mental health and graduate school: personal reflections

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A few weeks ago, The Chronicle of Higher Education ran an article about the effects of graduate school on mental health. On my Facebook feed, I saw some of the normal contrarian response: “If you think graduate school is bad, wait till you are a professor.” I wrote back, “For me, the tenure track was a cake walk compared to the tenure track. I went to a very toxic graduate program.” I meant that in all honesty.

In this post, I want to elaborate on the effects of graduate programs on individual well being from my own perspective. I do so for two reasons. First, I am an advocate of graduate school reform. I think that graduate programs are poorly designed and I also think that my program at Chicago had some serious challenges. Second, mental health and well being are extremely important. If we can be a little more open about it, we can work to make it better.

Let’s start with self-assessment. I consider myself to be well physically and emotionally. I have never been diagnosed with depression or another disorder. Nor do I have the emotional states that suggest that I am not well. I have had personal success and failure, but I seem to respond constructively.  People who know me tend to say that I seem mellow and balanced most of the time. I think that is accurate.

However, that changed during the last year of graduate school. For the first time in my life, I spent a long period of time in a highly anxious state. I could barely sleep. I experienced such bad nausea that I lost about 30 lbs. It was bad. To me, it was clear I needed help. I turned to the student counseling center at the University of Chicago.

There were obvious and non-obvious aspects of my experience. The obvious: As I was nearing completion of my graduate program, I was experiencing stress. Getting a job in academia is hard. The non-obvious: I had experienced much worse stress in my life, but had not experienced this decline in well being. Previously, I had all sorts of positive coping mechanisms. This time, I couldn’t eat and was on the path to poor health. What was the difference?

What my counselor claimed was that anxiety is often associated with a lack control. Bad events don’t always trigger anxiety, but people feel anxiety when they think the world is happening “at them” and they have no way to assert agency in the situation. This made sense to me and the counselor suggested a series of actions to help me regain agency. Some were simple. For example, my counselor suggested that I drink water everyday at regular intervals. I continue that ritual to this very day.

Other methods of asserting agency were were specific to my situation. For example, one of the major factors in my anxiety was the fact that one of the my dissertation committee members refused to speak to me for a year, another had simply gone “AWOL” and a third refused to write me a letter of recommendation. Any one of these issues could hobble a student. To have all three happen could be a career killer. Obviously, I had lost control of the situation and I was paranoid and bitter. How could all my years of work go down the drain because two or three people refused to do their job?

To counter these events, which I have no control over, my counselor suggested a few good rituals. For example, to deal with the guy who would not speak to me, I would politely show up at his scheduled office hours and ask if he had any comments on my dissertation. If not, I would simply say “thank you, I’ll check in a few weeks” and follow up on email. By doing this, I was doing something small to assert control and, legally, I was preparing a paper trail showing that I actively sought comments.

After a while, I was able to calm down. It took a while for me to get a response from the faculty, but it happened. But more importantly, I learned that I could take an active role in my mental well-being. I could create structures and rituals and not be victimized by circumstances.

Now, I want to return to the bigger point – how the structures of graduate school impinge on mental health. At the very least, I was going to be stressed out no matter what. There are many more graduate students than job openings. Also, academia is driven by prestige. Thus, if you went to the wrong school, you may have an uphill battle compared to people who went to the right school or who had the “right” advisers. Higher education is a tough business.

Then, on top of that, the culture in many programs and labs is simply toxic. That is what my experience taught me. People can abandon each other, harm each other and humiliate each other with little immediate consequence. That is probably why people seem to have such negative experiences in academia. It is a hard business, but it’s also a business with few options and very little accountability. In other sectors of the economy, quitting and moving is easy. If you have a bad boss, you can quit and move. In academia, quitting a job can easily be the end of a career.

Thus, we shouldn’t be surprised if higher education is a work environment that exacerbates mental health challenges. It’s an environment that poses limited options and allows people to act badly with few consequences. People (rightfully) feel as if things are out of control, and, in many cases, they are.

To counter these tendencies, and improve well being, we can do a few simple things. First, in the graduate programs, make sure that “everyone is taken care of.” Plan regular meetings with people. Have norms and concrete benchmarks. You can be critical but supportive as well. Actively make sure that all students are on track. Second, create an environment where people can constructively talk about anxiety, depression and whatever other problems they may have. Third, create rules and norms for students and faculty. Students need to hold up their end of the bargain. But so do faculty. A culture of helping all students, openness about problems, and norms for good behavior and timely work can help make graduate school more of a challenge instead of a health issue.

50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: Grad Skool Rulz ($4.44 – cheap!!!!)/Theory for the Working Sociologist (discount code: ROJAS – 30% off!!)/From Black Power/Party in the Street / Read Contexts Magazine– It’s Awesome! 

Written by fabiorojas

August 21, 2017 at 7:59 pm

the post-racist society vs. donald j. trump

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The central tragedy of America is the treatment of non-whites. From Indian wars, to slavery, to segregation, to internment camps, to deportations, to Guantanamo, American society has often betrayed its ideals. But the American story is also one of progress, not stagnation. From time to time, change does happen and it is good.

In my eye, one of the biggest transformations of American society was the de-legitimization of racism in the 1960s. Following a century of eugenics, Jim Crow and all other manner affront to human dignity, the Civil Rights movement managed to create one of the first modern societies where racism began to lose its legitimacy. Not only did African-Americans have their rights returned to them, but the culture around race started to shift as well. For the first time, it was no longer appropriate for public figures to openly disparage American blacks, and many other groups as well.

A while ago I called this new culture “the post-racist society.” Not because I believed race or racism were gone. But rather overt racism was illegitimate. You could be racist, but it had to be expressed in dog whistle politics. It was a submerged belief in the mainstream of American life. My belief in the post-racist society was initially shaken by the rise of Trump. For the first time in decades, a serious contender for the presidency was openly racist. My belief was shaken once again when he won.

But later, as I surveyed the evidence on how Trump rose to power, I realized that the death of post-racist society was greatly exaggerated. For example, Trump won on an electoral college fluke, not because a new nationalist majority propelled him to power. Another key piece evidence. Estimates of the GOP primary vote indicate that 55% of GOP voters preferred someone other than Trump (see the wiki for the basic data). Yes, there is a nationalist and racist strand within the the GOP and Trump essentially dominated that vote. But a causal reading of the GOP primary map shows that Cruz dominated the mountain states and split the Midwest. If you look at the vote tallies in many early states, Trump was winning with vote totals in the low 30% range. Not exactly a resounding victory.

After entering office, there has been no groundswell of nationalism or racism in this country. For example, approval ratings for Trump have been horrid and have sunk to historic lows. Obama’s approval barely dipped below 40% in the Gallup polls but Trump’s is already in the 30% range and has stayed there. Trump is not riding a giant groundswell of nationalism or expressing the outrage of a working class left behind. Rather, he’s an electoral accident propped up by the most recalcitrant elements of the Republican party.

Trump’s limited support in the American polity raises some interesting questions. If only 35% of people approve of Trump (mainly racists and loyal Republicans), then what is everyone else doing? As with many political things, a lot of people have sat out. But we are seeing other parts of the political system slowly respond to Trump.

Perhaps the most insightful example is Trump’s statement that he would ban transgendered individuals from the armed services. The response? The military essentially just ignored him. Just think about that. Another example – after Trump’s statements about the murder of a protester in Charlottesville, conservative GOP senators slowly criticized him and CEO’s started resigning from key committees. Then, of course, there is the disintegration of the GOP consensus in the Senate.

There is the usual resistance from the left that accompanies any Republican administration. I am sure that the events in Charlottesville will continue to mobilize people and surely Trump will offer the left more to be appalled at. His actions will likely sustain the groups behind the Women’s march and the march for science, as well as Obama era groups like Black Lives Matter. And of course, white supremacy groups have seen Trump’s election as a chance to come out of the wood works, which will trigger push back from the left.

One might attribute Republican softness and left resistance to Trumpian incompetence. Perhaps it wouldn’t exist with a more smooth, but equally racist, Republican politician. Maybe. But here’s another hypothesis – people in general aren’t ready to completely ready to ditch the post-Civil Rights cultural agenda. Segregation is not on the table and popular culture has not reverted to a stage where racial slurs are permissible. Black face is not on TV and will not be any time in the near future. We live in the world of Get Out, not Birth of a Nation.

So when white nationalist politicians, like Steve King or Trump, emerge in the GOP, they reflect the will of a sizable, yet limited, constituency. But that group is big enough to win elections in some rural areas, like Arizona or Iowa, and enough to push through a candidate in a split field. At the same time, it doesn’t indicate a slide back to the middle ages.

Does that mean that people should “just relax?” No. Rather, it means that it is possible to defend the post-Civil Rights social order. It is there and it is, haphazardly, pushing back. We need to do what we can to help it out. It’s hard, but it has to be done.

50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: Grad Skool Rulz ($4.44 – cheap!!!!)/Theory for the Working Sociologist (discount code: ROJAS – 30% off!!)/From Black Power/Party in the Street / Read Contexts Magazine – It’s Awesome! 

Written by fabiorojas

August 16, 2017 at 5:10 am

at ASA? come to the blog party

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At ASA? Looking for something to do this afternoon? Like free food? Come to the blog party! 4-7pm today (Sunday Aug. 13) at Le Vieux Dublin. Full details here:

Hors d’oeuvres sponsored by SocArXiv. Hope to see you there!

Written by epopp

August 13, 2017 at 12:57 pm

Posted in uncategorized

the role of polemics (and emotions) in academic work

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I’m here in Montreal at various pre-ASA conferences, and people are still talking about “Talk is Cheap,” Colin Jerolmack and Shamus Khan’s provocative article about the problems with interviews and the superiority of participant-observation.

I don’t want to get into the argument of “Talk is Cheap” in this post (I wrote about it a bit here) but instead want to think about the role of polemics in academic writing. Some (including Professors Jerolmack and Khan) might reject the characterization of Talk is Cheap as polemic but I’m calling it that because, well, it’s brought about the kinds of reactions polemics often get: most folks I’ve heard talking about the article disagree with it, some of them with fairly intense emotion, and many of the responses I’ve read have been disagreements, some also intense. People characterize the article as having too blunt a point, missing important distinctions, being right in a lot of senses but taking the argument too far, etc. They’re also often upset by what they characterize as the argument’s aggressive bluntness. I don’t want to get too much into the weeds on this (there has already been a lot written about this article) but the title alone can at least be an index to what I’m talking about. Interviewers felt that their entire methodology was being called “cheap.”

Whether or not “Talk is Cheap” is itself a polemic, those kinds of characterizations are often what we refer to when we call something polemical. Look up the definitions of polemic and you’ll usually get words like aggressive or attack but if you dig into the usages of the word, they tend to have connotations of simplicity for the sake of an especially damning critique. That’s not to argue that polemics are simplistic: they’re often quite intellectually ornate. It’s simply to say that the basis of the critique is powerful because it is so damning. If there are two kinds of arguments, the boring and the wrong, then the polemic errs on the side of the wrong, but it is rarely if ever boring. It makes a real argument, rather than a series of hedges and calculated clarifications.

Such arguments can raise emotions because they miss those subtle distinctions, but also at least potentially because they force us to think about our priors in ways that might make us uncomfortable, maybe because those priors aren’t as stable as we might think. Yet if we can get past our frustrations at what these polemics get wrong, I think it’s worth considering how they move conversations forward, forcing people to consider more fully their assumptions and their own commitments.

There is a cynical defense of polemics, which is that they gain dozens more citations than a more careful article from what some refer to as “hate-cites.” This is a tried and true method in philosophy, where there is even more incentive and possibility for seemingly ridiculous but fascinatingly provocative arguments. Yet think about how that works in philosophy: to argue, for example, that we are all brains in a vat forces other scholars to think harder about why that’s ridiculous, to clarify their own assumptions and methods and empirics. The emotional character of a polemic adds to this (again: the definition always has aggressive and attack). We are taken aback, forced to think on our feet, getting pulled into a conversation we might otherwise have avoided or felt comfortable moving past. I don’t think there’s any necessary reason for this to be cynical. It can even be fun.

To be clear, it’s not nice to be (or to feel) attacked. And there’s a way in which academics take quite personally what they do and how they do it, so that a critique of methods can be a critique of selves. (Not to mention that sometimes such critiques of moral commitments are explicitly part of the critiques of methods or arguments.) I often talk about how I’d like for academics to be capable, in the same act, of criticism and kindness. And there are questions, when talking about polemics, about who is criticized (and by whom) and their relative capacity to respond to the critique, etc. etc. But, well, people get passionate and say passionate things, and sometimes those passionate arguments (and their equally passionate responses) produce some important movements.

Of course, it’s possible that intellectual life could move forward by just thinking carefully about new ideas as they show up, and it’s an empirical question how often that’s the case. But the sociology of emotions helps us to see how even intellectual life is also a deeply emotional life. How we react to polemics (and how they function in moving social life forward) helps us to recognize how emotions do work in intellectual exchange. Along these lines, I disagree with quite a bit (though certainly not all) of “Talk is Cheap,” but I’m extremely grateful for how it’s forced me to think (and feel).

There are other kinds of emotions we could think of, of course: an encouraging warmth rather than a rallying frustration. But the question, for me, is what gets us excited, passionate, eager to respond. And for some of us it’s simply a great idea. But for others it’s the joys of working out the argument in, well, an argument, even a fight. There’s more to write here, but it’s worth thinking more about the ways in which emotions help intellectual conversations (and arguments) to move forward and the role of polemics in that emotional work.





Written by jeffguhin

August 10, 2017 at 2:56 pm

what problems do people think antitrust is going to solve?

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Last week, I asked why antitrust is having a moment (it’s continued, on Planet Money and elsewhere), and why Democrats are using radical language to make fairly modest proposals. In this post, I’m going to ask what problems people think antitrust is going to solve, anyway.

Certainly a lot of the current concern about antitrust comes from a broad sense that corporations are too economically and politically powerful, that our economy has been restructured in ways that make ordinary people worse off, and that massive tech companies are able to use our data in ways that we have little control over. That’s political antitrust. And those are totally real issues.

But I want to explore some new questions being raised that are not exactly within the current scope of economic antitrust, but that are still kind of speaking its language—that are pushing to change the antitrust technocracy, not up-end it. To recap, as it has been construed for the last thirty-plus years, the purpose of antitrust is to promote consumer welfare, generally by trying to keep firms from being able to raise and keep prices above a competitive level. The focus is consumers, and prices.

Increasingly, though, people at least adjacent to the space of antitrust expertise are making claims about economic problems they think are being caused by lax antitrust enforcement, or that antitrust should be addressing. And those proposals are worth keeping an eye on, because as hard as it might be to change the expert consensus, it’s still more likely than a new anti-monopoly movement. (Though the two could certainly reinforce each other.) I see these new arguments as falling into basically three categories.

Market power has effects we didn’t realize

Market power is the ability to keep prices above a competitive level (i.e. above marginal cost). Once upon a time, people thought there was a fairly close relationship between how concentrated a market is—that is, how many companies control what share of the market—and how much market power firms have. Since the 1970s, there has been much less of a presumption that concentration, on its own, indicates market power. That means that there’s been less concern about whether we’ve got four airlines controlling 70% of the U.S. market, or that four carriers control 99% of the U.S. wireless market.

Increasingly, though, people are raising flags about other problems that might result from market power. One of these is labor monopsony—the idea that firms have market power, but as purchasers of labor, not sellers of products, and that this is driving wages down. The Council of Economic Advisers put out a report last fall suggesting this might be happening, and Democrats’ mention of “bargaining power for workers” implies this is part of what they’re trying to address. There are related arguments about market power in supply chains and the emergence of “winner take most” industries that also suggest links between concentration or market power and wages.

In theory, monopsony can be handled within the current legal framework, though it is rarely addressed in practice. So developing arguments about the effects of market power on workers, and a legal framework for addressing that within antitrust, is one conceivable new direction for antitrust.

Others are arguing that market power can lead firms to attach undesirable conditions to products that make them lower quality, even as price remains the same. In particular, some scholars, including Nobel Laureate Joe Stiglitz, have framed privacy as an antitrust issue: the product may be free, but consumers have no choice about how their data is used (and in the case of platforms like Facebook, no equivalent competitors). Privacy is hard to address within a framework focused purely on price. But in Europe, competition policy is increasingly tackling privacy issues, and Germany is currently investigating whether Facebook’s dominant position is forcing consumers to give up their privacy without having an alternative choice.

Market power has causes we didn’t realize

The Atlantic just featured a story with the dramatic title, “Are Index Funds Evil?” The article discusses the rise of large institutional investors—index funds, though not only index funds—and what it means that, increasingly, big chunks of competitors in a specific market are actually owned by the same few corporations. It goes on to discuss work by José Azar, Martin Schmalz, and Isabel Tecu that finds that this common ownership enhances market power, and that airline ticket prices are 3-7% higher than they would be under separate ownership.

In this story, index funds were the hook, but it just as easily could have been framed around antitrust. In a way, common ownership was the original antitrust question: the big trusts of the late 19th century were not single-firm monopolies, but competitors that had turned over ownership to a group of trustees that made unified governance decisions. And while research in this area is still new and findings tentative, legal scholars are already making the case that antitrust law can cover the anticompetitive effects of these horizontal shareholdings. If this work continues to hold up, this seems potentially transformative.

Technological change is creating new threats to competition

Finally, a fair bit of the recent chatter is basically arguing, “it’s the technology, stupid.” The dynamics of competition change as more of the economy shifts to online platforms. Because of network effects, companies like Facebook, Google, Apple, and Amazon are hard to compete with—much of their value comes from their existing user base. And because they aren’t just selling products to consumers, but connecting consumers with producers, they aren’t acquiring market power in the traditional sense. Facebook and Google are free products, after all.

But the power of network effects means that they have a tendency towards monopoly. And the fact that the four largest companies by market capitalization are platforms suggests how central platforms have become to our economy.

So we have these new companies that have become very large, and that appear monopolistic, though they also create great value for consumers. From an antitrust perspective, they don’t really appear to be a problem, because they aren’t raising prices. And the history of rapid technological change over the past 25 years, including the rise and fall of a number of once-dominant platforms, raises the question of whether even platforms behaving in anticompetitive ways pose much of a long-term threat.

Recent scholarship, though, argues that monopolistic platforms are in fact anticompetitive, that it is a problem, and that current law is poorly equipped to handle. Lina Khan’s much-circulated note in the Yale Law Journal, for example, argues that 1) platforms encourage predatory pricing—generally seen as irrational (and thus not an issue) within antitrust law—because network effects encourage pursuit of growth over profit, and 2) platforms collect data on rivals that give them an unfair competitive advantage. These sorts of issues clearly fit within the broad scope of “protecting competition,” but don’t fit easily with a consumer welfare, market power conception of antitrust.

Changing that would be a significant project, but if we have an economy that is dominated by firms whose potentially anticompetitive activity is essentially beyond the scope of antitrust, there’s not much left to antitrust. And again, the massive fine the E.U. just levied on Google—for favoring its own shopping service, consisting of companies that pay Google to be on it, over competitors in search results—suggests what this could look like. So far, the U.S. has not demonstrated much enthusiasm about expanding antitrust in this direction. But it’s not inconceivable that it could happen, and it could be done within a framework that was focused solely on competition, if not only on consumer welfare.

Again, all these challenges to the current antitrust framework are at least in the ballpark of its conversation, even if they would require pushing the law in new directions or advancing the acceptance of new economic theories. And they are not the only arguments that are in play here. For example, the question of whether inequality is facilitated by concentration or market power, or whether it has become such a central economic problem that antitrust should try to address it, have prompted enough discussion that two leading antitrust scholars have felt the need to argue that antitrust should leave inequality alone.

Unlike political antitrust, which would probably require a social movement to move it forward, these antitrust arguments have the potential to gain traction without necessarily requiring legislation or a revolution against the current antitrust regime. The 1970s shift toward Chicago-style antitrust happened, to a considerable extent, because the old economic framework seemed increasingly inadequate for explaining the world people found themselves in. As the current framework comes to seem similarly dated, this could be another moment when such change is possible.

Written by epopp

August 10, 2017 at 1:33 pm

let’s talk theory at ASA

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book cover

Dear Fellow Sociologists: Columbia University Press is kind enough to host a book signing at ASA for the Theory book. If you are around on Saturday 4:30 to 6, come to the book area. Also, my editor, the amazing Eric Schwartz, will announce times where you can meet other amazing sociologists. Check the Columbia U Press twitter feed for news.

50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: Grad Skool Rulz ($4.44 – cheap!!!!)/Theory for the Working Sociologist (discount code: ROJAS – 30% off!!)/From Black Power/Party in the Street  

Written by fabiorojas

August 9, 2017 at 2:08 am

Posted in uncategorized

why your asa section should open its paper award

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I guess I’m blogging again. I went off on this on Twitter, so thought I might as well throw it up on here too.

At ASA next week, SocArXiv is meeting with nine different sections to talk about the possibility of “opening” section paper awards. What does this mean? We’d like to see ASA sections make posting papers on SocArXiv part of the award nomination process. So if you wanted your paper to be considered for an award, you’d put it on SocArXiv, tag it “OOWScottAward” (or whatever), and that’s it. The rest of the process works the same.

Why is this a good idea? We believe that academic research shouldn’t be paywalled, and that it shouldn’t take years for research to reach an audience. Right now, academia is locked into a publishing system that relies on the labor of academics, paid for by universities, government, and the individuals themselves to make large profits for private companies. It makes universities pay through the nose so academics can read their own work, and makes it even harder for people with no academic affiliation, or an underresourced library, to access. This is not good for sociology or for academia, and it’s just not necessary. Getting the work out there, where colleagues and a broader audience can access it, isn’t that hard.

Many sociologists support greater openness. A fair number post their work on their own websites, or at, or elsewhere. But there is real value in having the work all in one place, and having that be a place that is committed to open science, rather than to monetizing your account.

By linking section awards to open access, ASA sections can help nudge sociology in this direction. Uploading to SocArXiv isn’t hard to do, but there’s an inertia factor to overcome. And since people want to win section awards, section award submissions are a good moment for overcoming it. If your paper is worth considering for an award, it should be worth sharing, and sections can help make this happen.

Making award-nominated papers open isn’t only good for the discipline, though. It’s good for the section, too. Having served on way too many section award committees in the last decade, I know that reading nominated papers is a great way to keep up with what’s going on in a subfield. This is often even more true of grad student submissions, which show you where the field is going. Why not get this great work out there sooner, and let people know the exciting things that are going on in your part of the discipline?

To sweeten the pot, SocArXiv is putting up $400 toward conference travel for the award winner of any “open” section award. We will also provide $250 of support for any individual award winner who uploaded their paper at the time they submitted to a nonparticipating section.

So if you think advancing openness is a good thing, and want to see your ASA sections support it, let them know. And if you have hesitations, bring them up in the comments — some we may be able to address, and we’d like to learn more about concerns we may not have anticipated.

(Curious what’s on SocArXiv? Here’s a few orgtheory relevant papers posted this summer:

Want more details about what SocArXiv is? Click here. Or how award opening works? See this blog post. Or ask in the comments.)

Written by epopp

August 6, 2017 at 12:28 pm