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Academic Research and the Importance of Self-Care

by Paul Salay, KUDAR ANAMED Joint Fellow (2021–2022)

A couple of weeks ago, I was having lunch with a colleague, and he and I were talking shop as so often happens. Our conversation turned to a particularly prominent scholar in our field whose scholarly output is especially notable, and we both expressed admiration for her sheer body of work that seemed virtually inhuman. 

Then, he made an interesting comment. He told me he had consciously decided long ago that he would never be one of those scholars. He just couldn’t strike a work-life balance that to him seemed satisfying and at the same time would make such a career arc possible. I was struck by his remarks, in part because they seemed so inconsistent with what I would have expected.  Aren’t we all supposed to aspire to that model? Isn’t that the Platonic ideal of scholarship? Above and beyond that, however, the more I thought about it, the more I was impressed by the emotional maturity and self-awareness that his words conveyed. His attitude just seemed so…healthy.

Now, being a fellow at a research institute like ANAMED is a rare privilege. There is an undeniable luxury in the freedom we are granted from so many quotidian responsibilities that normally require our attention and demand our time. Being surrounded by a support staff dedicated to looking after our safety, our material needs, and facilitating our access to the resources we need for our research while the only thing asked of us is to conduct that research is an extravagance afforded to the few. Still, that is not to say that the entire experience is nothing but sunshine and rainbows. There are always inconveniences, but most of these are reducible to “first world problems” and are not really the focus of this blog post. I am focused more on the issue of self-care. Now, let me be clear¾I am not talking about bland generalities like “eat more vegetables,” “don’t smoke,” “get regular exercise,” “drink in moderation,” etc. That kind of anodyne pablum is so generic and ubiquitous as to be essentially worthless. What I am referring to is a phenomenon that is more insidious and frankly immanent to academic pursuits like ours.

For many of us, we are far from home, and thus far from our support networks, families, and so forth. It can be easy to feel isolated and disconnected. This tendency is further exacerbated by the nature of academic work, which is inherently individualistic. We work singly on projects that often take months or even years to fulfill, without direct supervision, and we are largely dependent upon our own internal discipline to structure our agendas. This can be a recipe for isolation and loneliness. Furthermore, these factors are exacerbated by a kind of academic zeitgeist that permeates our vocation. Within academia, there is a pervasive, romanticized vision of the lone researcher, living a kind of austere existence of self-denial and -deprivation, cloistered away and dedicated solely to the life of the mind. Whether consciously or no, we inadvertently glorify a kind of spartan, monastic existence in which simple pleasures can often be regarded with suspicion as hedonistic, or worse yet, signs of weakness.

I confess that I myself have on some level internalized these values and am susceptible to their impulses. I sometimes feel the pangs of guilt for, in my mind, abandoning my responsibilities to take a few hours on a Saturday afternoon to peruse some of the music stores in the neighborhood, or going to Eminönü just to revel in the pure, sensual pandemonium of the spice bazaar (by the way, if you haven’t been¾go). Meanwhile, I have also felt the perversely victorious thrill of being in the study room as someone else packs up their things for the day and I remain behind, as if research was a kind of zero-sum game and I had just vanquished an enemy combatant. I know that these impulses are not healthy, and for the most part I think that I have become reasonably good at recognizing and dealing with them. But if I feel them, my bet is that you do, too.

So, I want to take a moment just to encourage you, especially if you’re feeling anxious or overwhelmed, to take care of yourself. It’s not a sign of weakness to make time for the things that give you joy. It could be watching a trashy television show (have you seen Squid Game?!?), or a ferry ride up the Bosporus, or going to the club on a Saturday night. It’s okay to do something just because it makes you happy. You don’t even need to feel overwhelmed or anxious. You don’t need an excuse at all. What’s not okay is to think that you’re the only one who feels alone and that you shouldn’t admit it to anyone, even to yourself. We all feel that way sometimes.

And that brings me to the flip side of the coin. When we start falling into the trap of isolation and loneliness, it can be very easy to slip through the cracks and very hard to reach out. Sometimes it’s not enough for us just to say that we’re here for someone if they need it. Sometimes it takes more than that. We can always take an extra moment to ask someone if they’re okay. And you know what? Maybe on that day, at that moment, they really are okay. So keep asking. I don’t mean hounding someone, or suffocating them, just the occasional gentle nudge, reaching out periodically to those around us to remind them that they aren’t alone, even if maybe they feel like they are. Instead of just making conversation and mentioning the kebab place around the corner that you discovered, ask that person if they want to come with you for lunch tomorrow. If someone tells you they’ve never tried Turkish coffee, ask if they want to get one with you. I know, I know, given the present conditions, it’s even more difficult to find opportunities to engage with one another, but that means it’s even more important to try.

I know that I don’t have all the answers, so if you have some good ideas or suggestions, I’m all ears. And I know that none of us are trained mental health professionals, so I’m not trying to suggest that we put that kind of expectation on ourselves either. I just want you to know that I’m here, and that if you start feeling like no one else understands, or that you’re all alone, you’re not. I want you to know that if I run into you as we’re both grabbing a coffee outside the study room and I ask how you’re doing, it’s alright to say that you’re having a bad day (or week, or month). I want you to know that it’s okay not to be okay. And if you feel like grabbing a beer, I know a place (although I’m still searching for a decent pizzeria)…