How to Ask for Help to Manage the Chaos of an Academic Life

A few years ago, I reached a breaking point in my career. I loved my work but I wanted to quit my job. I would drive to campus, only to sit in my car for hours thinking about how much I did not want to work and then I would eventually drive back home. The times I managed to coach myself out of the car, I would often find myself crying in the bathroom or at my desk because I had nothing left to give yet more was always being asked of me.

I had pushed myself too hard, too fast, too long. The relentless demands of research, teaching, and service pushed me beyond burnout. That overwhelming exhaustion and stress eventually landed me in intensive psychiatric care followed by a year long leave of absence from work. Life comes at you fast 😩

It was a wake-up call, a moment of reckoning that forced me to confront the consequences of years of consistently prioritizing my work and my loved ones over my well-being. It was also a realization that I am only one person and I can only reasonably do so much work if I want to maintain wellness and a life outside my job.

My mentors and my therapist helped me to shift my perspective. I can vividly remember the therapy session when I was rattling off my to-do list and venting about how overwhelmed I was and my therapist said, you’re doing so many things for your job and for other people. Why don’t you think you deserve the same level of care and attention that you so readily give to others?” I almost immediately started to cry. Implicitly and explicitly that is exactly what I was communicating to myself and those around me - everything and everyone is more important than me and my wellbeing.

When a new semester starts and I am feeling overwhelmed, I usually start slipping back into the habits that landed me in the office of a psychiatrist a few years ago - skipping meals and workouts to work, working on weekends, staying up late to work, etc. Thankfully, that conversation comes to the fore of my mind every time as my brain starts whispering, “Hey sis, this is not sustainable.”

I have found myself having those internal conversations in the past two weeks and here is what I am doing to turn things around:

  • Updating my semester plan
  • Saying no to incoming requests
  • Prioritizing family and personal time
  • Asking for help

I can literally write a blog post on each of these (and I just might) but I know lots of folks are uncomfortable asking for help so I figured this would really resonate with folks - especially because it's such a simple and fast way to help alleviate overwhelm.

Academia: The Ultimate Balancing Act

Asking for help (and receiving it when it's offered), has made a world of difference in my productivity and my overall wellbeing. Many of us are unaware of the support that's readily available to us. Something as simple as asking for an extension can alleviate the stress and anxiety that often accompany our work.

Here’s a list of ways my professor friends (yep, I asked them for you) and I have asked for help over the past few weeks:

Asking for Help from Others

  • Ask for Extensions: Seeking extensions for paper reviews, submissions for internal deadlines (for papers and grants with colleagues or committee work) can provide much needed breathing room when your to-do list is overflowing with tasks.
  • Ask to Push Back Timelines: Did you plan to work collaboratively on a project this semester but you need more time? Ask your colleagues if they would be open to pushing the timeline back by a few weeks or by a semester. They will likely appreciate the ask too.
  • Ask for Guest Lecturers: Invite colleagues or grad students to guest lecture in your class - this not only eases your load and reduces time spent on teaching prep but also enriches the student experience as they get to learn from others.
  • Ask for Help with Writing: I say this all the time, “Collaboration is the lifeblood of a successful academic career.” In academia, we are notorious for doing 95% of the writing on a project and then adding people at the very end of the writing process to simply review it - not a sustainable practice for a productive career. Find some colleagues that can make “equitable contributions” to the work and let them! If you are writing a grant or a paper, ask them to take the lead on a section so that leaves less on your plate. Be sure to provide clear expectations and a mutually agreed upon deadline!
  • Ask for Help with Editing: Are you spinning your wheels on a writing project – sitting at the same place every week? Get some fresh eyes on it by asking a mentor or colleague to look it over. I often find more senior faculty expect to do this for more junior folks. If you have the funds, you can also outsource to a professional. Sometimes feedback is the needed push to help move you forward.
  • Ask for Accountability: Gather a group of your professor friends once or twice a week for a virtual co-working/accountability session on zoom. The rules are no-talking and only writing! I do this with my colleagues a few times a week and I do almost all of my writing during these sessions. It helps me stay focused and eliminate distractions. If you are neurodivergent (aka neurospicy) like me then you know this strategy is a lifesaver. If you want to join me for an upcoming co-working session, you can do so here.
  • Ask for Flexibility: Need to focus on grant writing next semester but you have to teach, ask your department chair if you can teach more in the summer or fall and less in the spring so you can get the time you need to move your research forward. Negotiating with department chairs for teaching load adjustments can provide so much space for balance.
  • Ask for More from Your Team: From literature reviews to organizing and preparing docs for an IRB submission to fixing references on a paper and drafting cover letters for submissions, you likely could be asking your research assistants for more. Remember, effective delegation, done thoughtfully, ensures that tasks are completed to satisfaction without undue stress. Look at your to-do list this week, I bet you can find at least 2-3 things you can ask your team to do. And if you don’t have a team 😱, you need to email me so we can enroll you in my Faculty Development Program and help you build one.
  • Ask for More Team Members: If you currently do not have a research team or you need to expand and you are limited on funds, you can ask for help from a variety of sources with this. Consider asking the appropriate departments for an intern or practicum student ( you may have to get creative and venture outside your department - for example, if you need help with social media or creating graphics for a study, your intern might be in a design or marketing department). Use your imagination here!
  • Ask for Guidance: If you know you need help but you are not sure where to find it, consulting senior colleagues or department chairs for ideas on obtaining support for teaching or research can lead to valuable resources.
  • Ask for Support at Home: Doing laundry, covering bedtime or mornings with the kiddos, deciding on and executing meals, doing cleaning, walking the dog - the list of home chores is always long. Enlisting the help of friends or family for childcare or other responsibilities can create space for catching up on work or self-care. I know it can be awkward to ask but if you need the help, ask for it. I asked a friend to watch my baby for 3 hours last Friday so I could focus on deep brain work (grant writing) and it made a huge difference for me. What can a loved one take off of your plate this week? If you feel uncomfortable making a specific ask, you can share with your partner, family member(s), and/or friend(s) that you are feeling overwhelmed and ask them if they can support you and let them decide on what they can do.
  • Ask the Professionals: If you have the resources, outsourcing tasks when you are overwhelmed can be really helpful. From unpacking your moving boxes to getting groceries, doing laundry, or doing your meal prep - there is a professional that can help you with everything. It might be worth it to outsource for a week or two until things are more calm.

Remember that asking for help is not a sign of weakness but a testament to our commitment to a balanced and fulfilling life. It's a gentle nudge reminding us that academic success doesn't have to be a solitary, all-consuming mission. Instead, it can be a holistic adventure where we cherish well-being, relationships, and personal growth just as much as we cherish our professional achievements.

In closing, remember that your academic journey should be a fulfilling and sustainable one. I know it can be uncomfortable to ask for help but push yourself - you never know what blessings are waiting on the other side of your ask.

I encourage you to embrace the power of seeking assistance and prioritize your well-being. You absolutely deserve nothing less.

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Are there ways that you have asked for help that were not mentioned in this article? Share them in the comments so we can all learn together!