Grad school brain

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It’s 1pm on a gorgeous fall day, and I’m not at work. This is my “crunch week” – my “I need to finish writing this dissertation by Christmas even if it kills me” season, my “writer’s retreat” effort to really cover some ground in chapter 4 and data analysis.

So naturally, I’m writing this instead. 🤣

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the way graduate school, especially terminal degrees, are engineered to be some of the best mental-health assault tactics ever created. Let’s review:

The full-press assault on mental health during doctoral work:

  • It’s entirely individual – no one writes your dissertation with you, you must do it yourself, even though almost no actual research happens with this “army of one” approach in the real world;
  • yet somehow the worst of all committee jobs – every dissertation happens in the context of a faculty advisor (committee chair) and dissertation committee members; I happen to have 3 of the best humans on earth on my committee, but even then, you’re always writing for 3-4 people who will never entirely agree, yet they get to decide when you are done and whether it was good enough;
  • always uncertain – there’s no straight-line path through research; your path is recursive and wandering, and while others can encourage you to keep going, they’re not on the path with you;
  • genuinely hard – moving from novice to expert takes a lot of work and effort and failure, stops and starts, experience gained just after you needed it, and sheer time;
  • a playground for imposter syndrome – there’s always someone better suited, better researched; success is a matter of hard work more than “smarts” but we celebrate “smarts”;
  • expensive – I’m not panicked about this one, though as a professional (in education) earning an Ed.D., there are no funding options other than loans to cover tuition, and I’m not a fan; but I’m also very fortunate to be employed and not trying to scrape by on the poverty wages of a TA (teaching assistant) salary- but many graduate students are appallingly poor;
  • strange – I’m a first-generation college graduate from a very working-class family doing a thing in academia which has historically been primarily open to wealthier people (and male) (and white, which is a box I can tick, but many others don’t), so my entire academic life has been an exercise in realizing how poor my family was and how different I am from people who didn’t grow up poor;
  • petty – thankfully this is not my experience in my program, but academia is generally very pedantic about its traditions, citation styles, social hierarchies, and unwritten rules — in the end, I don’t think any one comma should matter as much as these people think it should, but the power structure is on their side;
  • not necessarily a path to career success – I’ve said this out loud to anyone in earshot, but the higher ed / academic job market is collapsing and that collapse will only worsen over the next decade or two. I’m not doing my EdD with any dreams of a big academic job search later; we’ll see where things go. But many people amass six-figure PhD debt only to be greeted with zero jobs that pay anything close to a living wage. Discussion for another day.

Thinking about just one of those factors is enough to make a person anxious; experiencing all of them at once is like running your ego through a shredder and then doing it again the next day because you have to.

I’m not writing this post for sympathy – I’m good, we’re good, it’s fine.

But abuse and trauma persist anytime people sweep hard feelings under the rug, so I’m here to say a few things about those feelings.

One, just naming them out loud, like I just did.

Two, I have been engaging in world-class, top-tier procrastination and avoidance behavior since September. Part of it was the mental stress of gnawing on my research situation and realizing I needed to change direction a bit, and then communicate that to my chair and committee, and wait to make sure everyone is on board. Because even though I have the best committee I could imagine, I still had to face my own feelings of failure when confronted by an initial approach that wasn’t working, and deal with the realities that I don’t get to make the final call, in critical ways, regarding how I am doing my research.

Third, I am about to kick off 10 weeks of “buckle down, get it done” efforts toward writing chapters 4 and 5 (data collection results and discussion). Goal is a full dissertation draft by Thanksgiving Christmas.

Writing is fine; I don’t mind it; I don’t think I’m out of bounds to say I’m a capable writer and I draft quickly. But wow, the feelings of inadequacy that kick in as I face a mountain of interview transcript pages and think I’m going to code that content and have something to say?

Who am I to have something to say?

There’s a stress-knot that I can feel in my chest from time to time. Modern living is an assault on the soul; we mostly did this to ourselves, I think, by engineering an individualist Western society with limited markers of what “success” looks like.

I remind my own students that they’re living life during a global pandemic that’s killed at least 600K Americans directly, probably closer to a million, plus millions more around the world, and disrupted the flow of life for just about every body. “Be kind to yourself,” I tell my students often. Be kind to myself.

You get a doctorate not by being “smart” necessarily. You earn it one page at a time, in a lonely slog through a forest of ideas and hours by yourself in front of a screen.

It’ll always be easier to play a video game instead or read a book or “get busy” doing something “that needed to get done.” And there’s some value in creative loafing, letting your subconscious mind work out a problem while your conscious mind hovers over top, fretting about it.

In the end though, people who succeed are the ones who decide to put in the work and also to ask for help when they need it.

If you have a graduate student in your orbit,

  • encourage them that this is a season, it will pass, and they are enough
  • don’t ask “how it’s going” — it’s going, or they’re feeling bad about it not going, but either way, they are 100% aware of their place in the process.
    You might say instead, “I’m happy to hear about what you’re working on if you’d like to share today; it’s ok if you don’t.”
  • make sure they eat – bring them food, make them food, invite them over, but don’t be mad if they can’t come over (sometimes the academic stress is too much – just make sure they aren’t subsisting on nothing but buttered ramen noodles from the Dollar Store)
  • if you’re around grad students who are TA’s and especially if they’re younger / single, don’t assume they have the money to do anything out. If you ask them to lunch, pay the bill. (Unless you know they’re trust fund kids. lol) Most grad students make an absolutely shitty salary, work long hours, and pile into cheap housing to try to avoid starving.
  • encourage everyone, everywhere to consider going to counseling or therapy. We’ve got to remove the stigma from people asking for mental health support. Graduate school is incredibly stressful and it breaks a lot of folks.

A word to the uni

I’m not writing this post in a place where professors will see it, but I wish universities and departments would take far more ownership of the academic structures that make life hell for their graduate students.

Departments ought to be more up-front about the job market prospects on the other side of the expensive degree, advocate for better pay and working conditions for TA’s and adjuncts, and consider overhauling nearly everything about the doctoral program experience.

Problem is, once someone runs the gauntlet, survives, and gets their letters, they forget. Or rather, I think they choose to forget how awful it was. Now, everyone coming after needs to run the same gauntlet to “prove” they’re “good enough.”

Yeah, there’s space for rigor, obviously. If you’re going to be a civil engineer with a PhD training other engineers, you need to be on top of your game. But torturing grad students is punching down. Stop doing it.

More humane graduate programs would offer flexibility in class hours and formats (hey! We can all use hybrid learning technology now! So do it!). They would provide much clearer road maps about the process from start to finish. Good programs would find mentoring partners to offer social / emotional support for the journey as well as pay for mental health services for all their students and faculty. And they would reign in the hidden structures that allow advisors and committees to hold such power over students and their academic development. It can be incredibly ugly and abusive.

I got really lucky with the quality of my institution and especially the quality of my committee members. I’m also helped by being in my 40s and well past the “give a fuck” stage that tends to dominate younger academics and put them in a position to be exploited by abusive supervisors. Also, I’m pretty self-aware and I know my boundaries and competencies. If I act confident, it’s because I’ve already wrestled this bear once – or one like it – and won. Or didn’t die. So I’ll do it again. And win. Or die trying.

Ironically, since I need to write a bunch for the next 2.5 months, I’ll probably be posting on here MORE often. Is it avoidance? Sometimes. But there’s also a good principle at work, of opening the tap and getting the writing juices going on something easy and familiar.

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