How my research topic helps me cope with post-doctoral life: humour as a calibrator of emotion and distance

Humour isn’t only about fun and games. A lot of it is really about the opposite. In researching satire engagement, I’ve come to realise not only that it is one of our main ways of coping with problems, on an emotional level, but that it is a way for us to dare, or have the strength, to feel anything at all, and to realise other feel the same way we do. This may seem like a bit of a paradox, as humour creates distance too – but perhaps it’s a bit more complicated – perhaps humour is a way of calibrating our feelings.

Last month, I spent the day with about ten other researchers from various places in the world, developing ideas on a common theme. At one point, I found myself zooming out, trying to consider what was going on. Our actual job that day was to talk and discuss our thinking, swap theories and reading tips, conceptualise and help each other out. This is academic work at its best, at least from a more selfish, personal perspective. Of course, it’s not always that way. The kind of insecurity and apprehension that I find when interviewing young adult citizens, which stems from a mix of wavering levels of self-esteem and worries about the world, has parallels with how I and others around me experience being a young scholar (‘young’ being a relative term of course). We’re all trying to build confidence, put together a stimulating career, perhaps even play small roles in changing the world, as well as balance work with everything else life has to offer.

When people ask me what I’m doing now, a year and a half after my thesis defence, the answer is complicated. Lots of things! Probably not always the things I should be doing? Post-doctoral life is about taking what you can get, combining it with what you have, and running with it. Around me, I see post-doctoral lives unfolding, all different from each other, which is important to remember while in the existential-psychological-sometimes-financially-fraught whirl of finishing your thesis, and then keeping on. I have one main way of dealing with the whirl: I take in various accounts of post-doctoral life. I talk to others, go through blogs, articles, podcasts and social media accounts that in many ways say the same thing: that the competition for funding is tightening, that I should work around-the-clock, and that post-doc life can go on for a decade! Senior colleagues speak about what it was like when they came up – some whom believe that it’s still what it was the 60s/70s/80s/90s. (And while it might not have been as competitive, as a woman I’m quite happy to be in the 10s version of academia …)

I also make sure to take in the satirical versions of such accounts. It helps me to deal. I saw this in my research: not only do we potentially feel better about whatever we are dealing with, it helps us manage our pride a little, when we’re feeling helpless. I’ve found that young adults who engage with satire find productive approaches to politics that help them stay out of overly cynical territories. When struggling with uncertain conditions and unclear futures we can use humour and satire to remind ourselves that we are not alone, and that the complexities of emotions and distance are part of any experience.
Fortunately, not everyone wants a career in academia, and there are many ways to build a career. Having a PhD is a good thing. We sometimes forget this when fretting about funding.

Some have the talent, discipline, ideas, timing and general where-with-all to land funding for years of post-doctoral research. But it doesn’t happen for everyone, at least not right away. I was exhausted that first year after defending the thesis. I was working full time with teaching and admin and there wasn’t much space to gather my thoughts and think: what just happened? What’s going on? What do I want? So I did what I could, I fought with the perfectionist within me and now have a stipend for some part time research; I have teaching that interests me; I have wonderful students. And I get to talk about my research on comedy and satire engagement with people in and outside of academia.

While these things might not always be good for the amount of writing I should be doing, my post-doctoral career patch-work allows me to develop and be part of many different interesting contexts. Sometimes, that means talking about fascinating research a whole day. Other times, it means writing, or fretting about the future. In those moments, I treat myself with satire on academic life. One of my favourites is the the well curated social media account @AcademicsSay (found on platforms such as Facebook, Tumblr and Twitter):

Beyond this, the account addresses serious topics like mental health in academia, in a serious manner. Humour and seriousness do not oppose each other, they go hand in hand, as Chester Scoville shows in this message, shared through @AcademicsSay:

Humour isn’t just about coping, it’s about remembering to laugh at ourselves and valuing the perspective that gives us, which is especially fitting when you’re trying to find your way through the weirdness that makes up parts of academic life.

Read more about Shit Academics Say at

Or better yet: read more about humour and satire engagement from the perspective of media and communication studies in Joanna’s PhD thesis: