Is It Just Me? Slowly Disposing Of “Grad School Garbage”

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.

12 thoughts on “Is It Just Me? Slowly Disposing Of “Grad School Garbage”

  1. You couldn’t be more right about that sense of loss and depression and the feeling of being displaced as you get your professionalization under control. The more someone says this things out loud, the more others will engage in this kind of conversation. Thanks!

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  2. I get what you’re saying entirely, and I think I may have successfully circumvented part of that in my own experience by taking a decade off between finishing my BA and starting my MA. It wasn’t entirely on purpose (I had intended to start a different MA after a year or two break, then real life attacked), but it let me have a much stronger sense of who *I* am and the world of value I bring to the table before I started graduate school. I was very secure in my identity as a disabled mother before I started the MA work, and that helped tremendously all the times I had to self-advocate. I was disabled when I was working on my BA, but not as noticeably (I’ve walked with a cane since 1997, I began using a wheelchair most of the time I’m out of the house in 2008 or 2009). Perhaps it is a matter of having my difference so obvious, instead of less visually reminded differences like sexuality/mental health/invisible physical disabilities/SES, or the skin color ones that so many white folks fumble, that have buffered me from the worse issues. I feel so highly complimented by the very “working class” mom I’ve known for years (our kids go to school together) who was chatting with me before our kids’ choir sang for the school board and she was surprised to hear that I’d finished my MA because I am not what she expects an academic to be like. The stereotypes and “othering” go both ways, folks… and if we’re going to engage in REAL social research getting to know these people living lives so different from those Academics lead, we need to be able to CONNECT with our common humanity. Or else the people we’re trying to learn about will just BS through our precious data collection.

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    • Hm, I hadn’t thought about that aspect — going straight into grad school from undergrad. I did notice that fellow students who had worked 2 years or more before going to grad school seemed more grounded, less affected by the minor irritations of grad student life. And, those who had families with children (and tended to be older and/or wiser) were better able to put that kind of crap into perspective. I have sometimes wondered whether I would discourage the path I took — HS right into college right into grad school right into a faculty position. (Oh, and I know that is a path of privilege, or at least no longer the norm with so many PhDs forced to taking adjunct jobs.)

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  3. Love this piece, Eric. I’ve been on the job market four times since finishing in 2011 and I still haven’t landed a TT job. Though I’ve had a very positive experience with my visiting institution (I absolutely love my job), I’m constantly worried about ending up without a job and I keep needing to be on the market while managing my other responsibilities. As a queer and openly trans scholar, the market is incredibly difficult to navigate and I feel like I will forever have imposter syndrome until I am comfortably settled in a TT position (if that ever happens), so this essay hit close to home. I did want to take a moment to comment on your use of “schizophrenic” here to describe the complexities of bigotry within the academy. So many academics struggle with mental illness that is highly stigmatized within our fields, and I’ve been encouraging people to use other words/phrases to discuss complexities, contradictions, or disconnects between things so that we (a broader “we”) can perhaps begin a dialogue around this stigma without perpetuating casual use of terms related to mental illness and struggle. Just asking you to consider it, not saying you have to change your way of expressing your thoughts, as this phrasing is very commonly used. Thanks for your writing and all you do.

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    • Thank you for your kind words. I agree with your concern about the problem of using schizophrenia to refer to something other than mental illness — I’ve revised the post to eliminate the term, and am working to stop using it in this problematic way in general!

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