Five Tips For Navigating Graduate School With Mental Illness

Note: this blog post was originally published on our career advice column on Inside Higher Ed (here). Jill Richardson studies sociology at University of Wisconsin-Madison. She struggles with anxiety, depression and PTSD.

When I started graduate school, I did not realize that I was a student with mental illness. I knew that I suffered near-daily migraines and sought out disability services. What I did not understand was that my migraines were a physical manifestation of a mental illness, and that the way I felt my entire life was called “anxiety” because the experiences I had as a kid were called “trauma.” Graduate school severely exacerbated my anxiety.

Whether you are a student or a professor, keep in mind that everyone with mental illness is different. I have a lot of trouble attending classes, while another student I know cannot meet with professors one-on-one, and a third has panic attacks every time she attempts to study for prelims.

Additionally, everyone is in a different phase of their mental health problems. Some are not yet aware that they even have a problem. Some students have only just discovered their problems but have not yet found help, or they have sought help but it’s too soon for them to get any relief just yet.

A student can probably function far better in grad school if they have already found medications that work effectively (if applicable), a therapist they like and coping strategies they have learned and practiced. In Childhood Disrupted, Donna Jackson Nakazawa explains that you can change your own brain for the better to heal some of the harm from adverse childhood experiences. But that takes time.

I have had to devise various coping strategies to survive the difficulties of graduate school, which I share below. They aren’t perfect — grad school was hell even still. But I earned my master’s degree and lived to tell about it.

Five Pieces Of Advice

  1. Limit things that are most difficult to you, if you can. For me, that meant establishing a schedule that gave me one or two days a week when I did not have to go to the campus. I also set a quota of one extremely difficult class per semester (e.g., those with weekly exams, heavy reading loads or very exacting professors). I only wanted to deal with one of those at a time.
  2. Remember you do not have to do everything. This suggestion flies in the face of the helpful career advice I’ve received that one should assume all “optional” activities are actually required. I’m sorry, but I won’t be at the department picnic, the lecture series or just about anything else that isn’t formally required. I will be busy during that time taking care of myself. There may be consequences for missing events that my professors prefer I attend, but I need to put that in perspective. The consequences will be far worse if I do poorly in my classes or fail to complete my thesis. Completing required work must come first, and anything else is off the table if it will jeopardize my ability to do that.
  3. Find people with whom you feel comfortable and avoid those with whom you don’t feel comfortable. That goes for professors, friends, therapists and anyone else. You are not helping anything or anyone by voluntarily spending time with someone who makes you feel rotten. (You can also block them on social media or, at the least, unfollow them so you do not see pictures of the times when people in your cohort all have a party without you.)
  4. Self-care is essential. This is crucial for everyone but more so if you are struggling with mental illness. For me, it meant weekly massages, therapy and allowing myself to just eat a cookie if I craved one instead of beating myself up for it. Sometimes, it meant reading Harry Potter instead of scholarly journals. (Other less expensive or even free options can be mindfulness meditation, yoga, a hot bath and exercising outdoors.)
  5. Medications. If you decide to try medication, remember antidepressants can take four or more weeks to work effectively. Sometimes the first med you try will not work or will have unbearable side effects, up to and including suicidal thoughts. If you’re a student, have a friend or family member look out for you when you start a new med, in case you have adverse side effects. I would wait until a break from grad school to try a new med if possible. At the very least, don’t start your med the same week your big term paper or grant application is due.

Simple Ways Professors Can Help

While students can promote their own healing and well-being, their professors can help also immensely by taking a just few simple actions.

First in my book is empathy. Empathy is easy, yet few people do it well. As a faculty member, you should listen to students with mental-health issues, imagine how you would feel in their circumstances and say that. Avoid jumping to fix a student’s problems, telling them “it will all be OK” or dismissing them because you think they are begging for a higher grade or special treatment. If they tell you that they are having panic attacks and they are struggling with their schoolwork, just say, “That sounds really difficult.” Even if a professor can do nothing else beyond that, feeling like that person understands me and hears me is helpful in and of itself.

Going one step further, imagine yourself in the student’s shoes and think of how you can make it easier for them to succeed in your class in ways that do not require much extra effort from you, such as giving flexibility with deadlines.

Therapists talk about giving their patients unconditional positive regard, and I try to approach my own students such regard. That does not mean I am an easy grader (I am not) or that I let my students walk all over me (I don’t). But a simple willingness to listen to a student without judging is an emotional balm to one who is struggling. It can even ease a student’s anxiety enough to help them be more productive in their work.

And yet many professors don’t do that. Feeling seen and heard is a big theme in the mental-health world. People need to feel seen and heard. Unfortunately, I never felt that in graduate school.

Students with mental illness often have a very negative self-image. Being in grad school is difficult because it requires students to try new things and to risk failure. Simple positive feedback can go a long way. If a student is struggling through something difficult but they are ultimately normal compared to their peers, tell them. If you have observed progress in their work, tell them that, too. The nicest thing a professor ever said to me was “That’s something that most people come to later in their career. All graduate students struggle with it.” Really? My difficulty is normal? Hallelujah!

Last, don’t expect your depressed or anxious student to kick the problem quickly. Therapy takes time, and even medications can take a month or more to work effectively. Be patient. That doesn’t mean allowing a student to pass a class without doing the work. But it does mean extending compassion to them without judging them for continuing to struggle with the same issues week after week, even though those issues seem easy to fix for you as a mentally healthy person. If it’s frustrating for you, remember that it’s even more frustrating for the student.

A Xicana Scholar Pays Tribute To Her Academic Mama

Note: this blog post was originally published on Xicana, PhD and republished on our career advice column on Inside Higher Ed. Dr. Irene Sanchez is a Xicana, a mama, an educator and a writer based in Southern California. She began her higher education journey at a community college, which served as inspiration and motivation for completing a Ph.D. in education.

A Letter to My “Academic Mama”

Dear Academic Mama,

I am here. I am still here. I said this today after thinking about how hard life has been after I finished my Ph.D. I emailed you to ask you for a letter of recommendation again today and remembered how many times, for many years, I would come to your office for a meeting and how I wish you were here.

I came to you like many who walk through your door carrying more than books and my laptop. You reminded me that This Bridge Called My Back isn’t just a catchy title but a lived reality. And I thought about how, when I met you, you helped me set down my worries and my pain, and gave me a safe place as a Xicana in academe — a survivor, a single mama and so many things I was or became in the six years I spent with you in person. Although you aren’t Xicana, I remembered how you felt familiar, how your voice was soothing in faster Puerto Rican Spanish. I soon caught on, just like with a lot of things I had to quickly learn.

With your guidance, I found strength even when I was scared. What I remember the most, however, is how, after five minutes sitting with you, things became clearer. I would enter your office often on the verge of tears, and I would leave feeling as though I, a Xicana from a community college who became a single mother in graduate school and who survived so much, could finish a Ph.D. under what felt like impossible circumstances. I felt not only that I could finish but also that this feeling would last until the next time, because there was always a next time when I would be on the verge of dropping out or bursting into tears. You made me feel as though I could do this every time.

And I did.

I remember how you would ask, “How are you?” every time I saw you, since I met you in 2009 after sitting in your Women of Color in Academia class — a course that saved me and many others. You would ask this question of all of us. You asked us something about ourselves that seems so common and basic, but it is a question that no one seems to care about asking or is concerned with in academe, where they teach you that the personal has no place. But for us, the personal is political. It is everything, and it is the reason why we struggle so hard to be here to begin with. “Como estas?” I thought about how I would respond each time and why I responded this way.

I am here.

As you know, this became the first line of my dissertation and led to my own testimonio in Chapter 1 about how I came to be in Seattle and studying at this place where I never imagined I would be. I know you remember, because that last year, before I finished my Ph.D., you made sure that — no matter what the committee wanted to change or the ways in which they attempted to make me conform — I stayed true to myself and my vision for my work. That even when they told me that they didn’t get “women’s studies” or “testimonios,” or when I didn’t use traditional academic language, you fought for me and explained that, as a student of education, I was also a woman of color and a student in feminist studies, and none of that could be separated from the work I did in the academy. You knew since I met you, because I said it all of the time in my writing, that I refused to leave who I was outside the gates of the ivory tower. And I still live by that belief, though it is a constant battle even now.

The work meant something more to me, and it still does. As a Xicana and former community college student who was kicked out on academic probation, conducting my research affirmed that I am here. I made it to this place after everyone else told me I couldn’t. After moving out of my parents’ home at 18 knowing that I wouldn’t have their support in school, after getting kicked out of community college, after marriage and later after divorce so I could go to grad school, after deciding to move a couple of states away to pursue this far-fetched dream, I got a Ph.D. — even when the statistics and people told me every day that I couldn’t.

You saw something in me and reminded me on the days when I couldn’t see it in myself anymore. This hunger for a place to be safe where there is no safety, to create something new and stay rooted at the same time. I was reminded in this process of my own grandmother, who told me in the first and only conversation I had alone with her after learning Spanish as an adult, two weeks before she passed, “Don’t forget where you come from.” I promised her I never would. I didn’t.

You understood because you knew what it was like to leave home. I came to learn how your home was farther. Your home is an island that cannot be forgotten no matter how far it is on a map. I see now how you created this new home for not only me but also for many people who walked through the doors of your office and sat in your classroom. Because as women of color in academe, we are often surrounded by turbulent seas and choppy waters and sharks that wish to do nothing but devour us. You protected us. You gave strength. You built us up to believe in our own voices and words when so many other people diminish and silence us every single day.

And as we sat in my favorite cafe one week — after I successfully defended my dissertation and a couple of days before I left town to move back to California with my toddler son as a single mama — you said no goodbye. But you caught me off guard when you held my shoulders, looked at me and said, “We built this ship strong and not to sink, and Irene, you will not sink.” Then, you turned and left and walked out the door. I paused for what seemed like an hour, a little shocked by it.

I will not sink.

I will not sink. You made sure of that. So no matter how tough these times are now and how turbulent these waters have been post-Ph.D. (because they have been much more turbulent), I make sure I remember I can’t sink, because I need to carry on the work as long as I am here.

You are here. We are here. And there are other women who need us to ask the important questions about why we are here that the academy wants us to forget.

Transphobic Microaggressions In Academia

Note: this blog post was originally published on our Inside Higher Ed career advice column (here). Francis Walker (a pseudonym) is a nonbinary Ph.D. candidate at a Canadian institution.

Not more than two weeks after I started my master’s degree in English literature, the department chair sent an email to everyone, including the other graduate students, detailing my gender transition. Noting his mistake, he apologized to me minutes later, explaining that he had accidentally sent the email to the department email list. At the time, my legal name was in the process of being changed, and he was explaining to an incoming professor why there was a discrepancy on the roster.

His intent in writing the email was not malicious. But, in reality, he outed me as trans to the entire department. And the way the chair interacted with me, the way my cohort interacted with me and the language the chair used to describe my transition couldn’t be undone. It affected me for the duration of my two-year master’s degree.

This event would become the reason why I dropped my original research topic of the British author Angela Carter and, instead, examined transgender representation in media. I had already completed a minor in gender studies as an undergraduate student, but the transition — so to speak — from learning about gender in an abstract way to suddenly learning about how it impacted me, as well as my then partner (a trans woman), on a personal and professional level was alarming. I had known the department chair since my undergrad years. He is world famous for his work, and so was my supervisor. Everyone in the department knew how language and the stories we told affected culture, and yet they had completely screwed up my story in a very visceral, real and potentially dangerous way.

In my young academic mind, the only way to “correct” what had been done was to learn as much as possible about the dynamics that led up to this event. But, of course, that is part of the problem of being trans in academe. No matter what field your degree is in, you end up becoming an expert on trans studies. For example, my partner was completing her M.A. in physics, but she still had to regularly explain the differences among sex, gender and gender identity to her lab. Rather than do all the work of educating others for free, I figured I might as well get my degree in it.

Most Conditionally Accepted readers are probably already familiar with microaggressions — those brief, commonplace exchanges that do not seem harmful on the surface but, in reality, express a power imbalance and suggest the inferiority of marginalized people. Transgender theorist Julia Serano describes the culture we live in as cissexist, meaning that in the spectrum of power of cis/trans, it is cisgender people (those who identify with their sex assigned at birth) who maintain power and control. That entails cis people’s regularly committing cissexist microaggressions against trans people, and those seemingly small slights lead to much larger consequences.

One of the most common examples of a cissexist microaggression is asking a transgender person if they have had “the surgery.” The question implies that there is only one surgery (not true), that the surgery is the only way the person can be recognized as a “real” woman or man (also not true) and that the individual asking the question has the right to ask and know about the transgender person’s genitals (obviously not true). The last connotation, at its core, is the one I want to focus on in more depth here, as it can be the most harmful in one-on-one relationships, including those in academe — like the connections we have with our department chairs or supervisors.

In the department chair’s email, he explained my name discrepancy to the incoming professor by telling her exactly what I looked like, down to my “closely cropped dark hair.” His impulse was to make sure that the incoming professor knew who I was since she could not depend on knowing my name. While seemingly helpful in intent, his description of me (including my trans-masculine body) is an example of a cissexist microaggression.

There is a longstanding fascination in academe with trans people, including decades’ worth of research that has made us objects of academic inquiry. Academics want to ask questions, especially about surgery, because it is assumed to be not only a right as a cis person but also part of the job of a researcher. My department head was used to examining English literature for queerness, so when I arrived and there was a moment of difference (between my legal name and chosen name), he analyzed and determined that “apparently transgendered [sic] does mean you have changed sex but that you reject strict boundaries between sexes, hence the androgynous name” and forwarded his discoveries to new professors.

His and others’ critical examination of my gender identity and expression continued throughout the duration of my M.A. After my name change went through, the examination turned to my clothing. Did wearing a woman’s cardigan mean something? What about whom I took to the department party? At any point of difference or disagreement, examination occurred. More questions were asked.

And in order to deal, I was forced to take on the role of being the trans educator. Due to the cissexist ideology, cis people — like doctors, researchers and others in academe — assume that they have the right to ask the questions and then to meditate the responses. Being a forced educator is more than just being asked — it is knowing what the “right” answer is for cisgender people to hear and still treat you with humanity.

Although no one showed any overt physical violence toward me during my M.A., I know from my research that it is in those moments of difference — like a name not matching up or using sex-segregated bathrooms — when violence often occurs. When trans women, in particular, experience those moments, violence tends to occur more frequently, because they often experience misogyny on top of the transphobia (what Serano calls transmisogyny). The desire that inscribes those moments of bodily examination can soon turn to revulsion, and then violence, because of our culture’s already lingering disregard for feminine gender expression. The desire/revulsion dichotomy that surrounds the transgender body is not merely sexual. It is also a desire for knowledge and revulsion at potential “wrong” answers to questions that cis people ask.

Academics want to know so much, and exploring critically is good. But the way in which that curiosity is expressed in relation to trans people is fundamentally unbalanced. At best, it pushes trans people (including trans academics) into the forced educator role, answering questions that cis people could have Googled themselves. At worse, the desire for knowledge puts the trans person at risk for sexual and physical violence. Trans bodies are not texts to be examined in discourse; trans people are your colleagues, friends, loved ones and students.

I took on the role of a forced educator and now have it as my career. I do not regret this decision, obviously, but as I continue on in academe, and especially when we talk about sexual violence in trans communities, it makes me think of that email. My department chair meant absolutely no harm to me, but he could have started a chain reaction, opening me up to discrimination or violence from others. Even small interactions end up meaning a lot, especially when the space given in academe to marginalized folks already seems like it is borrowed.

The Dreaded “Should” In Academia

Note: this blog post was originally published on Write Where It Hurts, and republished on our career advice column on Inside Higher Ed. Dr. J. E. Sumerau is an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Tampa. J. is a regular contributor to Conditionally Accepted. Zir teaching, research and activism focuses on intersections of sexualities, gender, religion, and health in the experiences of sexual, religious, and gender minorities, and zir creative writing, such as the coming of age novel Cigarettes & Wine, focuses on LGBTQ experience in the South.

The Dreaded Should

I should be working on Project X. I should be doing Work-Related Task Y. I should be preparing for Academic Meeting or Conference Z. I should be more productive in comparison to that person, goal or norm. I should be doing more in my work about that issue, problem, population or concern.

I should …

I should …

I should …

“Should” is a word I’ve heard rather often from colleagues in my career, and it often carries with it an expectation that one is not doing enough in some way, shape or form. In such cases, people I know are hardworking, incredibly talented, deeply committed and quite impressive by any measure downplay whatever they are doing, accomplishing or achieving at a given moment based on what more they feel they “should” be doing, accomplishing or achieving.

I must note that I am not in any way disparaging the people in question. Rather, from what I can tell, the dreaded should — as I call it — is something they feel and experience deeply that causes them pain, turmoil or other forms of anxiety and stress. I further recognize, as others have noted, that this “shoulding” is encouraged in academic contexts as well as broader capitalistic contexts. People are constantly exposed to messages suggesting they are not doing enough — requirements that are often incredibly vague and subject to interpretation — and very real fears concerning job security, opportunities and resources in the academy.

Put simply, I am not knocking the people who feel this way, but rather I find it quite impressive that they manage to do so well while feeling these things on a daily basis. For me, their management of such feelings demonstrates a special type of strength wherein one feels regularly that one is losing a game yet somehow manages to continue on, do solid work and inspire and connect with others.

At the same time, as someone who — thus far, it appears — is immune to “shoulding” or thoughts about what I “should” be doing, I think this is a pattern that should be noted, discussed and recognized. Why? Because the effects of such stress on people probably — and from what I have seen, empirically do — take an incredible toll on their happiness, health and well-being. In many cases, for example, I see people who experience their lives in ways where “I should be doing X” overshadows all the things they are doing, takes them away from important self-care and/or leaves them constantly feeling as though nothing will ever be good enough. This is a recipe for negative outcomes, yet it is encouraged in the academy.

I cannot pretend to understand what it is like to feel this way. I tend to live in the moment to the point where even when I need to plan for the future, I don’t do it all that well. But I wanted to talk about how these patterns appear to me, as I often serve as a source of support for many people who experience such feelings. In many cases, I am lucky enough to be helpful to them, but in so doing, I am continuously struck by how powerful and damaging “should” can be in the current academic climate.

As such, I want to highlight here what we may miss when we become — or are trained to become — focused on “should” instead of “did” or “done.” If you are one who often feels as though you should be doing more, take a moment and instead ask yourself, “What have I done?” I ask this simple question all of the time when colleagues start talking about how they should be doing something. Universally, the answers reveal a lot of accomplishments. Odds are you are doing lots of things — personally and/or professionally — that you could be giving yourself credit for, and when I have asked people these questions and they have answered, they often feel better — at least for a little bit. Ask yourself how your life might be different if you could learn — or be trained — to focus on what you did do instead of what you should be doing. I’m not saying this will work for everyone, but in many cases, I have seen people realize that they have accomplished far more than they have been giving themselves credit for.

I also think we need to look at where the dreaded should comes from. Whether through comparisons to other people or norms within a given department or program, it tends to arise from the conditions of contemporary academic life — a culture that is focused on what you are doing next rather than what you have already done. People face serious concerns about, for example, job security; time for lovers, friends, family and self-care; and deadlines tied to advancement or even landing one of an increasingly small pool of decent-paying jobs. Such pressures are greatly exacerbated for academics from marginalized backgrounds and scholars in search of stable employment in the present market context. Each of these factors and many others feed the idea that one a) is never quite good enough, b) should be constantly working toward something new to set oneself apart or meet some (often vague) requirement for a job, tenure or other potential source of stability and c) should spend as much time as possible working on that next thing that will make all the difference.

We see these patterns translate into a continuous series of “shoulds” and “somedays.” When I have the job, then I will focus on my self-care, my personal life, that study I want to do or other factors, but for now, I should be X, Y and Z. When I have tenure, then I can have time for a family, take that trip I have been planning, write about what I really want to write about or otherwise do something else. But for now, I should be X, Y and Z. These types of feelings and statements are not only commonplace among academics, from what I can tell, but also understandable when we consider the broader context of academic norms, markets and opportunities. In all such cases, however, we are encouraged by these structural and interpersonal patterns to downplay right now and what we have achieved, or are achieving, for the sake of some future possibility.

As a result, I find myself wondering how much of the right now people miss due to these patterns. What might academe be like if we were encouraged to celebrate the present moment instead of wishing for the future? What might it be like if we came together against the broader cultural patterns that create such conditions? Until those conditions can be changed, I also wonder what little things each of us can do in our own lives to ease the dreaded should we face and help to lessen the negative consequences of such patterns.

I am not saying it would be easy to change the culture of “should” or the economic and political conditions that facilitate such stress. But I think that we would all benefit if we came together and gave ourselves and one another credit for the tremendous amount we all do accomplish personally, politically and academically. At the very least, I think that we should talk about such issues, help each other as we face and experience these shared conditions in our own ways, and look for ways to create better conditions for ourselves and our colleagues individually and on a broader structural level.

Academic Departments Normalize Sexual Violence By Ignoring It

Note: this blog post was originally published on our career advice column on Inside Higher Ed (here). Donovan A. Steinberg (a pseudonym) is now an assistant professor of social science.

My Professor, the Sexual Predator

Most of us have heard stories of professors who have sexually harassed or assaulted their colleagues or students. The stories covered in the news often involve senior heterosexual men professors who have finally been reprimanded, suspended or fired after years of perpetrating sexual violence — and after several victims have come forward about the violence they have experienced. It seems that the problem has to accumulate a great deal before perpetrators are punished and the rest of the world learns of it.

But these men professors are few and far between. There are countless faculty members who have not harassed or raped enough colleagues and/or students to be punished by the university or to warrant media attention. That is not to suggest that their behavior is not as bad or that their actions have been less damaging to their victims. Sexual harassment is sexual harassment, and rape is rape. The problem is that most of these perpetrators get away with their crimes, even in the rare instances when victims report it or speak publicly about it. Even in the face of clear evidence of sexual violence, it seems that academe tends to defend predators, often because of their status and intellectual reputation, especially relative to their (usually lower-status) victims.

I have enough sense that unpunished sexual violence perpetrated by faculty members is so rampant that I would venture to guess that we all know that guy — that one professor who is known to be at least a little inappropriate with his students and/or junior colleagues. He is that person women grad students and junior faculty are warned to avoid: “He’s really smart, but …” We all know it, but somehow he remains on the faculty. Other people may even defend him: “Oh, that’s just [rapist’s name] being [rapist’s name].” “Boys will be boys.” “Locker room talk.” Sexual violence is so normalized in our society, why should academe be any better about punishing perpetrators and protecting victims?

I give all of this context to justify talking about that guy in my graduate program. I chose not to mention him by name because the details of the sexual violence that he has perpetrated may distract from my larger point: that he is but one of many faculty members who are essentially given a free pass to harass and assault those around them in the department. I will call him “Uncle Rapey” for the sake of this essay.

I actually chose my graduate program because of the faculty members who specialized in my area, including Uncle Rapey. When I visited the program as a prospective graduate student, I had meetings with faculty members to learn more about the program. At the close of each meeting, that professor would walk me to the next faculty member’s office. One professor escorted me to meet with Uncle Rapey after she and I met. She teased him about being good. He retorted that he and I collectively would have at least three legs on the ground at all times. She giggled. My memory perhaps incorrectly recalls her also saying, “Oh, [Rapey].” How cool, I thought, that these professors joked about sex so openly. How naïve I was.

A few months into my first year, I attended a conference, where I reconnected with my undergrad mentor. As we parted, her face turned cold and her tone became serious. She told me, “Stay away from [Uncle Rapey] — promise me you’ll stay away from [Uncle Rapey].” She did not explain further. But I knew that they had worked together in the past, so I assumed she had good reason to warn me about him.

At this point, however, it was too late. I was well into my first (and last) course with him. Every week, I had already been subjected to his sexual jokes — once teasing me and a fellow graduate student about engaging in fisting. At the course’s end, he approached me and another grad student to request that we pose nude for him for his amateur photography (pornography?) work. I declined. And that was certainly the last time I worked with him in any professional capacity, and thereafter tried my best to avoid him. It is difficult, though, when the department keeps faculty like Uncle Rapey involved in departmental affairs. I still remember the time he greeted his genitals as he visited another class I was enrolled in.

But, I got off easy — privileged, to be more accurate. Another student in the department revealed to me the time that Uncle Rapey pushed her against the wall and forced his hand into her vagina after complimenting her on her skirt. She eventually disappeared from the program, probably never finishing her Ph.D. And I know of other women grad students whom he has harassed or assaulted, and some of them never finished their graduate training. Recently, I have heard that a new crop of graduate students is outraged with the department as he remains on faculty, unpunished, given a free pass to assault and harass students. These are only the stories of which I have heard. I can only imagine countless other victims have suffered in silence.

I would argue that when one institution fails to seek justice, it opens the doors for injustice in other institutions. Since my department failed to punish Uncle Rapey, there was little to stop him from perpetuating violence in other academic contexts. He continues to be recognized as a leader in our field, even being honored as awards are named for him.

I have chosen to speak up here because there are many Uncle Rapeys in academe. We all know one or maybe more than one. Departments normalize sexual violence when they look the other way as faculty members abuse their power in harassing or assaulting junior faculty and/or students. In some ways, they actually facilitate sexual violence — as an expression of power — by maintaining hierarchies, wherein senior faculty wield power over junior faculty, grad students, undergraduate students and staff. These professional hierarchies are further compounded by society’s hierarchies — classism, racism, sexism, heterosexism, ableism and ageism.

In the meantime, we have to keep calling out the Uncle Rapeys of academe. Departments and universities must actually put their sexual harassment policies into practice. Victims should be able to easily and confidentially report sexual harassment and assault. And punishments for sexual violence should be blind to the perpetrator’s professional status, as that status may be the very vehicle through which they are allowed to prey on others.

Advice To Graduate Students Experiencing Sexual Violence

Note: the following was originally published on our career advice column on Inside Higher Ed (here). Jen Dylan (a pseudonym) is a Ph.D. candidate in sociology. She stands in solidarity with all graduate student victims of sexual harassment.

7 Steps You Can Take

Sexual harassment comes in many forms, including physical misconduct and verbal and psychological abuse. My own experience with a tenured harasser consisted of an unsolicited kiss and thigh stroke. I eventually decided to confront him directly, stating that his behavior was completely inappropriate and must not happen again. It never did; he kept his distance from then on.

I was lucky. I am privileged in terms of my social location, I did not work in the same area as this faculty member and I had already forged strong relationships with other professors who supported me in all things. In other words, my choice to confront the perpetrator did not pose any harm to my career.

Other grad students in my department were not so lucky. One friend worked with the perpetrator and endured years of psychological abuse. Others in the department faced racist and homophobic verbal abuse or unwanted physical contact. Some endured a combination of all of the above. After a protracted battle on several fronts, our shared perpetrator, who had enjoyed a successful career and was well respected in his field, was asked to retire. Nothing more, nothing less. Those affected were disappointed that he did not face any real consequences for his actions, despite years of documented harassment.

I fear that my experiences and those of my colleagues are far too common. Over the past several years, professors have been accused or convicted of sexually harassing students at the University of California, Berkeley, the University of Chicago and Yale University, among other higher education institutions. However, it is impossible to know how many graduate students have to deal with predatory professors. I am sure many, if not most, victims do not come forward with complaints.

There are several reasons for this. For one, the burden of proof when filing a complaint is often unreasonably high. It can be difficult to collect supporting evidence when the harassment occurs in private contexts. Even if a student does decide to move forward with a grievance or lawsuit, doing so comes at a high cost. If the perpetrator is their supervisor, filing a grievance may put the student’s career in jeopardy. Finding a new supervisor could set them back months, if not years. And academe is a small world. Grad students may not come forward for fear of how it will affect their professional reputation. Finally, all too often, victims of sexual harassment are not even aware of their options for dealing with faculty perpetrators.

I fell into the latter category. It took me a while to figure out how I wanted to deal with the perpetrator. With time, I discovered a network of fellow students and faculty member who had either been victimized or who were willing to take action. Their support helped to clarify the steps that I wanted to take for myself, as well as ways that I could help others. I am not an expert on sexual harassment, and I strongly urge victims to seek out expert guidance that is tailored to their individual experience.

That said, below are some suggestions for action to take that helped some of my colleagues and me through our experiences.

  • Document everything. Write. It. All. Down. Write down times, locations and whether anyone else was present. If you have text or email correspondences, save them. Even if you do not think you that want to do anything about it, you might change your mind months down the road. There is a greater likelihood that your claim will be taken seriously if the harassment or abuse is documented in detail. Or your experience might even provide crucial supporting evidence to help move someone else’s claim forward.
  • If you are privileged along the lines of race, gender, sexuality, ability and/or cultural capital, speak up. For better or worse, your voice gives credence to the experiences of marginalized students in your department. Defend your peers, especially if their complaints are met with hostility. Provide corroborating evidence if you can.
  • Find your people: no matter how well respected the perpetrator is, there is, in all likelihood, a group of faculty members and fellow grad students who are disgusted by the person’s behavior. Seek them out. They may be able to provide comfort and solidarity.
  • Provide helpful advice to younger students as well as those in your own cohort about which faculty members are safe (or not). Doing so ensures that institutional knowledge about the perpetrator gets passed down.
  • Be open yet cautious about going through formal channels when filing a complaint. Administrations may be limited either by a daunting series of legal roadblocks or a lack of will to take action (especially if your perpetrator brings in grant money and is well established in their field). Either way, the burden of proof required to take action is immense, and you may end up mired in a multiyear battle. On a positive note, pursuing a lawsuit or grievance may help you find better social support, as more people become aware of your situation. It may also inspire other victims to come forward, providing more evidence and further helping your case. And while we still have a long ways to go, faculty members in recent years have become more vocal in supporting student victims who have experienced backlash for coming forward. It can be grueling to stay the course, but support is out there.
  • Don’t just blindly follow the guidance you receive from your institution’s sexual harassment or Title IX officers. They operate at the pleasure of the university administration, and while they may be ardent advocates for students, they nevertheless work in a wider organizational context that must contend with operational budgets and public relations optics. Cross-reference their advice with that from a nonprofit or student-run organization that supports victims of sexual harassment.
  • Take the issue to your union. Those grad students lucky enough to work as teaching or research assistants in unionized work settings may be able to file a grievance on the grounds that the perpetrator contributes to a hostile work environment. Unions have resources that make taking action far less burdensome. They have staff dedicated to handling cases of sexual harassment, and they can provide the costly legal support necessary to move lawsuits along.

There is no one-size-fits-all solution to dealing with perpetrators of sexual harassment in academe, and the above list is incomplete at best. LGBTQ and racialized student victims, in particular, confront additional barriers that make taking action all the more difficult. Unfortunately, while grossly unfair, any type of response on the part of victims usually comes at a cost — be it emotional, psychological or professional.

The most important takeaway for victims is this: do you. If you have experienced sexual harassment, do whatever you need to do to get by.

The Culture Of Exploitation In Graduate School Facilitates Sexual Violence

Note: this blog post was originally published on our career advice column on Inside Higher Ed (here). Tara Dorje (a pseudonym) is a Ph.D. candidate at an urban public university in the Midwest. She could not have completed any of this without her colleagues, to whom she is forever grateful; community is integral to individual success, because we are people through people.

Sexual Harassment In A Culture Of Exploitation

I am writing this essay from a deeply vulnerable vantage point. As a graduate student who is currently working on my dissertation, I am caught in a web of power, hierarchies and the bizarre blurring of personal and professional networks.

This essay serves as a start to a conversation about sexual harassment in higher education, specifically to highlight the power dynamics at play. It is also a call to others to take dialogue about abuse seriously. To move forward in fostering equality, we have to listen to one another in ways that promote a broad recognition of how prevalent sexual harassment is in academe.

Last fall, I attended a panel featuring alums from my program. I spoke with one person after the event, and we discovered that we both struggled with being independent, single, white, privileged, cisgender women who dare to express ourselves. I shared with her, for example, that two of three men professors on my master’s committee sexually propositioned me — one during the program, one right after. It turned out, coincidentally, that while the alum had graduated nearly a decade before me, one of those professors (white, late 60s, tenured) had sexually propositioned her, too, during her early graduate school days. Each of us had him on our graduate committee and each accepted research assistantships with him, while intermittently receiving romantic offers.

Those offers sometimes came cloaked in conference presentations or publications, while other times were disguised as “friendly favors” — like renting a room in his very nice home, carpooling or meals together that far more resembled dates than mentoring. This professor was the most famed in the department and his field, married with grown children and apparently always seeking women graduate students as playmates.

My colleague and I both share a professional loss. When we declined his advances, we lost an important source of collaboration and recommendations for future jobs, grants, publications and other opportunities. After years of research and teamwork, he told her she should ask other faculty members for letters of reference. I was a little bit luckier; I blew up the bridge earlier in my training. I knew back then far too well that asking this professor for anything, let alone for professional favors, was out of the question.

What is the cost to graduate students who are subjected to sexual harassment? How much is lost in opportunity and social capital? How many letters of reference disappear each year? All of the relationships we foster in graduate school are so intertwined with elements of our future success. The power dynamics work in such ways that, as grad students, you will submit to your professors. You will be second, fifth or whatever author spot they assign to you (often regardless of the work distribution), you will go out to dinner with them as requested and you will perform emotional labor by listening to each whim or wonder — all the while frittering away your most valuable resource: time.

Perhaps this just foreshadows the disproportionate demands for service that women later receive as professors, as well — thereby facilitating the reproduction of gender inequality throughout higher education. None of this even touches on the time needed to cope with the emotional strain in lost hours of self-care and the additional emotional labor of processing everything. (“Did this really happen? Am I overreacting? What can I do to defend myself?”)

Stories abound about professors who were known sexual harassers getting fired from one university only to be hired elsewhere, always landing on their feet and likely with their hands down other students’ pants. Higher education institutions tend to recycle more abuse than prevent it, remaining complicit in rape culture even though alternatives to reproducing sexism are available. Look no farther than the continuing headlines or stories we have all heard in academe that blame the graduate students, trivializing or denying unwanted sexual advances or actions and refusing to acknowledge the harm caused by such circumstances.

Consequently, I have never taken action. I am afraid of retaliation, so much so that I write this piece under a pen name. Retaliation is a real thing. Simply because I’ve deflected advances, professors have ceased to see me as a professional or respect me as a human being. Interactions are both caustic and insulting, laced with reminders of only their desire (running eyes up and down my body, comments about being on a diet or otherwise referencing my appearance, and so on).

It all furthers the feeling that speaking up will bring far more trouble than it is worth to ever file a formal complaint in an often-hostile organization. I have real fear and concerns that my efforts will just be dismissed, that I will be pinned with a scarlet letter, that I will lose out in funding decisions — and that, ultimately, life will go on as if nothing happened. Instead, I choose to keep quiet.

In all of my years of graduate school, the most unifying and well-attended graduate student meeting last fall addressed some of the most volatile issues and continuing forms of harassment in our department. The main theme identified and agreed upon by fellow graduate students was an overarching atmosphere of abuse, lying and bullying. It was clearly recognized the core issue: that faculty-student relationships are always adversarial as a result of power differences.

While we did not exactly mount an inquisition that day, we did successfully request a meeting with our academic administrators. In response, students (not faculty members, mind you!) received an educational visit from the university’s designated office for handling sexual harassment. Those baby steps have far from provided the support victims of sexual violence need in order to feel encouraged to come forward. It is clear that we must organize and support one another. It is clear that we are in this together. I am cut, you bleed.

But I am left with more questions than answers. How do we develop a collective callout system that supports survivors and holds perpetrators accountable? How do we help graduate students, junior faculty members and other academics to speak up about incidents of sexual harassment that are “difficult to prove” and not as “simple” as cases of rape? What kind of role could restorative justice play here? How can we flip the script in a society that supports and rewards abuse, deception and bullying? My experience with repeated sexual harassment throughout my seven years of graduate training shows how difficult it is to talk about this exploitation, to come forward, to finally bring an end altogether to the tolerance of sexual harassment in academe.

We need to acknowledge the risks in reporting sexual violence that result from power differentials in higher education — notably, the real potential of retaliation. Furthermore, the institutions and individuals within academe too often harm when attempting to help by misdirected, futile and otherwise ineffectual offices, policies and procedures that fail to address the roots of the abuse.

We need to actively create a culture in which speaking out about instances of sexual harassment is supported, encouraged, taken seriously and appropriately addressed. I therefore welcome and promote dialogue that calls out mistreatment and leads to taking action as an important first step — however big or small.