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Overworking, Impostor Syndrome, and Ableism: A Reflection on "Normality" in Academia

Early career researchers (ECRs) frequently report about long working hours, even during the weekends and late at night, whilst travel for conferences, secondments, and field missions are often mandatory for career progression. Furthermore, hypercompetition experienced when trying to publish findings in highly rated journals or when trying to win grants is a big part of the job. Of course, academia is simply asking researchers to strive for excellence; this is considered “normal”.

On the other hand, to feel tired or in need of rearranging one’s work-life balance is more often experienced with guilt and anxiety, rather than treated as a clear symptom of overworking. It seems better to pretend to be perfectly in control than state that you’re having a bad time. Maybe then it’s no coincidence that Impostor Syndrome is increasingly common amongst early career researchers and that so many of them have psychological issues. Is this “normal”?

Among ECRs, some groups are harmed more by this skyrocketing ideal of normality than others. Those with caring responsibilities, for example, and women in particular. Or ECRs with disabilities: such a context makes our academic communities not very inclusive.

Contemporary society is particularly based on norms, standards, achievements, league tables and productivity: academia, with its excellence exercises in research, is no exception. As a result, the concept of ableism is normalised and internalised by ECRs to such an extent that being a “normal” and non-disabled individual is no longer sufficient. Therefore, ECRs and academics with disabilities are usually trying to avoid the disclosure of their physical hidden or visible impairment, particularly if disability occurs later in life.

The Higher Education Statistics Agency in the United Kingdom conducted a research study (2017) that showed the proportion of staff in universities declaring different types of impairments or disabilities was 3,9% in 2012/13. Considering WHO findings, there is a huge under-representation of disabilities amongst academic staff. However, at the same time there is increased coverage and interest about disability issues in academia and research. Statistics show that disclosure rates are nowadays higher than in the past (2,2% in 2003/04) amongst ECRs, although much more investigation has to be done in this regard. This rise may be linked to more awareness and acceptance of disabilities, which are becoming more openly discussed, resulting in increased numbers of disclosures.

Academics and ECRs worry about the consequences of being identified and labeled as disabled, especially in a working environment where temporary “as-and-when” contracts are more prevalent than permanent and tenured positions. Whether or not academics and ECRs choose to disclose their disabilities is, in practice, a risk–benefit analysis of the consequences associated with the specific concern or issue. However, disclosing could potentially mean being categorised as non-performative within the normed society, which in turn leads to being stigmatised and discriminated against.

ECRs' identity is normally impacted in many ways because they may have to limit work to part-time positions, make different adjustments and they have to work differently due to their type of disability. Academics and ECRs with disabilities work hard to hold onto their research or academic work while compromising other aspects of their life. Usually they run the risk of not being taken seriously or seen as researchers in their own right, and that their achievements are considered through the lens of their disability status. Although this can in turn lead to successful careers within critical disability studies, this may not be their disciplinary passion or desired career focus. They may feel that other academics tend to reduce them to their disability, overlooking their complex personality.

In this sense, academics and ECRs themselves are the physical manifestation of internalised ableism within academia: to be “a researcher” you need to be excellent at so many things that you undoubtedly need to be perfectly able, whatever that should mean. Rather than focusing on disabilities, it is time to consider how ingrained the normalisations are in society that we all aspire to. Being a researcher in this ableist community or society is not merely being, but being perfect and meeting specific criteria. Support and accommodation for researchers and ECRs with disabilities is often seen as costly, and questions are usually asked whether it is worth the investment. This is something that can’t be normal.

Becoming more consciously aware of human diversity and raising awareness through conferences, articles and political proposals leads to better understanding of disability issues within academia and society in general, but also to build a new normality for academia and research in which all researchers would fit more comfortably. In the long term, academics and ECRs with disabilities need to be seen as individuals who have their own potential and identity regardless of their impairment or disability.

Eurodoc Equality Working Group

Special thanks to (in alphabetical order): Véronique De Herde, Francesco Nurra, Sara Pilia (Equality WG co-coordinator), Andreea Scacioc, Anja Ursic (Equality WG co-coordinator), Beata Zwiezynska and Jorge Manhique.

Read more about ableism at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ableism