Graduate School, I Forgive You

Graduation, May 2013

Graduation, May 2013

Over the summer, I received a notification that my online university accounts at my graduate institution were terminated.  It had been a year since I officially graduated and began working at another school.  I knew that this moment would come eventually, but I was surprised that I felt the slightest bit of sadness about it.  This was it.  That chapter of my life was officially over, and my ties to the institution no longer existed (excluding friendships and professional relationships, of course).

I could not wait to get out of graduate school, but I have continued to struggle to recover from it over the past year and a half.  I had hoped that I would write a few posts to work through what I called “graduate school garbage,” and make available the experiences and resources that were not available to me as I attempted to forge my own career path.  Shortly after, I would shift to providing advice for graduate students and fellow junior scholars.  But, that has not happened yet.  Over a year after I made the public declaration to pursue tenure my way, I continue to struggle with fear, self-doubt, and the emotional baggage of graduate school.

Time To Move On

Although the elimination of my online accounts made the chapter’s end officially official, I already suspected that I was overdue for beginning to move on with my life.  On occasion, I have successfully churned out an essay of advice.  But, I sometimes have to write out the awful experiences that led to suggestions for better ways of doing things; I simply delete that part of the narrative, or use it sparingly to contextualize my advice.  During my last attempt to write a post on advice, I had a page-long rant about graduate school with no advice, which I ultimately deleted.

It seems as though I am not yet at the point where my writing on and conversations about graduate school are exclusively or at least mostly advice-giving.  And, I worry that I am developing a reputation for simply complaining or “trashing” my graduate program (see the comments section of this post).  Even outside of blogging, I find myself blaming the challenges of grad school for ongoing anxiety, self-doubt, awkwardness in interactions with students and colleagues, and uncertainty about navigating academic spaces.  I fear I have become a wounded, broken record.  “Okay, we get it,” I imagine people saying, “graduate school sucked.  Move on already!”

I feel stuck.  Why am I still working through the trauma of grad school?  Am I forever changed, or will the disappointment and resentment dissipate over time?

Forgiveness

Moving on will not be enough.  Or, as we mean “move on” in a casual sense — just stop thinking about the past and focus on the present — will not be effective, at least not as quickly as I would like.  It recently dawned on me that the key to successfully moving on is probably to make peace with the previous chapter of my life.  That is, it is time to forgive everything and everyone related to my graduate training.

What would it mean to forgive graduate school?  I realize that it sounds odd, that I am implying that I have been wronged in some way and have decided to forgive.  I was not intentionally harmed or deceived or excluded by someone or something (well, rarely, if ever).  But, I suspect thinking only of intentional wrong-doing as acts that are forgivable is what makes this seem odd.

I see offering forgiveness, in part, as finding good or positive intentions within a limited, complex, or even oppressive context.  I can use my parents’ journey to accepting me as their unapologetically queer son as an example.  If I refused to understand their initial disappointment and fear from any perspective other than my own, I likely would have stood my ground in cutting ties with them at age 19.  They wanted to protect me from homophobia and the consequences it has in queer people’s lives; but, they failed to see how their own intolerance contributed to those hardships in my life.  After some time, I realized how hard I was on them, demanding immediate and total acceptance (or else kicking them out of my life).  I ignored that they had been raised in a homophobic society, and did not have the knowledge and skills (and confidence) to support a queer child.

Graduate programs have a set of norms, values, and practices that, unfortunately, often do not reflect my own values, needs, and interests.  I came to graduate school as an activist, and wanted to leave graduate school as an even better activist.  Whether I agree with the sentiment that academic careers are not designed for scholars with activist leanings (I surely do not agree!), the heart of graduate training is research with a sprinkle of teaching (if you are lucky).  When put in those terms, it does not make sense to resent grad school for failing to train me as an activist; that is like damning an eye doctor for failing to address my anxiety.  But, to my credit, it was not made explicit until midway through my training that academia and activism do not mix (in some people’s minds).

There were mentors who did support me as an activist, though to the best of their abilities as academics and within the bounds of what graduate training is really about.  This recognition seems crucial to beginning the process of forgiving.  My mentors did the best that they could, and their intentions were to mold me into a strong scholar so that I would have as many professional opportunities as possible.  Since formal training for graduate education is uncommon (does it even exist?), it seems many professors simply mentor in ways that worked for them, or in ways they wish they were mentored as students.  In many ways, it seems like parenting; there are a plethora of books, but no real, universal guide to being a good mentor.  They make it up as they go.  And, as with my parents, my advisors probably struggled with knowing how to mentor a student like me.

Why Forgiveness Matters

I should be clear that, in forgiving graduate school, I am not excusing negative or hurtful things that happened to me.  I see many problems with graduate education that warrant improvement.  And, it seems silly to challenge myself to forget the foundational training of my academic career.  At this early stage — in which I acknowledge I am a novice at this notion of forgiveness — I see this journey primarily as understanding my graduate training from a broader perspective, and choosing to focus on and appreciate the positive aspects of that chapter of my life.

First and foremost, the need to forgive everything and everyone is urgent because I need to move on.  It does me no good to carry baggage from the previous chapter of my life.  I am getting in the way of fully appreciating the current chapter.  For example, as I continue to replay conversations about the kinds of jobs I should (and should not) apply to, I unintentionally force myself to second guess my decision to work at a liberal arts university.  Am I really happy here?   Well, yes, I am!  I am tired of frequently doing the math in my head to remind myself that I fought for this job, a job that is great for me in so many ways, and that I see no reasons to seriously consider leaving.  In other words, it seems as long as I ruminate over the past, I cannot fully appreciate the present.

Second, I tend to ignore the positive aspects of my graduate training by obsessing over the negatives.  I received training at one of the top sociology programs in the nation, which opened many doors for my career.  I became, in my humble opinion, a strong scholar and teacher.  In some ways, I was even supported in developing my own type of academic career.  Overall, I do not regret attending the program, or pursuing a PhD in general.  I made friendships that I suspect will last a lifetime.  As long as I cling to resentment, I hesitate to connect with my mentors, which I now realize is a foolish mistake because they can (and probably will) remain mentors for life.  I actually limit the good that came from my graduate training by maintaining my resentment-filled distance.

Finally, I need to relinquish the victim status I have unconsciously developed.  I tend to think of what I endured and the compromises I made in order to get my PhD; I tend to lose sight of what I gained.  It is too easy to focus on the ways in which I am wounded — fearful, uncertain, lacking confidence — rather than feeling empowered.  In a way, the path to forgiveness will probably entail forgiving myself.  What I endured was not so much loss or compromise as it was an investment for developing the kind of career I want.  I did the best that I could; and, even with a few bumps and bruises, I actually did pretty damn well.  Even just in writing this paragraph, I suddenly feel a sense of pride that is probably stuffed under the resentment, disappointment, and doubt.

Concluding Thoughts

Where this path goes is as much of a mystery to me as it is to you.  I will not be surprised by bumps and setbacks, tapping into pockets of my spirit that I did not know were still bound by anger and hurt.  I hope, once successful, that I can comfortably focus on the present and reflect on the past only to provide useful advice to others.  I will even challenge myself, starting now, to write about the previous chapter of my life only if to offer advice, or privately if it will help work toward forgiveness.

Academia is toxic enough.  I plan to become a voice of hope and kindness.

3 thoughts on “Graduate School, I Forgive You

  1. Hi Eric,
    Academia is a baptism of fire shrouded in secrecy. Sociology work is public in many ways, but the process is meant to stay private. Teaching, for example, is done in front of a large audience, but most universities do not teach us how to teach. We learn it by doing. We don’t really see our colleagues teaching, once we stop being students. We are generally not taught how to review papers, how to write for academic publications (although more workshops are cropping up), and we are certainly not taught how to look for work, apply for jobs, network and all the other things that academia demands. If a university is not supportive, either tacitly, by not providing adequate services to students, especially minorities, or overtly, by creating a hostile place (microaggressions, racism, homophobia and so on) – the rule of academia is to stay quiet. I’m glad you share your thoughts and experiences online. I can see it being risky but I can also see your writing is invaluable in helping up-and-coming sociologists.

    I do worry about early career researchers who often speak out on issues so boldly on blogs and social media, but at the same time, the culture of silence needs to be broken down. What would be great to see is if more established academics also shared their experiences, so students and early career researchers don’t have to feel like they’re suffering alone. The secrecy of what it takes to forge a career in academia demonstrates outdated norms. Silence is damaging and we likely lose many bright minds along the way as a result.

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    • Great point, Zuleyka. I blog in hopes of making some of these practices transparent ideally to create change. It would be wonderful to have more senior scholars speaking about academic practices and norms — I’d love to offer space on this blog for such voices.

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  2. Pingback: This Blog Is Trauma On Display | Conditionally Accepted

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