The obsessive pursuit of perfectionism in academia...and how to get rid of it — R Voice

The obsessive pursuit of perfectionism in academia...and how to get rid of it

Jayashree Rajagopalan
Jayashree Rajagopalan Member, Administrator, Moderator Posts: 262 admin

I found this narrative beautiful and relatable - An academic sharing her epiphany on her expectations of perfectionism from herself and those around her. What I liked most was the author's emphasis on what senior/teaching academics can do to help students work on their tendency to be obsessive perfectionists to the point where it leads to

show lack of interest in life, give up easily, and develop mental health issues.

Have a read and let me know what you think.


  • Mdumiseni Mazula
    Mdumiseni Mazula Member Posts: 63 ✭✭✭

    To get over it I suggest that it's important to stay positive until you increase your chances of success, don't over think too much,why? Because it may also cause stress, anxiety, depression and other mental health problems as well, so stay healthy and be positive.

  • chris leonard
    chris leonard Member, Administrator, Moderator Posts: 156 admin

    It reminded me of this tweet I saw yesterday. Sometimes you have recognise that good enough is good enough - and move on to the next thing:

  • Andrea Hayward
    Andrea Hayward Member, Administrator, Moderator Posts: 710 admin

    What are the odds! I came across this tweet just yesterday and found it very relatable. I feel like moving away from a perfectionist mindset will set it when we're able to acknowledge the magnitude of our efforts, our journey and how far we've come, our hard work and persistence, and appreciate that while we may not be THE best (and who is to decide this anyway?), we're surely doing our best! Most of the time, this is enough and much more. 😊

  • Raj sundaram
    Raj sundaram Member Posts: 322 ✭✭✭✭
    edited April 2021

    I agree that supervisors are to lead/guide students/postdocs/early career researchers to encourage them try new things. However, I dont think "perfectionism" is the issue with academia broadly.

    Many researchers are not trying new things because funding systems are prohibitively competitive, there is too little funding for high-risk projects/projects without a track record. Although there are drives by major funding organizations to allocate money for high-risk new research, especially those coming from early career researchers - these tend to be very competitive. So, many PIs are basically incrementing their previous record and this trickles down to postdocs and Ph.Ds.

    I also feel the real issue is the opposite. Many researchers are not living up/cannot live up to standards and research standards are sliding down. There is a reproducibility crisis across many disciplines - physical, chemical and biological sciences. There are tall claims not necessarily substantiated by data, not many papers are reliable, not many papers get translated to realworld products, many researchers dont have the time/energy to even critically read papers - because there is too much getting published too fast, peer-review is not working as well as it should, and a lot of resources are getting wasted in salesmanship and PR.

    The culture of excessive rapid publication (even if it comes at lower quality) drives the publishing machine, and is a necessary evil to keep jobs, to keep funding/increase chances of future funding, etc.

    Instead of focusing on removing perfectionism, I feel we need to give more voice and resources to researchers on the ground at all rungs of the ladder to take a stand and say - "Hey! Stop, the data is not enough, the evidence is not enough, let us slow down, take time and make an effort to step back and check our claims...." and as peers - let us try to provide constructive reviews so that only science backed by sound data gets published...

    Alas - the publish/perish and speed culture as well as the hypercompetitiveness are making things difficult - especially for early career researchers with their jobs and livelihoods on the line.

  • Asli Telli
    Asli Telli Member Posts: 40 ✭✭✭

    The pecha kucha event you shared to show how imperfectionism and just bluntly making mistakes can lead to creativity and surprise, is on its own very valuable @Jayashree R . Thank you for sharing it:) It resonates so well with academic life and customised profiles expected of us academics. Well, the competition mentioned in the earlier posts is also rooted to excellence strategies and having to over-work for research funding or best publications to fulfill criteria. Thus, the stress for reaching that level of perfection adds up and in the end, we end up deciding what we are best at according to the systemic criteria. The system on its own has such structural deficits that our souls become imprisoned rather than liberated with more knowledge everyday. This vicious cycle must be broken; otherwise most will have to leave academia in their early post-doc careers. One way to overcome could be to convince colleagues and peers to share work at early stages for feedback so that collective intelligence can improve the quality. I think concerns for copyright, plagiarizing and academic theft also play a role here.

  • Jayashree Rajagopalan
    Jayashree Rajagopalan Member, Administrator, Moderator Posts: 262 admin

    Thanks @Asli Telli I like the idea of encouraging people to share their work at early stages. Feedback itself is an art - both giving and receiving it though. The same system that you mention as something that traps us rather than liberating us may also, I fear, be responsible for some of us not being able to give the right feedback or not being able to take constructive feedback constructively - another loophole that might chase us deeper into the rabbit hole of chasing perfectionism. Sorry, I digressed a bit there with my thoughts on feedback! I like the perspective you shared here :-)

  • Raj sundaram
    Raj sundaram Member Posts: 322 ✭✭✭✭

    @Jayashree R - interesting, I had a similar perspective on this, while @Asli Telli 's take on early feedback is valid - provided researchers feel safe or in circumstances that allow for opportunities to early but constructive feedback. From what I see and hear - the healthiness of academic environments (supervision/feedback/access to collaborations/opportunities, etc.) vary wildly and is more a luck of draw than a reflection of an individual researcher's abilities.

    Only if there was access to more constructive safer environments - like how we have here in RVoice for mental health and academic life related discussion - an environment for research feedback/brainstorming/discussions (minus the viciousness/competition/etc.) for various disciplines....then, everyone will have a chance irrespective of individual researcher's immediate environments.....

    I think Researchgate started out to try to become a safe space...however...the experiences vary wildly, the platform is too broad...I think. me thinking...🤔

  • Asli Telli
    Asli Telli Member Posts: 40 ✭✭✭

    Thanks for both of your comments and reflection. While @Jayashree R comments on constructive feedback and reception are significant, I also think these are skills we, as academics, can work on and improve in time. Seeing the German context for the last few years, I’m also realigning that with the competitive structure and the difference in academic cultures. Here, your research topic can be very critical, but it still has to fit certain norms, set methodologies and funding mechanisms. While this seems to be true for all academic settings, the idea for excellent research is quite unlike any other here. You can do the most frindge research, but the method has to be within grounded research principles (sort of a social studies of science approach as an empirical filter). At the same time, what @Raj sundaram refers as luck of draw could also depend on the personal characteristics of the team you are working with. If they are too hung up on individual success (whatever that may be), you may feel closer to hell everyday:( Thus a safe space is very valuable for academic dialogue and sharing as well. For me, Researchgate is a bit mundane with fewer features, but is larger with more interactivity (discussion sessions, document sharing etc). They do profit a lot from network monitoring, though, as in Linked-in. You always have to watch out for how much you sacrifice in return for what you get in these platforms, since they are particularly based on data brokerage. Worth reflecting further on this:)

  • Raj sundaram
    Raj sundaram Member Posts: 322 ✭✭✭✭
    edited May 2021

    @Asli Telli Thanks for the comment. It got me thinking. Honestly, it feels I have been living in a different universe. Because what I have been seeing is quite the opposite of what you described as the "norm" in the German context. While I cannot comment on any specific country, I can comment for certain disciplines (materials science, nanotechnology, etc.).

    A lot of the published work (coming from various countries) I see as a reader and reviewer is exactly the opposite of what you describe. That is - the data is not always grounded in reality, and many instances involves cherry picking data/contexts. As I mentioned earlier, there is a lot of salemanship. The "hotter" the topic, the more aggressive the tall claims, without necessarily data to backup. Ironically, the higher the impact factors, the "sexier" the means of obtaining the data (i.e., costing more money and resources, hence - not always accessible to younger/"out of the major or big-name league"/other than 1st world country researchers) - but not necessarily grounded in facts or reproducible. This last statement - I dont want to make it a blanket statement, but...this is a large part of my personal experience as a researcher as well. Which has involved trying to build on non-reproducible data, which wasted my time and energy and made me carry other people's dead albatrosses for years on my back without choice. AND....this is certainly my experience as a peer-reviewer. Routinely, it seems only few peers point to actual issues with data. I often have to get into tiffs with authors/editors making a stand against BS claims with flowery but generic advertisement-style wording in papers ("Our material shows excellent properties" (what does it even mean??) or "Our material is so great that it is the magic bullet for climate change." which is basically BS!).

    I do so - not with the objective of rejecting papers or for being a nasty curmudgeon - but to do my job as a peer - to improve paper/data quality and not let BS through. So - in my view, what we need is more perfectionism, more room and time for perfectionism, and more gatekeeping. Right now, I wont trust data in a LOT of papers out there. In fact, there have been people who have been voicing concerns - especially about how everyone is jumping into the bandwagon of "new" "hot" materials. Materials that governments and funding organizations are investing disproportionately large amounts of money without understanding that there is a TERRIBLE reproducibility crisis, there are huge issues with metrology/standardization/data and the claims are TOO tall!!! But this has been a kind of pattern in this field. Researchers just follow the money, and funding organizations/governments follow the hype and it is a vicious cycle. I think it is dangerous and a waste of resources. We are at a juncture, we really need sound dependable technologies for the huge issues we are facing as a planet - especially climate change. And we need to know the reality, the possibilities and potential AS WELL AS limitations. But the kind of snakeoilsalesmanship attitude in the world of (materials) science I am seeing rampantly is at its best and at its worst dangerous.

    [All this said...I feel it is ok to have derivative work or not ground breaking work in papers - which are unfortunately, necessary to keep jobs - but also good from the point of view of reproducibility checks...but, it is possible to do so without aggressive salesmanship, by simply writing papers on data for what they are.]

    So - from my viewpoint as a researcher, there is a really urgent need for PERFECTIONISM!

  • Raj sundaram
    Raj sundaram Member Posts: 322 ✭✭✭✭
    edited May 2021

    Just wondering - is there ANYONE ELSE here with a similar opinion/experiences?

    [Especially - materials scientists/physicists/chemists/biologists?] If you wouldnt like to talk about this publicly - please direct message. 😉

    Feels like I am yelling into an abyss with my views, in general.... 😂