Fear and Loathing in Academia: The Early Career ‘Terrors’

There was a time when I believed I was only academic who suffered from intense writing paranoia (IWP). That is, the utter fear of rejection once a manuscript has been submitted for consideration by a journal/editor/publisher, thereby entering the frankly terrifying process of peer review. At best you are hoping for minor revisions to style and referencing. At worst you live in dread of a correspondence that goes something like this:

Dear Dr Meek

After careful consideration and a thorough peer review process we have come to the conclusion that you, sir, are an inveterate fool. How on earth you ever achieved a doctorate in your chosen field is a mystery to us all and we would be pleased if you refrained from sending us any more of your gibberish. We have added your email address to our blocked list.


Dr Thaddeus Ficklebucket

p.s. ‘Outwith’ is not a word.

I have another recurring nightmare, which is also related to early-career sensitivity: being informed that I failed to fill out PhD pre-submission form P-128lk9 4 years ago, which has resulted in the graduate office informing me that I must begin my PhD from scratch *wakes up in a hot sweat*.

This is, of course, where the paranoia enters the equation. I have never heard of any academic being rejected in quite so dramatic terms, but the fear of rejection still lingers. After working through the night on your final draft, ensuring all footnotes are properly aligned, and giving the manuscript a final read through before submission, it is frankly unsurprising that you develop a deep and protective love for this little bundle of intellectual self-ness.  You have created this little bundle, toyed with it, become increasingly protective of it, and are now in a position to coax it out into the real world, where prying eyes and towering intellects will thoroughly measure, prod and poke it.

The unwritten rule in academia is publish or perish, so this is not a process you can avoid. However, it is vitally important to make use of your academic peers (something I have always felt nervous or unworthy of); seeking colleagues’ opinions on your drafts.  These are generally people in your field, experienced and successful tenured academics; the ones who give off that air of confidence, and whose publication list reads like the bibliography of a textbook, whose offices are piled high with papers, books, and discarded bottles of Moët & Chandon (or not).

But there is still the age-old problem of ECR/PhD student sensitivity, from which I have suffered; the knee-jerk reaction that constructive, helpful criticism = your paper is rubbish. For example, a helpful comment such as this:

I think you need to tighten up your conclusion, be more cogent, and be more assertive.

Became, in my fevered mind:

For Christ’s sake, this is all over the place, it makes NO sense. What are you DOING?

I can laugh about it now (well, laugh, but slightly nervously).

I would like to think that the ‘fears’ leave you as you become more experienced. Recently, a very experienced colleague was extremely delighted when her article was accepted without revisions, so perhaps the ‘fears’ don’t leave you, they just change into normal nervousness. Nervous, the way you would be when waiting to see if you need that filling or not, rather than nervous, waiting to see if all your teeth are going to pulled, without anaesthesia, by a character from a Clive Barker novel.

I’m looking forward to the day when I won’t be as neurotic about failure. After all, as an ECR on a time-limited contract, there are other things to worry about…


One thought on “Fear and Loathing in Academia: The Early Career ‘Terrors’

  1. I experienced the same feelings through most of my PhD program. I’m not sure exactly when, but at some point I just stopped caring about the fact that an experiment had failed, but immediately transitioned to the important part; considering why the experiment failed. Then I began trouble-shooting.

    In our business if you worry about failure, you might as well start worrying about breathing. They’re both essential to our survival, professionally and in life of course =P.

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