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mental health and graduate school: personal reflections

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.

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Written by fabiorojas

August 21, 2017 at 7:59 pm

7 Responses

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  1. Really sorry to hear this. Chicago?

    Liked by 1 person

    smithea1

    August 21, 2017 at 8:26 pm

  2. Yes. Great intellectual tradition, but definitely lacked in support. I genuinely hope things have improved since my days nearly 15 years ago.

    Liked by 2 people

    fabiorojas

    August 21, 2017 at 8:28 pm

  3. Having norms is really important. Graduate students have no metric for determining what treatment is unreasonable (vs. simply annoying) if there are no clearly elaborated standards. And while it is obviously difficult, if not impossible, to require graduate faculty to comply with these norms, directors of graduate studies could make a habit of checking in with graduate students to ensure they are getting at least de minimus support and feedback and helping them switch advisors if they are not. The problems Fabio detailed here are not at all rare; those among us who believe our graduate programs were supportive probably haven’t heard all the stories from those who did not have a healthy experience.

    Liked by 2 people

    Mikaila

    August 22, 2017 at 3:40 am

  4. Fabio, you’re a gem of a human being.

    Liked by 1 person

    milkwave

    August 23, 2017 at 3:35 am

  5. I agree with what Mikaila said. In addition, people have to rely on their dissertation advisor and committee members for formal and informal recommendations when they start their career search, so people are less likely to assert themselves when they’re displeased with their advisor or committee

    Liked by 1 person

    Chris Martin

    August 23, 2017 at 4:58 pm

  6. Thanks for sharing your experience, Fabio. Some universities also offer support groups, led by an experienced facilitator.

    Liked by 1 person

    katherinechen

    August 23, 2017 at 7:15 pm


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