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Realities of academia: On the two-body problem, emotional states and research/career advancement

Earlier this week, I tweeted something that I think is often forgotten: we academics are humans who do research, not robots. Thus, our careers’ advancement and research progress are often hindered by our emotional states.

I mention the negative impact of emotions rather than the positive, although it is true that emotional well-being has a positive impact on research. In my case, being close now to my parents (who live in Mexico) has in fact improved my ability to focus on my research. When I lived abroad, I was often worried about their well-being and now that I live in Mexico too, it is much easier for me to focus and be less preoccupied.

The reality of academic life is that very often, personal relationships will suffer (read this post by the spouse of an academic for but one example) For privacy reasons, I will not to delve into my own personal situation, but let’s just say that I played the “let’s try to solve the two-body problem” game, and I lost (as recently as two weeks ago). Very few people know the inner details of what happened, but I will just indicate that this is the second time I have tried to solve the two-body problem, and the second time I failed. One was as a young, promising PhD candidate, and the second one, as an early-career scholar.

No amount of advice prepares you for this moment. But at least *some* universities have taken to publicly acknowledge the challenges of dual careers and provide *some* advice (read here and here). And at least, there has been *some* discussion (read a Storify here) online.

In my case, the distance is huge (from Canada to Mexico), and the financial challenges are pretty big (no matter how often you want to fly back-and-forth, it gets incredibly expensive and relationships take a big emotional toll). That’s the part that I think is often left outside of *any* discussion on academic life. The reality is, we (and by we I mean, PhD students, early career scholars, and even senior professors) very well could be heartbroken (due to relationship breakups, family or friends’ deaths or illnesses), and yet we seem to be expected to “just tough it out” and survive (and continue thriving in academia, publishing, teaching and doing research). Little is being written about how to deal with emotions in academic life, even as we often face emotional fatigue.

The truth is, everyone around me has been amazingly supportive during this difficult time, particularly my fellow professors at CIDE, and of course my friends and family. Even my own students have reached out to lend an ear. Having a strong network of support is key to success in any kind of life, and academia requires a very robust team of people who will want to help. My former PhD advisor was fantastic in this regard, not only with me but with every single one of his PhD students, and I hope my own students know that they can always reach out to me if they are in emotional pain that could potentially hinder their research progress.

I can’t speak for anybody else, but I have always taken into account my students’ (and colleagues’) emotional state when discussing research. My co-authors and co-principal-investigators have been amazing and asked if I would like to take some time off or offer to take the lead in a project. The truth is, life goes on, and mine will go on as well. I have a thriving research agenda and am looking forward to a bright future. But I am also human and I know that there might be times when I’ll feel awful, and sad. And the great thing is – I know I will have folks to count on when this happens. Folks who want me to succeed in academia and in life. And that’s a great relief.

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6 Responses

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  1. Jeffrey Keefer says

    Thanks for sharing as much as you can, Raul. While we may not know the specifics, just getting the glimpse into the struggles that others face helps to put things into perspective.

    If anybody can work through this, make some sense along the way, and share it with new insights that can help others navigate troublesome experiences, you can. All the best with it.

  2. s conley says

    It is helpful that you shared your experience. I am looking into trying to secure funding for a program which I am not sure I will achieve. I have lived abroad for 7 years now and after reading this, I question whether I have the emotional capability to withstand the pain and loneliness described in your process. It is indeed a catch 22. On one hand you want to follow your dreams, on the other I for example would like to have children on day and I am not in my 20s. confused and distraught.

  3. Jennifer Bradshaw says

    I was thinking about this recently. Is the path to my dreams also the trail of broken hearts? Thank-you for posting about this, Dr. Pacheco-Vega. I am much more comfortable knowing that I can talk to you about personal problems and you will take them seriously. #appreciate!

  4. Aen says

    I am a 24 year old Chartered Accountant in Canada graduated from undergraduate business school in 2011, considering returning to school for graduate studies to explore academia. I found your post through searching online for personal blogs written by people in academia, to better understand their professional and personal lives, and concerns unique to their life in academia. Thank you for your insight that I otherwise would not have learned. The move into academia is not a decision to take lightly and I appreciate your sharing.

    PS I graduated from UBC in 2011 — hello from Canada!

Continuing the Discussion

  1. The elusive quest for balance in academic life – Raul Pacheco-Vega, PhD linked to this post on December 22, 2013

    […] up with my partner of 8 years, the one I actually thought I’d spend the rest of my life with. I couldn’t solve the two-body problem. I owe it to myself to take better care of myself, not only because I am human, but also because I […]

  2. #AcademicValentines or the elusive quest for love in academia – Raul Pacheco-Vega, PhD linked to this post on February 14, 2014

    […] thing, yes. But it also has tremendous drawbacks. The two-body problem is not a small one. I have tried to solve the two-body problem issue twice, and both times, I’ve lost the battle. And while I love the accolades, seeing my name on published journal articles, books and book […]

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