|The Research Bar (Rice-Aron Library)|
Academic research is dangerous. I am not a nuclear physicist, nor an heir to Dr Frankenstein, so I shall have to explain further.
A recent Academics Anonymous post raised the issue of mental health problems in academia.
One commenter on the piece made the perfectly reasonable point that there are plenty of high-stress, intense, performance-based jobs out there, so why the special fuss about academia?
What affects academics that does not affect teachers, lawyers or city traders?
Drink, depression and insomnia
I am a postdoc pure mathematician. I'm paid to do something I love. I don't have to be in at nine, and I don't have to wear a tie. Often I don't have to be in at all, and on these occasions I don't have to wear anything. No pushy managers above me, no responsibility for juniors below me.
But I drink too much, haven't had a good night's sleep since last year and my diaries refer regularly to depression since I began my PhD. Why?
Research. Mining away at the coalface of knowledge. Pushing the boundaries of human understanding. It is exhilarating, exciting and an immense privilege to do it professionally.
The recent announcement from the BICEP2 project suggesting a great advance in our understanding of the immediate aftermath of the big bang is a reminder that even the most abstruse cosmological research can grip the imagination and generate headlines worldwide.
Mathematicians get to make the most pompous claims of all: we uncover immutable truths about the structure of the logical universe. We start with a conjecture, a statement that might or might not be true (a famous example is Fermat's Last Theorem, finally solved by Andrew Wiles in 1995).
We try to prove it to be true, or find an example showing it to be false. We do some background reading and discuss it with colleagues over coffee - but then the time comes to sit with a piece of paper and a pencil and just think.
This is where it gets nasty.
A magical feeling
The elation of completing a proof is truly wonderful, and there is an utterly magical feeling in understanding and showing the world something entirely new.
But there is a corresponding despondency when things don't work. And this is the problem. One night, Eureka! You've finally solved it. The next morning you find an error. Then no new idea for weeks.
At last an extraordinary flash of brilliance shows a slick, clever new approach, and it takes as many weeks to spot that this won't work either. Oh, and by the way, you've just spent three months trying to prove something that isn't true. The emotional turbulence is tremendous.
Must it be so emotionally involving? How can it not be? Your performance is determined by intimate, individual, personal qualities: creativity, imagination, understanding. Sound more like being a tortured artist? Indeed. Mathematics is as delicate a mix of craft and inspiration as poetry and music, and the maths muse is as infernally capricious.
Just as an artist is consumed by his or her work, so serious research requires a peculiar mental immersion.
Engaging with a problem demands a huge investment of mental energy in fierce concentration day by day, but also a commitment to living with the problem as it lingers in the mind, quietly turning itself over and re-presenting itself. An unsolved problem, like it or not, can rarely be left at the office.
A further cruelty
As the maths progresses or hits a brick wall, as that elusive QED floats near and then skitters away, so too your mental health, your confidence, your sense of self-worth fluctuates sickeningly. And in the lows, a further cruelty lurks.
Three things that a depressed mind very quickly lose are motivation, discipline and concentration. Three things utterly essential to research. Research not only invites mental health problems, but is uniquely vulnerable to them when they do strike.
Only for the mentally robust
When I applied to do my PhD, an interviewer asked, "What will you do when your research stalls, and you've made no progress for months?"
"Take a holiday," I said. At the time I regarded it as a glib answer to a facetious question. If only it were that easy. Only the most mentally robust can take in their stride the tumultuous business of research. I have not decided whether I can really face a lifetime of it.
Would you like to write for Academics Anonymous? Do you have an idea for a blog post about the trials, tribulations and frustrations of university life? Get in touch: firstname.lastname@example.org.
• This article was amended on 8 April 2014 to remove a factual inaccuracy that implied that the author was a PhD student rather than a postdoc.