Before I embarked on the academic job market, I had heard a few references to job market PTSD. I think that characterization, as a form of trauma, is fair, and the warnings that I might experience it myself were accurate. After securing a job — the first job for which I ever interviewed, on my first tour on the job market — I did feel a sense of survivor’s guilt, seeing some friends going on their second year of the job-search and others desperately hoping for a job that never came. Even today, I still hear, “wow, you’re lucky!”, but have learned to understand that more as a statement about the person saying it, or the general state of the job market. There is no sense in feeling bad about getting a job!
Then, upon completing the dissertation, there was a sudden wave of depression — what others have called post-dissertation depression. After devoting an entire year to one project, the biggest project of my life thus far, suddenly it was over; and, since I probably have not properly celebrated my successes still to this day, I was vulnerable to the creeping underwhelming feeling upon finishing.
Grad School Garbage
These appear to be pretty common forms of distress (maybe even signs of mental illness, if severe and chronic) toward the end of graduate school and then some time thereafter. I have to wonder whether scholars on the margins are at greater risk, or experience a more severe form of them.
I have officially started my tenure-track position now, which comes with a sense of relief. I also feel the slow (re)blossoming of my sense of self-worth. (Deciding to do the tenure-track my way helps tremendously.) For the most part, I do not think about my days of graduate school, unless it is to relay advice to a current graduate student. But, I have noticed that it won’t require pulling teeth to get me to go into a rant about how awful the experience was at times. And, a few minutes in, and I feel just as crappy as I did when I actually was in graduate school.
Why? I am dubbing this phenomenon “grad school garbage.” I do not think distress, or depression, or PTSD fully describe the resentment, regret, and anger — as well as those feelings of anxiety, trauma, and depression — I harbored throughout my graduate training. And, because few options exist to readily express these feelings, I am still carrying some of this “baggage” today. Fortunately, I can already feel that I have disposed of some of it.
Sources Of Grad School Garbage
Let me note the standard line — graduate school is tough for all. There, I said it. Now, let me state the obvious for graduate students of marginalized backgrounds — grad school is particularly tough for us. Though our US-born heterosexual middle-class white male colleagues without disabilities also experience “imposter syndrome” in their first year of graduate school, it usually dissipates soon after. I am a first-year tenure-track faculty member feeling a little bit of a rough adjustment from deferential grad student to equal colleague (especially with academics of privileged backgrounds). For us, imposter syndrome may be a lifelong disease.
One source of grad school garbage is constantly facing microaggressions and, in some cases, major forms of discrimination and harassment. Those are experiences with few options for release, recourse, and compensation. Who could my (Black) friends tell that a (white) professor petted their hair with great curiosity as though they were zoo exhibits? Or, being told by a colleague “I’m glad I don’t have to worry about AIDS!”, thus reinforcing the stereotype that HIV is a “gay disease”? Typically, we tell friends of similar backgrounds, and try to avoid the “usual suspects” of such assaults to our identities, communities, and worthiness. But, the scars still remain.
Another source that I constantly wrestle with is the contradictory nature of bigotry in academe. In one breath, we advocate for diversity and inclusion, and many scholars directly investigate inequality in their scholarship and teaching. But, in another breath, you are being told “man up!” or “don’t do that — that’s girly”, told fellowships for minority students are forms of “reverse racism,” and assured that homophobia does not exist in academia. I found it more damaging and upsetting to receive these conflicting messages. The greatest source of this appeared to be the supposed inclusion of marginalized people at the expense of marginalized subjectivity. (This is the major theme of this blog!) “We can accept you as a queer scholar, but” … “stop using queer theory in your work” or “studying gay people isn’t interesting in its own right.”
A final source (of course, there are more than I write about here), gets at the heart of the professional socialization of graduate school. First, note the language that is used. Graduate training is explicitly defined as a form of (re)socialization. It is not enough to master the skill of scholarship; we must become scholars. And, given the history and contemporary significance of exclusion and devaluing marginalized communities and perspectives, this poses a direct threat for scholars of marginalized backgrounds. There is pressure to suppress our identities, our community memberships, our critical perspectives, and our values to take on those of the academy. The better you become at convincing others that “you’re black, but won’t make an issue of it”, the more successful you can become within the mainstream.
Unfortunately, for some, this means losing ties with one’s community of origin. We run the risk of becoming alienated from our communities, yet we are never fully accepted into the academic community. I have heard from working-class friends that visits home increasingly include a sense of foreignness — “who are these people?” “Who have I become?” And, this also reflects the experiences of scholars of color (Michelle Obama’s honors thesis speaks to this for Black students who attend elite Historically White Universities and Colleges [HWCUs]). Ironically, many of these folks came to academia to improve and empower the very communities that they now feel disconnected from.
Disposing Of The Garbage
Wow, what a difference a day makes! I wrote the above text this morning — and now, I am writing this section at the end of the day. I feel an unexpected, great sense of relief. This is probably the first time in a long time that I have felt free of the misery that I grew accustomed to in graduate school. So, I suppose time and distance are great sources of relinquishing the garbage one collects in graduate school. I feel freer and in more control of where my career heads now.
I suppose this feeling of liberation is a confluence of factors: a new, high level of respect from others as Doctor Grollman; having publicly declared my plan to do tenure my way; having pushed for a job that will support me in many ways; having physically, socially, and emotionally left graduate school; and starting this blog to speak openly about the injustice and marginalization faced by many scholars. This all gives academic freedom a much broader meaning!
So, let’s see how things transpire over my first few years on the tenure-track. I am quite hopeful that having carved out what is best for me will minimize much of the garbage-producing aspects of an academic career. Stay tuned.