Academics suffer from various degrees of mental health challenges as a result of the pressure inherent to working in academia. Dr. Zainab Yunusa-Kaltungo recounts how she decided to become a freelance researcher and keep her mental health intact.
The Travails of A Self-Proclaimed Freelance Researcher
First some disambiguation: By 'self-proclaimed' I mean I so named myself and 'freelance' in this context means I’m not a core academic, not affiliated with a University, and I carry out research projects and publish for the pleasure of it.
Whilst I was in training, when I was asked about my dreams, I often said I’d want my citation to have many letters after my name, i.e., I wanted to have lots of academic qualifications under my belt.
I’m primarily a plastic surgeon who’s always been interested in research and who dreamt of going into academia full throttle, but—as I like to say—life happened and I had to modify that dream to fit present-day realities, especially for my mental health.
I did a one-year stint at the local university but decided it wasn’t for me, for many reasons, especially because of the complicated politics academics worldwide know too well. I particularly didn’t like the ‘publish or perish’ pressure, plus the additional pressure I subconsciously put on myself to strictly adhere to international best practices.
Before the medical school at the local university fully took off, I had authored a few research articles and a few others were at various stages of publication. In addition, I had data related to my role as one of the key figures in setting up a 'quality improvement and patient safety' (QIPS) framework at the hospital where I work.
At the time of signing up with the university, I was the only plastic surgeon doing my full complement of clinical duties, in addition to my administrative duties. That meant my daily routine of ward rounds, weekly (sometimes more frequent) elective surgeries and outpatient clinics, which closed at about 4:00 p.m. or later, aside from on-call duties. Then there was organizing examinations and meetings that often took place on weekends, the only time I would have used to reboot and plan for the week ahead. I was almost always on autopilot and literally a speed train with broken brakes, heading for burnout.
When the time came to renew my contract, it was an easy choice if I was to preserve my mental health, and I chose not to.
Unknown to me, going freelance and holding myself to a certain minimum standard would also come at a hidden cost I hadn’t envisaged.
Recall the QIPS work and unfinished papers I mentioned? Some of the people I worked with are core academics with a lot of passion for research publication. Some went ahead, completed those articles and sent them for publication, some invited me to vet the completed manuscript, but I chose to forgo being a co-author, because I didn’t want to subject myself to the killer deadlines. Some of these manuscripts they had almost singlehandedly written, but they had added me as co-author because the idea for the study was originally mine. Taking credit for them would have made me a 'gift author', and so I declined all. I may have read them wrong, but my stance caused some animosity between us—and those people were my close work buddies.
I recall one article on which I was first and corresponding author, and I didn’t receive any feedback other than an acknowledgment of receipt of submission after 1 year! I was fine with that, but it was another challenge I had with my decision, because I was slowing down my co-authors on the manuscript.
Then there are numerous examples of works I’d invited other parties to participate in and which I presented at national and international conferences.
Some of my former mentees have gone on to develop ideas I had suggested to them and asked me to supervise, but I turned them down because I wasn’t ready to subject myself to the mental stress those projects would require, and I didn’t want to hold back my colleagues.
I have ready-to-publish research data, and I only need to sit down and write up schorlary articles from them, but with no pressure they are just another item on the 'to be done tomorrow' list.
I’m constantly being told that I’m wasting away, but I’m happy wasting away with my mental health intact!
AuthorAID has provided the compass and platform covering a huge chunk of what I know and practise in research publication today. With AuthorAID, I found my Ikigai, the sweet spot where passion meets pleasure, because I can keep up to date with happenings in the research world, I get to facilitate Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), learn about the research cultures at international institutions, builld my research network and collaborations, and more. All these without the pressure to publish or perish.
I invite anyone still unsure of how they would want to pursue a career in academia to consider signing on with AuthorAID to learn about and build their research muscle, go freelance and see where that takes them.
What is the story of your research journey? Please post your responses in the comments section below.
Dr. Zainab Yunusa-Kaltungo is a plastic surgeon at the Federal Teaching Hospital, Gombe, Nigeria, an AuthorAID Steward and a Fitness and Wellness coach.