Academic FOMO?

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?

Screen Shot 2015-07-02 at 9.09.22 pmAs 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[1] 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?

[1] 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.

Related Posts

How not to run off the edge of the PhD cliff

Transitioning out of academia

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26 thoughts on “Academic FOMO?

  1. I just read the article by Alexandra Samuel where she mentions social media FOMO, and I think this seems much more accurate in describing my personal symptoms. There is a crazy/not so crazy desire to learn as much as possible because it’s all so accessible. This is evident in a single research project for a term paper, not to mention an entire career. I guess the best thing to do is also live true to the deadlines. That way, one knows one has to focus at some point and after the deadline is over, amazingly the FOMO disappears.

  2. My goodness, Amy. This post nails it. I think many PhD candidates would share this experience. As an early career academic, and having just submitted my PhD for examination, I hope we get better at managing the FOMO syndrome.

  3. What a great term – academic FOMO – for the very real pressure (internal and external) felt by many postgraduates to say yes to every opportunity. One of the best learnings of my PhD was to say, ‘I’ll think about it and get back to you’ rather than saying ‘yes’ straight away whenever any new opportunity was suggested. That way, I could assess if the effort was worth the potential reward.

  4. I thought only the other day that I probably suffer from something like academic FOMO and then here is this post – thanks for proving I’m not alone! I notice you say that your voracious appetite for side-projects is to prepare you for multiple career paths. Mine is something similar – in a world of increased competition and at a time of great uncertainty I have replaced ambition with JUST SAYING YES, in the hope that SOMETHING I undertake will lead me towards a satisfying work life.

  5. I finally stepped off the FOMO travellator at a major conference last week. For me, a ‘late-onset academic’ with forty years of self-employment behind me in which I had continually to hustle for the next contract, the next piece of work, this was a defining and remarkable moment.

    It was very simple: I ducked the official dinner and went instead to the pub with a small group of friends and colleagues. I stepped out of the feeling that at the official dinner I would meet The Right Person to collaborate with, hear The Next New Thing, make The Great Impression – you know how it goes.

    What happened was that during a wonderful evening at the pub full of laughter and deep conversation round a small table I met the right people, heard the next new things and – I hope – made a contribution to our thinking. Collaborations are emerging, and colleagues becoming friends as well.

    I am sure that the FOMO twitches will continue, but this time I will tell myself “Step away from the Official Dinner…..”, take a deep breath and move on. Anyone for the pub?

  6. I’ve been thinking a lot about this issue recently! (Part of my end of year meeting with supervisors etc!) What has worked best for me was allowing each year to have a slightly different focus: The first year of my PhD was hard, mostly finding my feet and trying out new things. My 2nd year was the most outward looking – I improved my working skills (and life skills – particularly juggling a hectic schedule!) I did some lovely side projects and a broad range of conferences which will all look good on my CV. I’m planning that the third year will be more focused on my specific project – I’m only doing conferences which are very closely aligned to my project.

    I wish I could say that I’d planned it like this, but it was mostly chance up to now – it’s worked for me so far though. I feel a lot less pressure this year to sign up for extra things. I know that I’ve done all the extra training/skills/conferences that I *need*, so now I can be more selective. Also, it helps to avoid the use of FOMO as a procrastination technique! I can ask myself the question “will the time spent on this activity push me towards or hold me back from finishing my PhD?” – tough, but necessary sometimes!

  7. ”””’::::’,’:::::::::”:’:”’ Sent from my BlackBerry 10 smartphone. From: The Thesis WhispererSent: الثلاثاء، Ù¨ أيلول، ٢٠١٥ ٢٢:٠٢To: amneht92@gmail.comReply To: The Thesis WhispererSubject: [New post] Academic FOMO?

    a:hover { color: red; } a { text-decoration: none; color: #0088cc; } a.primaryactionlink:link, a.primaryactionlink:visited { background-color: #2585B2; color: #fff; } a.primaryactionlink:hover, a.primaryactionlink:active { background-color: #11729E !important; color: #fff !important; }

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    Thesis Whisperer posted: “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 “

  8. During my first attempt at a PhD I was definitely FOMO-ing (at the mind). I took the maximum of courses and then doubled that number in audited courses. I was the academic kid in the brain candy shop. I burned out and dropped out. When you have no time for a life, practical things can spin out of control in no time and leave you with no finances, no health, no where to go.

    I learned from my earlier experiences. I had a brief brush with FOMO in the 2nd year of my current PhD (presenting at 7 conferences in one year, was I mad?). I`m in the 4th year of a PhD in a different field, and now I`m focusing on what needs to be done, but then doing that as thoroughly and well as I can. This time, I think I`ll succeed. The dissertation is actually getting written.

    Great article, and a must-read for all excited new PhD candidates. There is such a thing as too much of a good thing. Keep it real!

  9. What do we call the opposite, very common case of PhD students who try to do the minimum and just focus on writing their thesis? For example, when I was PhD director at our school we found that most PhD students never asked for travel funding etc. that was available to them. In fact, we could only offer as much as we did because we assumed most students wouldn’t ask for it.

  10. I think that as with every other aspect of life, it’s a balancing act. I have been amazed by the opportunities which have come with doing my PhD, and actually I have probably gained more skills out of these side projects than I would have done from just focusing on my thesis. Finishing is important, but so is enjoying the journey, meeting new people and exchanging exciting ideas. Getting off your butt and organising a seminar or some public engagement will set you apart in the long run, and is important in injecting excitement into your PhD journey. Yes, you can use these as procrastination, yes you can over-commit, but if you choose carefully the rewards are fantastic.

  11. Definitely Katy, I think I have gotten a great deal out of my side-projects too. For me it was also my value add. Everyone who finishes the PhD will write a thesis by the end, it’s about those other things we do around it that differentiate our experience and expertise.

  12. One thing that has worked well for me in terms of taming (slightly) the academic FOMO around the mountain of ever-emerging literature, is splitting my to-read folder into three – I have subfolders called ‘PhD critical’, ‘PhD general interest’, and ‘Other interests’. The idea was that I could spend some time each week on the critical subfolder and dip into the rest as and when. To be honest, I haven’t been disciplined about this and papers are mounting up in all three, but the triage system does seem to help with the massive overload of new papers and stop me from ‘wasting’ time on things not focussed enough as I move towards the end of my PhD. I haven’t ‘lost’ those papers, they’re there, I didn’t miss them, and it offsets the academic FOMO to some extent. ([][1])


    • I have a similar system, though mine includes collections for teaching resources, teaching research, and similar ones for industry. I also have folders for general personal development and for general professional dev/interest. (I have 15 root folders at the moment, and sub-folders go no deeper than two levels under each – otherwise I spend more time filing than reading!

      My total archive is some 37G after 15 years. It includes ebooks, pdf copies of papers, and also images, videos, software, and html/text from many sources.

      I have too much for any single cloud service provider, without having to invest noticeable sums, so I have split my collection across several. I use Dropbox for immediate downloads and for core research/reading resources. Box for general academic/teaching material and some others for less ‘important’ stuff.

      This means I can general access my collections from nearly anywhere, and they’re backed up in several places by default – the cloud store, and on each desktop machine I have linked to any particular service. I can find and access documents/media from my collections from anywhere with a phone/wifi connection without having to worry that I might have forgotten to bring it with me. I still keep copies of my current working sets on my iphone, ipad, and laptop for ready access and annotation – but I no longer worry about forgetting something.

      I keep track of potential double-ups using a naming convention [“first-author-surname year title”], a strict filing strategy [files go into highest priority category, sub-category, etc] and I scan my collections regularly with software that compares for uniqueness (using a hashing function) and suggests which files appear to be identical. I can also generate a spreadsheet or database of part/whole of my collection if I desire.

      I also have a subset that includes all my publications, and any major contribution or public comment, organised by topic and year, with a running file to which I add new contributions as I go. This is similar to advice given here [Scholar, google thyself.
      August 11, 2015,

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