Dr Julie Rowlands is an early career researcher and senior lecturer at Deakin University, Australia. Her research interests are governance, higher education systems, academic quality assurance, leadership and organisational change. Her forthcoming book Academic Governance in the Contemporary University: Perspectives from Anglophone Nations will be published by Springer in 2016.
I have just submitted the completed manuscript for a scholarly monograph based on my PhD research to my publisher. But this post isn’t really about how I went about doing this. Instead, this post is about an issue that affects many aspects of my academic work and especially the book writing process: confidence.
Let’s call it academic panic.I suspect I’m not alone in experiencing academic panic, although I have never found it a hot topic of conversation at conferences and the like. My particular version started once I had signed the book contract which, naturally enough, contained details of required content and due dates, amongst other matters. It was at this point that the project suddenly became real and I was struck with disabling, catastrophising, thoughts: OMG I now have to actually write this book. What was I thinking? I can’t possibly do this. What if …? And so on. I’m sure you get the idea.
In this instance I dealt with the panic by dividing the task of writing the book into stages and allocating timelines to each stage. I had negotiated a 16-month timeframe for completion of my manuscript and there are 12 chapters. This equated to writing one chapter a month for 12 months with the remaining four months for rewriting, making revisions following feedback from colleagues, and preparing the manuscript for submission. So far so good. However the mental manoeuvring that was necessary to get the writing actually done, as opposed to simply worrying about it but not writing anything, was to focus on one chapter at a time, starting with chapter 1. I had a plan for each chapter and if, as I went along, I thought of extra things I wanted to add to other chapters I simply added those things to the plans for those chapters and then tried to forget about them, for now. My primary task was write the first chapter and when that was done, the second chapter. The idea was to continue in this vein until there was a completed first draft of every chapter—all the while trying not to worry too much about the chapters ahead because the focus for that day, and any other day, was on writing whatever chapter I was up to at the time.
This strategy worked for me, most of the time. And I did complete the first draft within the 12 months. However, by that time a whole new strain of academic panic had developed. This one revolved around the foreword for the book. I had intended all along to ask a significant international scholar in my field to write this foreword but I simply COULD NOT bring myself to ask them. This person resided in a different country to me and I had never actually met them, although we had previously exchanged emails. What if they said no? What if they thought the whole idea of me writing a book on this topic was preposterous? What if they laughed? This prevarication continued over a period of some months by which time well-meaning colleagues were exasperated by my inability to get this sorted. In the end, fear of the prospect of having to tell my publisher that I didn’t have a foreword and wouldn’t be getting one outweighed the fear of actually asking the senior expert to write it. So I wrote the email setting out the invitation and sent it.
Amazingly, the response was positive – the senior expert was generous and gracious and said they would be honoured to write the foreword. But then they asked to see the draft chapters. My chapters; the imperfect and not even polished chapters. Academic panic overwhelmed. What if they read the first four chapters, or even the first chapter, and decided this project was not for them after all? What if they responded by saying that they thought this was a great idea for a book but that judging by what they had seen so far I wasn’t the right person to write it? However, by this time the manuscript due date was looming and I managed to get enough of a temporary lid on the panic to send the chapters off and, while waiting for the response, to keep focusing on revising and rewriting the manuscript. But just in case you have any doubts, the wait was agonising. The feedback, when it arrived, was supportive, kind and helpful. I exhaled for the first in a long time and got on with continuing to revise the chapters and responding to feedback from unsuspecting colleagues who I had managed to con into reading my manuscript, or parts of it.
So where am I up to now? Well, the entire manuscript is out for review and by now you will be able to see that my particular version of academic panic is boringly predictable. And recurring. The current fear, of course, is that the reviewers will hate the book and that it will have to be rewritten in its entirety. Or worse, thrown out. How on earth did she ever complete her PhD you are wondering? Well, the difference here is that I could convince myself that no-one except my supervisors and my examiners would ever read my thesis. This book is an entirely different kettle of fish because even if no-one buys it (although of course I hope they will), numerous people will have read and commented on it before it even gets into production. It is so much more public and therefore the fear of failure is so much greater.
Funnily enough this is not enough to turn me away from academia. Most of the time I can grit my teeth and get on with it. I love researching and writing and in joining the ranks of academe I feel as if I have come home – that I am doing what I am meant to be doing. I also think I’m not alone in suffering academic panic. My campus colleagues and I often joke that we academics are a neurotic lot and that it is only in academia that we feel we can be accepted for who we are – hang ups and all.
What are your experiences of academic panic? Have you been lucky enough to put it to bed permanently or is it, like mine, a bit of an ongoing battle?