To Be Conditionally Unaccepted: When You Are Denied Tenure

crowderRev. Dr. Stephanie Buckhanon Crowder (@stepbcrowder) is the Director of Theological Field Education at Chicago Theological Seminary (full biography at the end).  In this guest blog post, Dr. Chowder reflects on the painful experience of being denied tenure, but also on bouncing back, and even seeing the “silver lining,” in this (temporary) professional setback.  She offers some tips for other scholars who have been denied tenure to remain resilient.


To Be Conditionally Unaccepted

“Isn’t it crazy how the world tries to make us ashamed of so much.” I heard this recently from someone describing shame emanating from unexpected health challenges. Things beyond our control can so quickly become a source of embarrassment. Pride, professional expectations, and pretention easily spiral to chagrin. When plans do not go, well, according to plan, it is common to press the “shame on you” default button. Discussing success is the academy is a no-brainer. Yet, what happens when the publishing path takes a wrong turn? What is our recourse when tenure denial attempts to catapult us off a cliff? There are times when the hallowed halls of academia do not accept us. We become the conditionally unaccepted.

Academia is a polemic. Much of it is public thought and research in the hands private people. Whereas our teaching, lectures, and publishing are on display for all to see, so many of us are introverts. We realize for the sake of survival and networking, we have to share ideas and garner feedback. Social media makes tooting our own horns just a click away…done. However, there is reticence and embarrassment when the things do not go so well. We quickly go further inward, almost regretting that we can out to play in the first place. I believe that instead of shaming ourselves or letting the difficulties of the academy force us inside, painful watershed moments are times to embrace the outside.

A few years ago, I was experiencing my own tenure drama. I knew as the first African American and third woman in this department’s history it was an uphill battle. The percentage of faculty of color at the university in general was dismal. Both an African American and a Latino professor had been denied tenure within four years.

This did not look good for me, and it did not go well. For five years at the end of every semester, I was summoned to the “principal’s office.” A parent’s phone call, a student’s email, an evaluation or comment, and there I was waiting to hear the charges and my subsequent “punishment.” It all culminated in the dean telling me six months before my tenure portfolio was due that I would not get the administration’s support. Forty classes, six hundred students, and numerous missed events in the lives of my children – for naught?!!

My immediate response, of course, was to run and hide. Well, actually, my immediate response was to leave the office, less I spoke or acted unprofessionally. So, I reached out to trusted colleagues and advisors. I told my story. I shared my experiences and sought wise counsel. These actions became life-saving and life-affirming for me.

I offer the following to persons for whom the academy has taken its toll:

  1. Process. Take the time to muddle through and accept your various emotions. Rejection is more than a notion. Anger, embarrassment, and sadness take turns as daily dance partners. Meditate on how you feel. Grab a journal. Write a letter to those who scorned you, but please don’t email it or post it to Facebook.
  2. Tell. Too often we are ashamed when the bad surfaces, especially in the polished, refined world of higher education. Sharing our experiences is cathartic. You must tell your own story. Academia is large and yet so small. Social media makes the private, public knowledge in just a few seconds. People know or will find out sooner or later. So, you tell it. Furthermore, you are not the first or only one to have such a harrowing experience, and you won’t be the last.
  3. Trust. I went to people who had been where I was trying to go. I needed to know what to do next. Surround yourself with people beyond your career grade. Their resources can prove invaluable. If I had not been forthcoming about my own career crossroads, I would not have known about my current opportunity.
  4. Do the do. Just because it did not work out at one institution does not mean you are a bad professor. It could have just a bad fit. For people of color in the academy, there are some colleges and universities that are hard on our spirits. I was able to teach adjunct a year after my tenure experience. My publishing schedule has been amazingly full. Sometimes it is a matter of finding a hospitable context. We must find the place that will nurture the work that our souls must have.
  5. Discern. Try to look for the magnificence in the madness. My interest in biblical studies and pop culture piqued because I was trying to find a way to connect to students at my former institution. That may not have come to fruition had I not wrestled with trying to be a better teacher, even in a hostile environment. To this day I am still intrigued at how the bible appears in peculiar places.
  6. Mentor. There are students and upcoming professionals who need to learn from us. Much instruction emanates from our challenges as well as our successes. The professor-university connection is a relationship. It looks one way during the dating game, but marriage is different phenomenon. Sometimes marriages end in divorce. Sharing this narrative with persons fresh out of grad school is just as important as sharing a syllabus or teaching tips.

The “shame” from not getting to next can leave us devastated. Rejections like gut-punches leave us breathless. Just know somewhere is a space that will indeed breathe new life into you. We must fight to do the work we were destined to do and in the end, accept ourselves.



Stephanie Buckhanon Crowder holds a Ph.D. in New Testament from Vanderbilt University. She is the Director of Theological Field Education at Chicago Theological Seminary and serves on the ACTS DMin in Preaching Program Committee. She has written numerous scholarly articles and frequently blogs for ON Scripture and The Huffington Post. Her book on womanist maternal thought is due next spring.

I Suffer From Tenure-Track Stress


I have heard the term before — tenure-track stress.  I have decided to recognize it as a real condition, one that encompasses a set of stressors associated with the tenure-track for junior faculty.  As a critical medical sociologist, I am hesitant to medicalize yet another social experience, recognizing that the illness and appropriate cure lie within the individual sufferer rather than society — or, in this case, academia.  But, like minority stress (i.e., prejudice, discrimination, and stigmatization that threaten the well-being of minority groups), the qualifier — tenure-track  – explicitly denotes the external source of such stress.

As I understand the tenure-track, it represents a probationary period in which one is expected to establish themselves as a scholar (i.e., research, teaching, service — in that order…).  The carrot that dangles at the end of the stick is lifetime job security (or “lifetime” “job security,” with scare quotes, depending on your perspective).  Cut-throat, status-obsessed colleges and universities tend to take a “sink or swim” approach, others attempt to offer transparency and support to facilitate success on the tenure track, and, still others defy classification because they don’t have a clear approach to the tenure-track process.  Ironically, the demands to achieve tenure have steadily risen over time as such positions have become more rare (i.e., 75 percent of PhDs do not secure a tenure-track position after they graduate).

Origins Of Tenure-Track Stress

Recently, I discovered that the path to earning tenure (for me, as with most, a 6 year period [2013-2019]) has brought on a high level of stress that I have never experienced before.  In my six years of graduate school, I felt stressed about the dreaded academic job market and publishing to improve my odds on it; but, I never doubted that I would graduate.  Despite my success as a PhD student, even defying expectations, I regularly carry doubt and anxiety about earning tenure.  Though too infrequently, I sometimes stood up to professors, I let my voice be heard, but I never feared that I would be dismissed from the program.  Now, as a professor, I am relieved each day that I have not been fired.  Grad schools have a 50 percent completion rate, but around 80 percent of assistant professors earn tenure.  It is literally irrational, as indicated by these numbers, for me to fret about tenure while I assumed success in grad school.

What is unique about the tenure-track, then?  The two most obvious differences for me are the loss of readily accessible mentorship and peer support.  The training wheels have come off.  I am certainly welcome to email or call my dissertation committee members and friends from graduate school — but, only once in a while.  Even if they didn’t take issue with more frequent contact, my own self-doubt would gnaw at me if I felt that I needed help often.  My grad program did its job in getting me into a faculty position to carry on with the same success, but also continue to grow professionally.  Senior colleagues at my current institution are available for advice, but I cannot expect them to mentor me intensely; I would do myself a disservice to let those who will evaluate me for tenure suspect that I cannot handle the job on my own.

I also want to suggest that the expectations for tenure are growing and, yet, still ambiguous.  But, I would never conclude that the expectations to graduate (and subsequently get a job) were easy and transparent.  My grad department had few explicit milestones, wherein success in a broad sense was to be learned through independent research (i.e., dissertation, thesis, other projects).  In either context, when I ask 10 people what it takes to be successful, I receive 10 different answers (if not more).  So, I cannot say confidently that the tenure-track is more stressful because of unclear standards.

Of course, there are a great deal more expectations.  My advisors were not lying when they joked that graduate students have a lot of free time relative to faculty (at least in terms of work).  The teaching load increases (for many, if not most, of us), the service requests pile up, all while we must publish more and become more visible in our discipline and subfields.  Each day, I feel pulled between self-care (so that I do not burn myself out before I even file for tenure) and getting everything done (so that I won’t be asked to leave before tenure).  Oh, and sprinkle in trying to find ways to make a difference in the world!

There is also another, somewhat perverse source of tenure-track stress: you are expected to be stressed.  I don’t mean the process is so stressful that we have come to expect it; this is a given.  I mean that some colleagues have indicated that it is a part of my job to be stressed.  I have noticed that some tend to evaluate the worth of junior faculty, in part, based on how stressed they are.  Being “cool, calm, and collected” is seen as suspicious; such lucky bastards people must not be doing enough (including just worrying).  I have acknowledged that I sometimes play into this because a self-doubting, validation-needing junior professor (male privilege acknowledged, here) can win the sympathy and support of senior colleagues that a confident, self-assured (read: smug, arrogant, uppity) junior professor would not.  I am guilty of playing the role expected of me as a tenure-track professor.

Symptoms Of Tenure-Track Stress

Having experienced Generalized Anxiety Disorder for almost 5 years now, I recognize that tenure-track stress shares symptoms with other forms of distress and mental illness.  (And, I recognize that my own case of tenure-track stress is exacerbated by my preexisting, actually-in-the-DSM mental illness.)  There’s constant worry, insomnia, neglecting self-care, and various physical symptoms (e.g., headache, depressed immune function, body aches).  But, I have found there are unusual symptoms that suggest tenure-track stress is its own beast.  I will sprink in some treatments and “cures” along the way, as well.

Constant Comparisons With Others

I began 2015 doing one thing that I said I would stop doing in 2014: comparing myself to others.  My laptop was already on since my partner and I watched the ball drop online on new year’s eve in New York city; otherwise, I try to stay off of the computer when I am at home as a drastic means of leaving work at work.  I stumbled across a fellow academic’s blog, seeing just how much money they had received through grants.  “What am I doing with my life?” I wondered.  Frustrated, I went to bed, only to spiral from envy about grants to anxiety about my slow-moving projects.  This was not the way I wanted to start the new year.

I have sometimes wondered, “we can do that?” — especially when I hear about friends’ and colleagues’ novel and unusual accomplishments.  Soon-to-be-Dr. Tressie McMillan Cottom compiled some of her blog posts into a book.  We can do that?  Dr. Manya Whitaker started her own business.  We can do that — and before tenure?  A few friends have broken the “lavender ceiling” in sociology by publishing on sexualities in the discipline’s top journals.  We’re doing that now?  I am incredibly happy that my talented friends are beginning to share their smarts with the world in incredible ways.  But, I would be lying if I said that I wasn’t a little green with envy.

Besides these comparisons to junior faculty and advanced grad students, I sometimes look at the CVs of established senior colleagues as though they were baseball trading cards.  And, while I admire their work for a nanosecond, I reliably fall into the trap of feeling inadequate.  “There’s no way I can accomplish all of that!” I say discouragingly to myself.  “There’s no way I can publish all of that,” I think as I look at the CVs of peers and senior colleagues at research-intensive universities.  It is illogical — yes, it simply defies logic — for me to compare myself at a liberal arts college, only 1.75 years into the tenure-track, to scholars nearing retirement, as well as those of any seniority at other institutions.  I have found some solace in remembering to use senior colleagues at my own institution as indicators of successful tenure cases.  But, even then, the comparisons elicit some anxiety.

I suspect the cure, at least for this symptom, is to recognize that I will never find a fair comparison, and to appreciate that there are many ways to be an academic.  It is unfair to compare my record to those of others because I do not know every detail of their personal and professional lives.  Some people are wildly successful in terms of publishing because they are supported by research assistants who are paid but not given authorship credit.  Some publish more slowly because their method requires a long, painstaking process of data coding and analysis.  Some people are “rockstars” but are miserable, some people have a few pubs but are content.  More importantly, I must remind myself that publishing is only one task; I also deeply value teaching, academic service, community service, and activism.

Self-Doubt And Selling Myself Short

I have come to recognize that these comparisons are a consequence of the desire to become an academic rockstar.  But, it has taken me a little while longer to recognize that I tend to unknowingly discount my own accomplishments, talents, and strengths in comparing myself to others.  On the tenure-track front, I’m not doing so bad for myself — two publications in print with another on the way, a dissertation award, one paper currently under review with a few more in the works for this year.  I am competent enough in my classes to receive generally positive course evaluations, with numerous students taking subsequent courses with me.  I served on my department’s job search last semester, and am becoming more involved with the university’s LGBTQ office.  And, despite warnings of my impending irrelevance by taking a liberal arts job, I have been invited to run or be appointed for various positions in my discipline.  I think it is safe to say I am doing alright for a 30-year-old.

Sure, I will toot my own horn once more.  This blog’s visibility has spread farther and more quickly than I could have ever imagined.  I was recently surprised to begin seeing other people share our posts in Facebook groups before I did.  A few people have referred to Conditionally Accepted as a resource.  Sure, the blog is not a book (yet?), or an organization/business (yet???), or a publication in some top journal (but, I’ve got other projects in mind).  But, not many people can say they have a platform outside of the classroom, outside of university meetings, and outside of academic journals to speak publicly about inequality in academia.  I deserve to give myself a little more credit for creating such a space, while still being successful at things that “count” for tenure and maintaining some semblance of work-life balance.

And, in general, I do not have a record of major failures in my professional life.  Sure, I stumbled at the beginning of college, and then again in graduate school.  I started college in a scholarship program that was not a good fit academically (and socially and politically); but, I was able to switch to an open scholarship and then thrived as a sociology major.  I started graduate school miserable, totally unprepared for the professional socialization process and naive about inequality in the academy.  But, I eventually secured a fellowship, which allowed me to graduate early with a great job lined up.  The tenure-track has not started with a stumble (knock on wood), which may mean that I’ll be even more successful without time lost on regrouping, reevaluating, naivete, etc.  I would say that I am pretty resilient, especially with the support of family, friends, and colleagues.  Doubting my success as a professor just doesn’t make sense, but I still struggle with self-doubt.


A symptom related to discounting my success thus far is a self-imposed demand for immediate success.  I have been provided six years to establish myself before filing for tenure.  Yet, I have repeatedly told myself “if only I can get that ASR, then I can relax!”  That is, once I have achieved the gold standard of scholarship — in this case, publishing in the top journal in sociology, American Sociological Review – then there is little doubt that I have proven myself as a scholar.  Of course, I feel behind because I know of a few PhDs who already had ASRs before graduation, and have come across junior scholars with that gold star on their CVs.

What I tend to forget, besides the foolishness of comparing myself, is that scholars grow and progress at different speeds, along different paths.  I am keenly aware that those with ASRs before tenure, or even before graduation, are generally white, cis men, straight, and/or from middle-class families, and did not struggle during the first two years of graduate school.  They didn’t waste time and energy trying to navigate (and, sometimes, fight against) the professional socialization of graduate school.  And, most who I know aren’t attempting to publish on marginal scholarship (e.g., sexualities, trans studies, intersectionality).  An ASR for my relatively privileged colleagues is a professional success; for me, it will feel like a damn victory for every underdog in academia.

I have been reminded by other underdog colleagues that achieving that gold star is not only rare, but extremely rare early in one’s career.  For most who achieve an ASR or their own field’s equivalent, it took the culmination of year’s of work, building up to some discipline-moving idea.  It takes time to build up one’s reputation and for the resistance against one’s ideas to lessen.  It is silly to think that I would reach such great heights so early in my career.  I am confident that I will publish in ASR in the years to come, and the reward will be that much sweeter for having to work for it rather than getting it right away.

I should note that this symptom is almost exclusive to the domain of research.  I don’t find myself racing to start a new class, or to prepare lectures weeks in advance, or to get to a department meeting, and so forth.  I feel much more calm and content when I think of research, along with everything else, as just a part of my 8am-6pm job.  Slow and steady wins the race!

Self-Restraint And Waiting For Permission

While a pat on the head, and being told “easy tiger,” would assuage some of my impatience, I still acknowledge that I hold back on doing certain things that I would like to do.  As I said earlier, some neat things are simply outside of my purview — “wow, we can do that?”  It is as though I am waiting for permission (i.e., tenure) to begin living, to begin taking chances as a scholar, to begin being myself.  Frankly, I am too scared to do certain things that I worry will lead to a tenure denial or a tarnished/non-existent academic reputation in general.  I obsess daily about what to wear to work, fearing that anything short of a suit and tie is too casual but also hating the discomfort of professional attire designed for skinny white bodies.  I often feel on edge in my interactions with colleagues, administration, and students, worrying I might slip and reveal my true self.  Despite being vocal (but still restrained) online, I bite my tongue and downplay my radical activist self at work.  Who am I fooling?  (Myself.)

This self-restraint is fueled by fear, as well as relying on models of success who don’t look like me and don’t share my values and goals.  I do myself a huge disservice by thinking inside the box — what does it mean to be successful by mainstream academic standards?  Sure, I pushed back against the pressure to “go R1,” and I publicly declared my efforts to do tenure my way.  But, I would be lying if I said I didn’t cling to normative academic standards as markers for success.  I know, in being “conditionally accepted” in academia, I can be all of these identities or I can do radical work (including activism) — but, not both if I expect to be taken seriously in the mainstream of sociology.  I don’t see many outspoken fat multiracial queer feminist men in academia… or any, really, besides me.  So, why risk my position?  Would I rather keep my job or empower my communities?  Would I rather wear a noose tie or demand that my medical sociology class focus on transgender health?

Maybe there aren’t others who identically mirror my social location, values, and goals.  But, there are others who have been thinking outside of the box for years.  They haven’t been waiting for permission to speak, to critique, to exist.  I am embarrassed to admit that I have only recently really paid attention to Sociologists for Women in Society — a professional organization that explicitly notes that it helps to “nurture feminist scholarship and make both the academy and the broader society a more just and feminist place.”  I’ve known of SWS all along, but never got more involved than paying membership dues.  Unfortunately, I couldn’t attend this year’s winter meeting, and my summer plans remain up in the air; but, I seriously considered attending once I saw that the organization genuinely lives up to this mission.  For years, I have only seriously been involved in the discipline’s major organization, American Sociological Association, because I have clung to the “mainstream.”  I have missed out on involvement in the Association for Black Sociologists, Society for the Study of Social Problems, among other critical and activist oriented organizations.

This symptom of tenure-track stress, the denial of my own authenticity, will slowly eat me alive if I leave it unchecked.  I risk finding myself either completely “souled out” (albeit tenured) or bitter and exhausted, perhaps having left academia all together.  I learned early in graduate school that feeding my soul was just as crucial to my survival as feeding my body.  I seem to have forgotten that lesson — or, the intense effort to de-radicalize my image while on the job market caused this amnesia.  I recognize now that my ticket to gracefully crossing the finish line to tenure is to be successful while being myself.  I made sure to accept a job offer at a place that promised to support me as me, so it’s about time I took the school up on it.

Closing Thoughts

I did my time in graduate school.  I emerged that traumatic chapter of my life alive, albeit bruised and battered from efforts to “beat the activist” out of me.  I am slow to trust others’ assessments of my success because I have been doubted and dismissed in the past.  But, I must overcome tenure-track stress once and for all.  To the extent that I can, I aim to enjoy the ride, appreciating the feedback and support I receive along the way.  I aim to do tenure my way so that I can mentor future junior colleagues with confidence, rather than advise them to to sell out, shut up, and stress out.  There is more than one way to be a successful academic, and one of them should never be “just be stressed 24/7.”

On Being Autistic In Academia

AutismIn this guest blog post, Stella S. (a pseudonym) shares her experiences as an autistic academic, and offers advice for other autistic scholars (and everyone else) on communication, networking, and navigating academia while being visibly different.

The Impact Of Being Autistic In Academia

I’m autistic.

There, I said it in an academic space for the first time and even though I am writing under a pseudonym, it feels good. I was diagnosed later in life, after I became a PhD researcher (which I still am). Just because it took longer for me to know does not mean that you should call me “high-functioning” or “mild” or any other word that is supposed to make you feel better about my autism. I only identify as “autistic,” thank you very much.

I don’t personally know anyone in academia who is openly autistic. Due to this, I find it hard sometimes to make sense of where I belong.

This made me want to write a little bit about some of the ways that academia makes me feel inadequate and how I am trying to mitigate this. I hope that that this may make some people more aware of the issues autistics face. I pass as a neurotypical (i.e., non-autistic) and no one in my professional life knows about my autism. This has an effect on my well-being and my mental health, though. As I have started to make sense of my own narrative, I have often felt guilt over my autism. Being publicly autistic does not feel safe due to the amount of people who see it as an excuse or a trend. It is very difficult to consciously care for myself while also having to strain myself to do certain things because I cannot explain why it is causing me distress.

I feel that if more people knew about what it is like to be an autistic academic, they may take us into account. This may, in turn, make us feel more comfortable to be publicly autistic in academic spaces. You should note that autistics have widely different profiles in abilities, so I am not suggesting that my difficulties will be shared at large. Some of my difficulties will also be shared by neurotypicals: the difference between you and me, though, will be their amount, their intensity, and the impact they have.

For this particular entry I will talk specifically about communication, networking, and being visibly different. Although the advice I will suggest is based on my own experience, I am hoping that people of varying strengths and weaknesses, autistic or not, will find them helpful.


I thrive in clear communication. What I found upon entering the world of academia, though, is a lot of rubbish talk, politics talk, and talk that suggests power relations, to name but a few. I particularly struggle in face-to-face communication, and I may be slower to process what is being said.

My advice:

  • It is ok to ask for clarification in class, meetings, or talks. This may seem obvious, but it can be hard to feel free to ask questions when everyone around looks as though they are getting everything quickly, feeling the pressure to sound and look “clever” at all times.
  • If the situation allows it and you have everyone’s approval, recording a class or meeting may be an option. This will allow you to review what was being said later on, freeing your mind to listen and get involved, instead of having to listen, take notes, and get involved, which can get overwhelming.
  • If this is a meeting where things to do are being decided, you can ask that an email be sent around outlining what will happen next. If this is a meeting with your advisor, you can send an updated agenda at the end with basic notes and ask them to check.
  • Take your time to find out whom you can trust, as well as whom you may not be able to trust. While I find that the “cheerful” and “outgoing” student often seems to be a must (and I am very good at acting “cheerful” and “outgoing” myself), I have realized that people can manage to be this way while not giving away their trust. This is particularly important if you struggle to analyze who is “safe” and who is not.

What autism is not


Boy, isn’t networking so important in our work? At least that is what I keep hearing, seeing, and experiencing. Networking is extremely difficult for me. I have observed a group of people who know nothing about each other in the morning and leave happily networked in the afternoon. Yet, I’ve spent the day on the side-line, trying to start a conversation or say something, but am unable to do so. It can take me days to recover after an event that entails heavy networking.

My advice:

  • Observe, observe, observe. Admittedly, I am still in the observation phase, but I am trying to find ways that people use to network so that I can imitate them. That said, not everyone’s style will suit you: don’t fall into the trap of doing things that are completely out of character either.
  • What I struggle with the most is finding how to start the conversation. Once it is going, I can manage a lot better. If you know someone at an academic event, follow their lead. There may also be opportunities for you to talk that will make people want to come and talk to you themselves, such as Q&As after talks and presentations. Otherwise, hovering around seated areas may be a way to include yourself in a conversation.
  • Ask people about their research. People love to talk about their research and this may be an easy way in.
  • Do not talk too much about yourself. Yes, people love an enthusiastic student, but if you’re anything like me, you may struggle with turn-taking in conversations. I find that taking deep breaths at regular intervals can help to give time for the other person to intervene and reply, if they wish to.
  • Twitter! I found that this is a great way for me to network and feel like I am doing something positive. It also makes it easier to connect with other disabled academics, who may not be otherwise visible to you. I still need a limit or I run the risk of feeling overwhelmed, but it works a lot better than face-to-face interactions.

Being Visibly Different

Even though there are lots of friendly people around in academia, it can be difficult to be visibly different. Disclosure involves risks, and it puts you in a vulnerable position. Finding people you can trust with this information is not a given, as autism is so misunderstood. While I don’t feel I have been actively discriminated against, I know that I have missed certain opportunities because of the way I act and talk. On any given occasion, people may assume I am cold and unenthusiastic. At the other extreme, I may be seen as overenthusiastic, which can perceived just as badly. Imposter syndrome put aside, I also know that I can simply come across as “not quite having it together.”

My advice:

  • If you are not already doing so, I would suggest you start looking at the blogs of some autistic activists such as Autistic Hoya and Neurowonderful. There is acceptance and a sense of identity to be found by taking part in the autistic online community.
  • Take small steps. The day I attended a training day and used my usual self-soothing techniques throughout the training (this is called “stimming”) was a liberating day. This involved a “tangle,” an object that I was seemingly “playing” with, but actually helps me to stay focused. No one dared to ask what this was. I acted as though I belonged, like my tangle belonged. I owned it. I acted like it was normal. Because it is – for me.

Closing Comments

Being an autistic in academia isn’t easy. I read all the advice out there for students and feel as though much of it does not apply to me. Sometimes, after a long day of real life interaction, I feel as though everyone is so peppy and good, and I’m just a mess who needs to leave the room regularly for sensory reasons.

Fellow autistic academics – you’re here, though. You made it so far. You belong. Your autistic self also has a lot to offer. Your research probably links to your special interest. You’re driven. The networking and the interviewing and the need to be known (because you need to show that you are making an “impact”) can be overwhelming. But, remember that academia offers you so, so, so many opportunities to be cooped up in front of a computer focusing on what you love.

Advice On Applying To And Choosing A Graduate Program

zandriaDr. Zandria F. Robinson (@zfelice) is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at University of Memphis (see her full biography at the end).  In this guest post, Dr. Robinson offers advice to prospective graduate students — particularly those from marginalized backgrounds — on applying to and selecting graduate programs.  In particular, she emphasizes the importance of being able to survive and thrive in graduate school, not merely the prestige of the program.


Take It From Me: Get Your (Grad Application) Life!

In the fall of 2004, in my second year of a Master of Arts program in sociology at the University of Memphis, I applied to doctoral programs. In 2005, I matriculated Northwestern University, started a tenure-track job at The University of Mississippi in 2009, and earned the PhD in 2010. That same year, I shepherded my first advisee, who recently became ABD at The University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, through the process. I am young enough to still remember (and be jaded by) the ups and downs of the process but experienced enough to have sat on admissions committees myself and helped students through the process. Based on these experiences, here are a few tips gleaned from luck, trial and error, and social and cultural capital, for how to think about your graduate application process.

If you applied to graduate school last fall for the 2015-2016 academic year, you might be furiously scouring rumor mills (Stop it. Now.), drinking even more than usual (Fine…), and/or cleaning out random junk drawers that you’ve left untouched for months as you wait for decisions (Yes.). If you didn’t apply last fall and are planning to apply this year, then this is just the time to choose your vices and spring-cleaning tasks for next year’s agonizing wait. This is also an ideal time to solicit advice about, develop, and edit your list of schools; to begin thinking about how you will craft your statement of purpose, and prepare your letter writers for the fall onslaught. This post is broadly about choosing a program—both ones to apply to (application fees are expensive) and how to select where to go once you have been admitted.

The most important piece of advice I can offer is that you must choose a program that suits you and maximizes your return on investment. Shortly before I applied to doctoral programs, I experienced a family tragedy that, for a brief period, dramatically altered the way I thought about choosing PhD programs. Instead of going to top programs with the best fit for my work, I considering going to programs that were closer to home but decidedly not a good fit for me. Somewhere along the way, Black Feminist Jesus intervened and reminded me that a doctoral program was a serious commitment, and not just the completion of another task that would result in some additional letters behind my name. This was going to be my career, if not forever, for a significant and non-negligible period. And it was going to cost me money and time and sanity, all of which I had in short supply. I had to go best or not go at all, even if that meant some sacrifices. In my view, going best means going to the most highly ranked school possible that is also highly ranked in your area of specialization and a good fit for who you are as an individual and a scholar. Fit—by which I mean the intellectual environment and support available to your distinctive needs in a place; program diversity; and place/community diversity—is foremost and all the things. A top program into which you do not fit is not a top program for you.

Program, Don’t Kill My Vibe

It is essential that you choose a program whose ideals, feel, and values align with your own. This can be difficult for scholars on the margins, as no program will completely reflect our experiences and worldview. This is also difficult when you are just beginning to generate reflexive ideas about who you are as a scholar in a discipline. But here are some basic considerations:

Can you see your work fitting in with the department based on recent faculty work and current students’ research interests and dissertation titles? Does the program purposely or unintentionally foster competition amongst graduate students by awarding funding to some and not others, or through some other intangible means? Are you an ethnographer applying to a highly quantitative program that has only one star ethnographer? Are you an interdisciplinary scholar applying to a program where people do not interact with people in other departments, let alone collaborate with them?

Why these questions? More than other groups, scholars on the margins have to think critically about the endgame: the post-graduation plan. You need as many choices as possible for faculty to serve on your dissertation committee. Faculty are mobile, even at the associate and full professor levels, and if you have put all of your eggs in one faculty person’s basket, their departure could be highly disruptive and disheartening. You also need as many professors to write good, solid letters for you as possible. For predoctoral fellowships. For dissertation fellowships. For assistant professor jobs. For associate professor jobs. Forever. 5ever. I am saddened by the number of students who contact me whose mentors have been unhelpful, sabotaging, and/or unresponsive. To paraphrase those philosophical sages Sugar Hill Gang: if your mentor is acting up, you need to be able to switch and take her/his friend.

What strategies should you employ to figure out if this program will kill your vibe? Ask current and former graduate students. Do as much diligent investigative work as possible. Write to these students and current faculty with whom you might work with a concise elevator speech about your work and ask them explicitly about fit. And most importantly, do not think that you are Special Snowflake of Color. If a POC graduate student tells you something troubling about his or her experience of a program, do not think that it will not happen to you. Because more than likely, it will. Also, most students will not share negative experiences, even if they are planning to leave a program when you contact them or visit. While most of us do not have mind-reading capabilities, you must read between the lines, triangulate, and use whatever data you acquire to assess what you will be getting into.

Place Matters

You are a person of color or otherwise a scholar on the margins. You are not built to survive in Whiteheterolandia. You need community beyond your graduate program, and you will not have very much time or mental space to be intentional about building community. And even if you do, you should not be using that time to build communities. You should be using it to publish. Do not believe that lie that graduate school is only x number of years and you can survive in White Mayo Bumfuckery Township for that bit of time. Maybe you can, maybe you cannot. The question is, what piece of your soul will it cost you, and can you afford the fee? Can you wait until you go back home to get a decent haircut? If you can’t get a decent haircut, you probably can’t find a decent friend or date either. Place matters.

Sorry, Jill. One Is Not the Magic Number!

You are not a unicorn. You are only a unicorn in a racist, sexist, homophobic, ableist, and transphobic structure. Don’t go to a program where you are the only one. You ain’t got to be the first one to integrate a thing. This is a warning sign and reflects one of two realities. First, scholars on the margins have looked at the demographic profile of Whiteheterolandia and decided that this place is not even worth it; and/or the program has not made effective efforts to recruit scholars from a multiplicity of backgrounds. This goes for the faculty and the graduate student body. If a program has not made the recruitment strides, then it certainly cannot make the retention strides.

Closing Thoughts

To reiterate, as you are entering the process and making choices if and when you are accepted, take careful inventory of who you are as a person and a scholar, as well as who you would like to become and what you would like to do with your scholarly awesomeness after graduation. Then, match that reality with all of the information you can gather about programs in which you are interested. Don’t dwell on the negatives. But don’t shy away from them either, even if they complicate how you think about a particular program in which initially you had been very interested.

And if you do not get in this year, don’t fret. Strange things happen in admissions deliberations, and this is on top of racism, sexism, classism, elitism (everyone in my cohort had gone to a top 20 and/or Ivy institution save for one other person), homophobia, transphobia, and quota politics. Admission, or lack thereof, is not a reflection of who you are or the value of your work. But, tackling questions of fit and doing your homework on departments will increase your odds in the crapshoot, and will moreover help you rest assured that you did, and are doing, the right thing in your application process for yourself and your vision of the endgame.



Zandria F. Robinson is a native Memphian and Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of Memphis. She earned the Bachelor of Arts in Literature and African American Studies and the Master of Arts in Sociology at the University of Memphis. She holds the PhD in Sociology from Northwestern University. Her research interests include urban and cultural sociology, black feminist theory, and popular culture. Her book, This Ain’t Chicago: Race, Class, and Regional Identity in the Post-Soul South (The University of North Carolina Press, 2014), focuses on the intersections of race, class, gender, and region in African American identity. Robinson blogs about race, region, and popular culture at New South Negress and tweets about all manner of things @zfelice.

Excellence As A Survival Strategy For Black Women In Academia

DelleaDellea K. Copeland (@delleacopeland) is a first-year graduate student in Political Science at Penn State University.  In this guest post, Dellea writes about unsuccessful attempts to downplay her Blackness in order to appease her white colleagues — energy that she has recently realized is best spent on the best revenge yet: professional excellence.  As a Black queer womyn, she has learned early in her graduate training that she must prioritize her survival in academia in order to succeed and thrive.



I am a 22-year-old queer womyn of color, first generation college graduate, first generation American. I wear my afro like it’s 1969. I speak openly about patriarchy and racism. On my desk, you will find an American flag that says “Black Lives Matter”, inspirational book of quotes by Black womyn, and even a copy of Essence magazine. My desk is the first thing you see when you walk into the office. Make no mistake – a Black womyn lives here.

These things have nothing to do with my research and everything to do with my survival. As a first year graduate student, I am still trying on survival mechanisms. From closing the office door and crying with my colleagues to unapologetically tweeting my frustrations, I am figuring out what works for me.

I did not come into graduate school this way. I was timid, wary of expressing myself, and constantly oscillating between “souling out”, as Eric penned. I tied up my natural hair, bottled up my “militant” (otherwise known as passionate, pained, emotional, or revolutionary – depending on your color) speeches when Mike Brown was murdered, and aimed to please my new peers. There was a person in my department whom I was glad to know, having moved all the way up north from the same area of the country. I soon learned he was from the more rural, conservative (read: racist) area of our state, as his remarks became more markedly classist and sexist.

I guess it was the confederate flag tattoo that really put me over the edge. I gave up trying to please and began a crusade against this person and all others who think like him. Every infraction was reported to administration; otherwise I personally opened a can of whoop ass.

But this is tiring. I didn’t come here for this.

I will never tell someone not to stand up for him or herself, but I will stress the importance of prioritizing. Are we here to fix stupid or are we here to be scholars? (“Are we gladiators? Or are we bitches?”) In other words, do their comments and opinions prevent us from achieving the bigger picture? My white friend and colleague is in the process of her personal crusade and has reached the moment where it’s become consuming. I periodically remind her of an ancient Negro proverb:

“Don’t let white boys who wear flip flops tell you shit.”

This is not always easy. I recently had a particularly difficult week with my colleagues speaking over me, calling me “lazy,” and giving me all the eye contact when talking about minority issues. (I am not the only racial minority, but I am the darkest in the room.) These behaviors are especially frustrating because we have been over this. We have had workshops and meetings until the end of time, yet there are days when I can’t get out of bed and face these people. These people who make me feel different and unimportant. These people who probably wear flip flops! As I write this, I am in the beginning of a three day “positivity weekend.” A much needed retreat from the smog of bitterness that has clouded my judgment. My email is off; I am not taking calls; I am not reading the news. I will not discuss white supremacy, graduate school, or engage with people from the office. I will watch Scandal, read Assata Shakur’s autobiography, listen to “Black” podcasts – basically be in my safe space so that I may recuperate and re-examine my purpose here. For the next three days, I belong to me.

As a Black womyn at a predominantly-white institution (PWI) (and a small town), it is not simply the lack of color that makes me feel isolated. It is the lack of understanding. When I can’t breathe, I run to my advisor and department friends who are wonderful allies because they listen and sympathize. I try to Skype with friends who are simultaneously going through this experience. I read blogs and connect with similar people on Twitter. I religiously listen to podcasts, not for the amusement, but to hear my own tongue. I don’t have friends here whom I can relax around and speak AAVE (African American Vernacular English). For some, it may be helpful to join the Black student groups on campus, but I found this insufficient. Again, it’s not about color. It’s about having a mutual understanding and enjoying cultural bonds. Simply put, Blackness is not necessarily an indication of one’s politics or cultural associations.

When my friend asked me to help her move on from her emotionally exhausting crusade, this is what I said:

I realized my issue with my officemate wasn’t with him specifically, it was everything he represented. People like him are a direct threat to my physical existence. While he can be “taught” to do better, it’s taken students and faculty to get him to be where he is today. Which means, your enemy will learn eventually, or he won’t, but it’s not up to you to teach him. Your job is to do your best and be great regardless. His actions sting, but who cares? Someone said my officemate is actually intimidated by me. Good. This didn’t happen because I am Black, proud, and will smack him down like the hand of God. It happened because I am his academic competition. How dare I be excellent when I am poor, Black, and female? Your enemy isn’t the problem; it’s the fact that he is not the last one you will have to deal with. Don’t spend another calorie teaching him, you don’t need him to be a better person for you to do your job. Be excellent because that’s apparently the worst offense.

I wish someone had said this to me, so I am saying it to you. Those who feel the need to marginalize you are intimidated. Do not wilt to assuage their insecurity. Do not waste your divine energy on those who do not deserve it. One day, they will learn. Until then, pay attention to your survival, perfect your craft, and your work will speak for itself.



Dellea K. Copeland is a first-year graduate student at Penn State University. She studies authoritarian regimes, democratic breakdowns, protest movements, and the Middle East. Fingers crossed, she will graduate in 2019 with a PhD in political science. As an undergraduate, Dellea was a part of the McNair Scholars Program, a federal program dedicated to diversifying higher education. She has published in two undergraduate journals and presented her work across the country at multiple undergraduate and professional conferences. She hails from Austin, Texas and will be your research assistant in exchange for street tacos.

Advice For Graduate Students With Chronic Health Conditions

ZarrowSarah Zarrow is a PhD student in Hebrew & Judaic Studies and History (full biography at the end).  In this post, Sarah concludes her two-part series on barriers to health care for graduate students by offering tips for students (and their professors) who suffer from chronic health conditions.  These tips may prove useful to any graduate student who gets sick at any point during their graduate training.  If you haven’t already, check out the first part of this series.

A Tip Sheet For Helping Students With Chronic Health Conditions

My experiences detailed in the last post have led me to think about what could have been done differently in my situation. I have compiled a list of tips that I think might help everyone in the academy think through issues of graduate student health and well-being. It is by no means exhaustive, and I would appreciate feedback and/or additions in the comments section below.

A caveat—this is not a tip sheet for recognizing students’ ailments or problems. There are other resources for that, and likely campus-wide policies, as well.

For Professors

  • This should be obvious, but graduate students are adults. Beyond our health concerns, we may be raising families, caring for parents, and financially supporting others. Often these needs are in conflict with each other; be aware of this.
  • -t is very likely (though not guaranteed) that a graduate student who comes to you in distress knows about campus resources, especially health services, and may have already used them. Health services may be part of the problem (as it was in my case).
  • Asking “how are you” in academia has two expected responses: “fine,” and “busy.” If a student seems not okay, ask, “are you okay?” as long as you’re in a situation where you are willing to hear the answer, and speaking honestly won’t embarrass or further distress the student.
  • A student’s confiding in you is not an opportunity to compare that student to others. It doesn’t matter if you have had other depressed/pregnant/anxious students—listen to the student in front of you.
  • Illness makes financial woes compound, even with health insurance. This, in turn, may force the student to take on more work, either TA-ships or freelance work. In turn, this may delay the time to degree. Again, simple belief is necessary. We know our financial needs, and we may not want to share all of them with you. If you have, or come across, paid opportunities that might help a student, pass them on.
  • There is no “life getting in the way” of work. Work is a part of life. The more we recognize that no person leads (or should lead) a fully compartmentalized life, the healthier we will all be.
  • Believe your students. Not all health issues are visible, and a person who seems well may not be. Resist the urge to tell anyone that they see too many doctors, or might be hysterical. Recognize the gendered implications behind accusing someone of weakness or hysteria. Instead, try praising someone for looking after their health.
  • Dealing with chronic health issues takes an enormous amount of time—not only time spent not feeling well, but also time in the doctor’s office, on the phone with insurance companies, and making alternative arrangements. The exhaustion that results from this compounds the problems, so try to be aware and kind.

For Students Dealing With Health Difficulties

  • If you aren’t finding the resources that you need at school or at home, seek out online communities. I have been helped enormously by (aimed at women, but I think many elements are useful to everyone).
  • It’s a pain, but you’ll have to educate your peers, professors, and often, doctors. Raise your voice when your “free” healthcare is praised. As much as you can, seek information about costs of procedures and tests in advance, and tell your doctors why you are asking. If you feel comfortable doing so, let your professors know when you’re not available due to medical reasons.
  • Remember that there is someone out there who faces similar issues to you, who may be able to offer guidance. This person is probably not your advisor, and probably does not sit on your committee. S/he might be a more advanced student, a staff member, or a faculty member. If you don’t feel comfortable filing complaints or asking for accommodations alone, enlist one of these people to help you. Solidarity is key.



Sarah Zarrow will receive her Ph.D this spring from the joint program of the Skirball Department of Hebrew & Judaic Studies and the History Department. She concentrates on modern European Jewish history, with a particular focus on Jews in Eastern and Central Europe and on cultural and linguistic practices. She also holds an MA in education. Sarah has taught at NYU and Eugene Lang College/The New School, and is at work on many digital projects. She can be found online at

Grad Student Stereotypes And Barriers To Proper Health Care

ZarrowSarah Zarrow is a PhD student in Hebrew & Judaic Studies and History (full biography at the end).  In this two-part series, Sarah describes her six-year-long struggle to find proper health care for a mysterious, chronic condition that followed stress and tragedy in her life.  In this first post, her painful story highlights the inadequacies of university health services (at least for graduate students), and lack of concerns graduate programs hold for students’ well-being.  Also, check out Part II!

Graduate Student Stereotypes And Barriers To Proper Health Care — A 6-Year Health Mystery


This is not a story about dating in academia, though it begins as one. I first met Kyle after he was released from police custody after being arrested for participating in a student-led action. I was immediately drawn to the way he didn’t seem to care about what anyone else thought, his anarchic style. As we got to know each other, this impression was only confirmed. He was clearly an oddball, and I loved that. But as our relationship progressed, I wondered if his “nutty professor” persona (which others named, as well) was perhaps not serving Kyle well. He could be moody and mean, and demanded that I fit myself into his life, and not ask for anything. He was difficult, but on the other hand, he was clearly brilliant. After all, who was I to know what it was like to write a dissertation, to be under that constant pressure?

Kyle eventually broke up with me, claiming that I was an impossible person to love. After months of bad treatment, the relationship was over, and the grief mixed with a sense that a burden had lifted. But our breakup occurred just days before my second-year qualifying exams, as well as a large rainstorm that sent wet chunks of ceiling raining down onto my computer. My landlady fixed my ceiling. I took my exams through tears, and passed out immediately afterwards, exhausted from the stresses piled on top of each other.

A few days later, I woke up in the middle of the night, feeling woozy and feverish. I chalked it up to some bad food, and perhaps to the combination of stress and coffee. I got up and walked across my room in the direction of the bathroom. I washed my face but didn’t feel better; as I opened the door to my room to head back to bed, I must have fainted. I came to on my floor with my roommate beside me. We figured it was some odd stomach illness, and she took care of me for the next few days. The approaching summer and my research trip abroad helped me perk up a bit, and I headed to Poland to conduct research and improve my language skills.

A String Of Doctors

When I returned in the fall, I was feeling much better. My anxiety had lifted, and I hadn’t fainted again. But my health adventures were only beginning. Still suspecting that my incident in the spring was a sign of something larger, I headed to various doctors at the Student Health Center (SHC). By my retrospective count, I saw seven different doctors. Not all specialties exist within the SHC, and some appointments and tests necessitated outside doctors. After receiving multiple large bills and arguing with my insurance, I realized that I was being referred not only out of the building, but out of network. By then, I had racked up a few hundred dollars in medical charges. I took on some extra teaching and tutoring to pay them off. No diagnosis was ever made. I was referred to a neurologist. Then to a cardiologist. Then to another neurologist. At one point, my primary care physician found an abnormally high cortisol level. But, she demurred, graduate students were all stressed out, and clinically high was “actually” normal. I was given anti-anxiety medication, which has certainly helped many people, but which I now suspect might have masked my underlying problem.

Eventually, I stopped seeing doctors, as no one seemed able to tell me if I even had a “real” problem. More than a few doctors implied that my pains and fatigue, as well as the fainting, were “all in my head.” After all—I was a stressed-out graduate student, yet living, supposedly, a life of leisure, sitting at home and thinking and writing all day. At least this is how some of my professors, without ever asking us, described the graduate student life. Doctors might as well have said “hypochondriac” or “hysterical.” I was relieved on the occasions when I had a concrete, diagnosable injury or illness. I was thrilled when an X-ray revealed that my shoulder pain wasn’t a wandering womb or a sign of inanity, but rather a fracture. I began to identify as a sick person, reliant on others for care and treatment, despite knowing that I was actually quite resilient and capable.

I focused instead on my mental health, and on small things that made me happy. I dated again, I began dancing, I began to believe that Kyle had been wrong, and that I had accepted his judgment of me because he was smarter (as he had told me), and because I had chalked up his quirks to typical oddball nutty professor behavior. After we split up, and he was subsequently kicked out of graduate school and devoted himself to working on his “manifesto” (his term, only half-joking, for his dissertation), I began to see that the problems in our relationship were perhaps not mine alone, and that he was truly suffering. But being so burned out from the experience of being together and breaking up, I chose to withdraw from most contact with him, rather than further engage and risk being hurt more.

Loss And Reactions

The year went on, and I began to prepare for my comprehensive exams. I came home from school one day, sat down at my computer, and was interrupted by a call from my roommate. Zach told me that Kyle’s house was on fire, and that it looked like Kyle had set it; he was currently in the hospital with severe burns. The next few hours and days went by in a blur of hospital waiting rooms, calls to family, and trying to remember to do things like shower and eat. As for work, I thought that I triaged well. I somehow graded exams, returned library books that were due, and let my professors and supervisors know what was going on. I kept my notes short, as I preferred correspondence from my own students—personal emergency, friend in the ICU, will be delayed with all work. In short, I think I handled the situation well from a professional standpoint. Eventually, Kyle succumbed to his injuries, and died after four days in a coma.

Colleagues’ and professors’ reactions ranged from sympathetic to cruel, and it is only in retrospect that I can see the cruel ones as part of a larger problem. My advisor, with whom I enjoy a friendly but not warm relationship, was the only faculty member I encountered whose reaction didn’t leave me reeling. I went to meet with him, and he simply told me, after a brief inquiry into my own health and a reminder to avail myself of counseling services if necessary, to take the time I needed. I told him I would reschedule my exams, and I did. We never spoke of it again, though I’m certain I could have approached him for a chat had I wanted to.

The professor for whom I was grading, when I went to talk to him, told me “Well, Kyle was a very troubled young man.” As if that was a good explanation, one that would encourage me not to dwell on the matter. A fellow Ph.D. student, when I told him what had happened, tried to console me with the thought that “at least you have a lot of work to get you through it.”

By far, the most painful response was from a professor whom I thought would be my ally, as I knew that she had faced her share of travails in the academy. I was taking a course with her at the time, and I emailed her to let her know what had happened – that I would not be in class that week, and would hopefully return the next. She emailed back to tell me that we needed to meet, specifically to discuss my course participation. I asked if we might postpone the meeting, or at least meet on a day when I would already be in the city. In no uncertain terms, she let me know that I would need to meet her near her house, over an hour commute for me. Over coffee, after hearing a brief version of what I was going through, she proceeded to tell me all about the problems her son had been facing, and how it was so difficult to deal with young men. I was floored as I realized that I had become her sounding board, and even more shocked as I realized that she considered this an act of empathy.

After that meeting, I chose not to talk about my experience with anyone in the academy. I was lucky that I had support from outside of it: my friends and family, and a great therapist. I decided not to investigate whether I was allowed to talk time off for bereavement or sickness; as I was only serving as a grader that term, I could manage my workload. The acute emotional pain dulled, and I was able to take and pass my exams, and to finish most of my incompletes by the middle of the summer, putting me “behind” (whatever that means in graduate school) by only a few months.

The Cost Of Finding Proper Care

Though I began to feel better mentally, more like myself, my physical health started to take some mysterious turns for the worse. I spent that June in Vienna for research, sharing a lovely apartment and comforting myself with small archives and a peaceful, easy city. My last night there, I woke up suddenly in the middle of the night. I was disoriented and flushed. I knew that I needed to get out of my loft bed immediately. Thinking that perhaps I had food poisoning, I climbed down the ladder and tried to make my way into the hall. All I remember next is my roommate cradling my head, as I lay on the floor, my face throbbing. I had fallen and hit my head, given myself a black eye, and put my tooth through my lip. It is only recently that I realized that I could have died, not from hitting my head, but from what caused it.

But figuring out the cause would now take on the feeling of a second job. Had I stayed in Vienna, I would have seen a doctor, but my research brought me next to a city known more for bureaucracy, bribery, and spurious “cures” than for good health care. So, I figured that I would take my chances and see a doctor once I came home. When that time came, I was again feeling much better, except for my mouth, which was still throbbing. Our health insurance doesn’t cover dental care, though, so I put off seeing anyone about it. I didn’t need a root canal, luckily, which would have cost about 1,000 dollars – money that I didn’t have. But, that money nevertheless ended up going to cover my hospital expenses when another doctor was concerned that I had epilepsy. During my four days of constant monitoring, I graded exams, and didn’t tell my professors where I was. I wasn’t sick, I felt fine, and I was starting to feel as though I might have exhausted the goodwill that had been extended to me. We all know a person with so many problems that we wonder whether they bring it on themselves. I didn’t want to be that person.

In the end, it took three more years to find a doctor who listened, and a diagnoses (and treatment) that made sense. My health’s ups and downs, and the care they sometimes required, strained many relationships, and broke one. Luckily, at an unexpected moment, a new doctor thought to repeat some tests that I had years ago, including the one that prompted my PCP to say that “all graduate students are stressed.” My levels were so far off that it was now almost obvious what had been happening to me.

I had planned to graduate in December of this year, but my extensions and emergencies made that impossible. May graduation deadlines loom, and I’m determined to walk this spring. But graduating will also mean losing my healthcare, and purchasing a cheaper plan for myself, so I have been trying to find as many answers as possible in the time that remains.

When I went back to the SHC to try to transfer my care there, and my files from my out-of-network doctor, I was met with condescension and suspicion. I had been fainting? Perhaps I was stressed out and should take Xanax. I had been dizzy? Had I spoken to a therapist? Perhaps I was experiencing symptoms of psychosis. Was I stressed? I confirmed that I felt some stress, trying to finish my dissertation, and that the past few years had been stressful for me. “Right,” the doctor said, “but, basically, grad student stuff, right?” She continued typing, not meeting my eye. Knowing that I would likely not see her again, I decided to say what was on my mind. “I’m stressed,” I said, “because I am 33 years old, with 33,000 dollars in debt, and am facing not having a job next year. My former boyfriend killed himself, my roommate died, and I have been falling down and getting concussions. I don’t know if that’s ‘normal’ for a graduate student, and I don’t care. I came here to try to take care of my health, not to get a lecture in the wonders of Xanax.” She met my eye for the first time in our appointment. “Oh,” she said softly, and I had some hope that she might stop typing. “Oh, that must be hard. Have you seen counseling services?”

Lessons Learned

For many people with some mysterious or chronic condition, going to doctor after doctor in order to find the culprit for their health problems is just part of the process of getting proper treatment. It’s not news that our healthcare system is set up to discourage good primary care and treating the patient, and her body, as a whole system, rather than as a series of parts—a heart, a brain, a nervous system. Getting proper care becomes a job in itself, and “overuse” of the system draws suspicion. Student medical services designed for 18-22 year olds do not serve many graduate students well (they probably don’t serve undergrads well, either), as I also know from my fellow students’ stories.

But beyond the issues common within our American system, and beyond bad and overworked doctors, who exist everywhere, are a set of assumptions about graduate students that seem to do us more harm than good. And there are associated stigmas: not working enough (sometimes known as taking care of your health) means you’re lazy, and not serious enough of a scholar. Going to “a lot” of doctors (especially if you’re a woman, it seems), carries another stigma—that of hysteria and hypochondria. Of course, most people told me to take care of my health first. But there often seemed to be a footnote to that, which read “only if it doesn’t interfere with your timeline, your due dates, and only if it doesn’t inconvenience me.”

It is these stigmas, which go far beyond the academy, combined with stereotypes about graduate students, which together serve as barriers to proper care. When health professionals do not see graduate students as individuals, and as people in distress, but rather as collections of oddball tendencies and stress, proper diagnosis and treatment are impossible.



Sarah Zarrow will receive her Ph.D this spring from the joint program of the Skirball Department of Hebrew & Judaic Studies and the History Department. She concentrates on modern European Jewish history, with a particular focus on Jews in Eastern and Central Europe and on cultural and linguistic practices. She also holds an MA in education. Sarah has taught at NYU and Eugene Lang College/The New School, and is at work on many digital projects. She can be found online at