readers, to relax, and breathe, and take time for myself. But I have to tell you, fighting back my own guilt at doing something entirely unrelated to my dissertation was really, really hard.

4 thoughts on “The Trap of Perpetual Productivity

  1. Oh, I hear you Boyda! This sounds incredibly familiar. And I think you're somewhat right about the people with families thing. I'm not sure that the guilt goes away so much as changes, but that enforced focus on something else is one that I've found incredibly helpful. I know it's also because I no longer have to rely on my PhD as my entry into the job market, but having a day job and knowing that 6:00 – 10:00 pm is my dissertation time, not 7:00 am – 11:00 pm, has done a lot for my mental health. I remember a particularly rough time during my PhD when I cried to my therapist that I'd be happy if only the PhD was structured like a 9-5. Turns out I might have been right–but it also turns out that I just wasn't capable of structuring MY PhD like a 9-5, and more importantly, that the culture around the PhD went a long way toward making that impossible.


  2. Yes, Melissa, I'm sure you're right that the guilt doesn't go away (and of course I'm not suggesting that people with families or jobs don't get stressed; I think it's just, as you say, enforced perspective). I can't imagine working a 9-5 job AND writing a dissertation, though! Working a full day and then spending 6-10 pm on diss sounds exhausting. I hope you take some time for yourself as well! And yeah, I really wish I could structure my PhD work as a 9-5. I know there are things I could better in that regard.


  3. This is an excellent post, and really highlights what is perhaps one of the most problematic elements of a life in academia. I am in the final semester of my MA, and I said to my supervisor that the main thing I have learned is that I don't want to work in academia, because it requires that you give up so much of your time.

    This reminds me of this article on “doing what you love,” and why this mantra has made work in the academy such a strain emotionally, physically, and mentally.

    “There are many factors that keep Ph.D.s providing such high-skilled labor for such low wages, including path dependency and the sunk costs of earning a Ph.D., but one of the strongest is how pervasively the DWYL doctrine is embedded in academia. Few other professions fuse the personal identity of their workers so intimately with the work output. Because academic research should be done out of pure love, the actual conditions of and compensation for this labor become afterthoughts, if they are considered at all.”


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