August Anxiety in Academia

For those of us academics on a nine or ten-month contract, summers offer a number of opportunities...teaching for extra pay, time to do our research or write, reduced work schedules that allow for more time with family and friends. In my experience, the first two weeks of summer can be tough. I'm always ambitious when spring semester comes to a close - I make plans to write papers and grants while also working on course preps for the upcoming year. However, without the set schedule and time at the office that became routine over the past nine months, finding a good balance between down time and work activities can pose a challenge. In addition, vacations pop up on our schedule during the summer and for academics with children, we end up spending more time with them while they are out of school.

But then August 1st arrives.

Suddenly, I'm reviewing my summer accomplishments and realizing that I didn't finish my course prep, the systematic review I set out to complete is not submitted yet, the grant I submitted in May wasn't funded, and it took a month longer than expected for the IRB to review and approve my upcoming data collection project (which I had hoped would be in full swing by now).

Where did the summer go?!?!?!

In addition to not meeting all of my goals, August is the time that I start to feel anxious about the upcoming transition to fall semester. I start asking myself questions, such as:

  • I didn't use a morning alarm all summer - how can I possibly start getting up at 6 or 7 to go to the office?

  • How am I going to manage my writing goals with the numerous meetings and trainings that are already scheduled for September and October?

  • How can I cope with not seeing my family and friends as much as I have over the past three months?

August anxiety is temporary and for many years, I have learned that transitioning to fall semester is not as scary as it seemed on August 1st. I enjoy interacting with my colleagues and students on a more regular basis, rather than the three months I worked in isolation at home. Also, more colleagues are returning to work, opening new opportunities for grant and writing projects.

You should know that August anxiety is normal and many academics go through it. Here is some advice for coping with your own August 1st stress:

Focus on what you accomplished, not what you didn't.

During this past summer, I submitted one paper to a journal for publication, had one accepted for publication, and should finish a second paper for publication by the time classes start later this month. I also submitted a grant, submitted an IRB proposal, served on a search committee, and gave a presentation at a major international conference. Why on earth would I feel like I slacked off this summer? Without teaching (or less teaching), our time is freed up to work on our research. So, it is possible to be highly productive on a shorter work day. It's okay that you didn't put in overtime.

Remember that we all need downtime to recharge.

Academia has a culture of competitive productivity. Long ago, I began to resent comments from colleagues, such as, It must be nice to have time to exercise every day or You actually have time to watch television? or Well, you may have time to read for pleasure, but I don't have that luxury.

I have learned over time that I need downtime to recharge. I refuse to apologize for taking downtime. The academic calendar is cyclical. Sometimes we are SWAMPED with grading and grant deadlines. So, when we have the ability to relax, it helps us reset our minds and prepare - both mentally and physically - for the upcoming periods of intense work.

For me, this summer marked the end of a year with multiple life changes - I moved to a new state; sold and bought a house; moved in with my fiance; became a step-parent for the first time; and started working at a new institution, where I had to apply for tenure AGAIN because my tenure from my previous institution did not transfer. I needed some time to recharge this summer in order to keep my sanity, and I'm owning that.

If necessary, forgive yourself for missed opportunities and move on.

During some summers, you may find that you got so caught up with summer relaxation, family time, and alternative activities that you didn't use the time effectively. There is a difference between undervaluing your level of productivity (as described earlier in this post) rather than not being productive at all. Work life balance doesn't just mean needing to spend more time with family. It also means that we need to set reasonable work goals and work toward them.

If you realize on August 1st that you should have made better use ogf your time, don't beat yourself up. Increasing your stress and anxiety won't fix the problem. Developing a new strategy will. First, forgive yourself - self-forgiveness is important for self-growth. Second, develop a strategy for how you will best use your time in fall and spring semesters to make up for lost productivity. Third, reach out to senior colleagues and mentors to learn ways of better managing your summer.

Just because you didn't publish five papers this summer or complete your set reading list doesn't mean that you won't get tenure in the future or finish your doctoral program. Especially if you have a year or more to make up for a loss summer. Find out how you can learn from this experience and move forward. This is part of socializing into academia.

Don't have a good mentor to give you advice? Contact Nicole today and see how you can work together to make a career plan that is fitting for you.

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