This post is by Amy Loughman, a final year Masters and PhD candidate at The University of Melbourne. Before settling into PhD life, Amy dabbled in learning French, Japanese and Swedish, public health research, and development work in Vietnam. She is also passionate about knowledge-sharing between disciplines and zooming out to see the bigger picture. I was very amused when Amy sent me this post because I certainly recognised myself in it – do you?
As many of us have experienced first hand, there are varied and numerous causes of pleasure, stress and distress of doing a PhD. There is one that I haven’t read about yet, and which for me, takes the cake. It’s academic FOMO. The fear of missing out on the myriad of extraordinary opportunities for learning, challenge, publication and general scholarship during a PhD.
Academic FOMO It is brewed within a perfect storm of the best and worst of Gen Y thinkin, the burden of privilege of being able to do a PhD in the first place and the unspoken perils of being a high achiever.
For me, realizing that I was afflicted by academic FOMO was accompanied by more than a small degree of self-loathing. This was mostly because it meant that I was susceptible to the conditions mentioned above. Allow me to describe my pathway to becoming a sufferer of academic FOMO.
When I started my PhD journey in 2012, it was part of a combined degree with a clinical masters program attached. Yes, such a degree exists, and the fact that I chose to do 5 years equivalent of two post-graduate degrees within a 4 year program should be perhaps your first clue that I had some early warning signs of FOMO.
Seeing as I was going to be learning specialized content (masters), clinical skills (masters), and research (PhD), I thought I should also consider this 4-5 year period as a comprehensive professional development opportunity.
So far so good – higher degrees are the appropriate time for people to shape and refine their skills towards their career goals.
So I started considering my options and writing lists. Lists such as: professional strengths and weaknesses; skills to develop; ideas for future career paths (at last count there were 3 viable options and a ‘back-up career’ – gardening– in case all those fell through); things required to transform pre-PhD me into the glossy post-PhD, career-ready me.
Then I jotted down all the interesting things I had heard of other people doing during their PhDs that I might be interested in – particular conferences, scholarships, auditing courses at university. I got so carried away with the idea of taking advantage of auditing and further study that I briefly considered trying to weave the learning of a new language into my neuropsychology thesis, to justify taking the courses.
I also looked at the informational and monetary resources I should consider – academic blogs to follow, bulletins to subscribe to, grants I might be eligible for…
My master list of ‘things to fit in while doing a PhD because it’s a fantastic opportunity’ was quite long at the outset, and has been added to along the way.
I read all of the bulletins and newsletters for graduate students, I attended every information session I possibly could about the PhD itself, both administrative and instructive. I started going to my university’s courses on extra skills for graduate researchers. I became the go-to person among my peers because I knew what was going on, when things were due and what the eligibility requirements were for almost everything.
Not surprisingly, there were diminishing returns on my investment of time, and I started to realize that fewer talks/courses/events were able to add to what I knew or had done already. Not because I’m brilliant, but because I am nearing the point where I have done almost everything I could have wanted to already.
I’m proud to say that now, in my 4th year (technically final year, but lets call it the penultimate instead), I’m getting a much better handle on what is worth taking the time to attend, aim for or add to my list. I have whittled my desired career to just one main one (with gardening on the back-burner for now), and can target my efforts towards this one direction.
This reduces some of the need to be an all- rounder (which goes somewhat against the traditional expectation of a PhD graduate). I’m still seeking out and taking opportunities when they come, but in a slightly more strategic and less manic, voracious way.
In my research in this area so far, there are a number of risk factors for academic FOMO.
- An uncertain job market, meaning a constant need to be an all rounder with several strings to your bow, and a back-up bow in case your main one breaks.
- A higher education setting rich in opportunities
- Being a go-getting high achieving student (most PhD students)
- Type A personality (see previous)
- Thesis supervisors that either trust you to get the work done despite taking on a large number of (only peripherally related) side-projects, OR that do not realize just how much time you are spending away from your thesis to sculpt your perfect post-phD version of yourself. (I still haven’t quite worked out which category mine fall into.)
My theory is that academic FOMO has reached pandemic levels due to a very first-world burden of choice, lands of opportunity and an internet age of read it, see it, know it, now. The world is your oyster, which implies that if you shuck it badly or don’t land a pearl, there’s no one else to blame but yourself.
Academics, can you help us out – does this syndrome ever end? Do you get better at managing academic FOMO (if it ever afflicted you) or is it a naturally remitting condition after PhD life?
 NB it is highly unusual to finish in the allocated 4 year time-frame
What do you think? Ever experienced academic FOMO? We’d love to hear about it in the comments.
How not to run off the edge of the PhD cliff