An Important Caveat About Self-Care For Academics

Grace CaleGrace Cale is a PhD student in sociology (full biography at the end). In this guest post, Grace makes an important distinction between “self-care” and “soothing” activities, where the difference is long-term versus short-term benefit, respectively, to our health and well-being. Are your usual self-care strategies just momentary distractions? Or, do they promote long-term wellness and balance?  Read on to find out!


“Self-Care” vs. “Soothing”:

Not Necessarily So Warm And Fuzzy

Folks, it’s no secret: academia is not an easy world to inhabit. For many of us, while learning to navigate this unique place for the first time (or experiencing new difficulties), we often find that our usual mechanisms for coping with extreme stress cease to function effectively. This is the time where we give up trying to work for the day (or week), sit in an armchair cocooned in a blanket, and read articles on self-care. Self-care is important. It is a thing, which, to put it simply, allows us to keep going. Stress and work drain our little metaphorical bucket of energy, and self-care is supposed fill that bucket back up. This can be read on nearly any article on the topic. But, that is not why I am writing to you today.

Instead, today, I take issue with the content of many of these articles. For metaphorical-bucket-recovery, those who give self-care advice often recommend things like:

  • Bubble baths
  • Wine and a good book
  • Going for a walk in nature
  • Dinner with friends
  • Seeing a movie
  • Chilling at home with some Netflix

Some of these things work for some people, and that’s great. My long-time escape? Minecraft and comic-book-based movies and TV shows. But after a while of using this self-care strategy, I noticed something. These things served as a great distraction, but after several desperately-self-caring hours of such activities, I felt no more prepared to tackle the endless pile of work. As stress levels grew high enough to affect my physical health, I explored our university counseling services, where I discovered the difference between self-care and soothing.

Clearly these things won’t fit all readers. But if I have had this issue, I imagine some others may have, as well. I discovered that the activities that I enjoyed, while pleasant, served almost as a security blanket. They soothed my anxieties in those moments, but did nothing to alleviate the problem of overwork. When a therapist first told me this, I panicked. Self-care has to solve my problem? My problem is too much work! The only way to make it go away is to work, but it never ends, and I can’t work 24/7, and and and … and figurative hyperventilation ensued. Luckily, eternal work was not the solution. Instead, to make a long story short, through various programs and meetings, I learned a valuable lesson: Self-care is vital, but is not always soothing, nor must it be.

So, what does soothing actually refer to? When my therapist mentioned it, I was somehow mildly offended, as if someone had told me that I rely on a security blanket to get by as an adult. However, the metaphor is somewhat apt. Soothing behaviors, in this case, tend to be those things that, in the moment, calm your anxiety or worry. So, in my case, I was relying on distractions and entertainment to make me feel better, but these things did not actually provide any long-term healing, and did not strengthen my ability to cope with stress. It traded long-term growth in resilience for temporary soothing of discomfort.

What we are left with, then, is the imperative to find some way of taking care of ourselves, which may or may not also soothe our stresses and anxieties, which actually provides for our longer-term health, well-being, personal growth, and so on. As academics who may or may not have these skills, we need to have methods of self-care which serve us and the careers and lives for which we aspire. But these necessary means of self-care may not provide momentary relief.

Now, of course, if you find something that you enjoy and it actually refills your metaphorical energy bucket, by all means, do that. And it is certainly unwise to engage in “self-care” behaviors that are necessarily dangerous, painful, or so stressful that they are counterproductive. But I had believed that self-care must be something distinctly pleasant, enjoyable, or fun. For me, the magical solution ended up being two things I flatly disliked, and one thing I liked: yoga and mindfulness meditations, and studying a language (which happened to help my dissertation). These things may not work for everyone, but they did for me. Yoga provided low-social-pressure physical exercise (good for the bucket, and health in general), and required focus because of its difficulty (which helped keep me from expending energy thinking about work that I should be doing). For 10-20 minutes at a time, I would do guided meditations, which also helped me to divert my mind away from the energy-waste of constant work-oriented thoughts. It also turns out I loved studying a language, and the joy of learning helped remind me (in part) why I decided upon a career in research. It didn’t fix everything, but I did experience some improvement in my ability to function, and came down from the ledge of an overwhelmed breakdown.

However, as we consume the nearly countless offerings of articles on how to be kind to ourselves in our lives and careers, let us not forget that while self-care might sooth our stresses in the moment, many soothing activities do not necessarily constitute real self-care. I write this long, winding story to remind folks of two key things: if you have a self-care routine that works for you and you enjoy it, by all means, do that. But if you’re still struggling to fill your little perseverance pail, try out some of those things people say you should do, even if you don’t love them. If you can stand it, give it a thought. Exercise. It doesn’t have to be public, easy or hard. But do anything that you can actually keep up regularly. I do yoga video podcasts in my home office. Try meditation (some of the benefits are supported by research), or creative writing, or whatever you feel gives your brain a break from its constant processing.

We all signed up for this academic life. While we sometimes question those decisions, three things are for sure. It’s a ton of work, it’s exhausting, and we’ve got to keep our wells of energy full. We have to prioritize self-care in order to give our best to our communities, our departments, our students, and our allies in activism. We must, nay, we deserve to be well!



Grace Cale is a PhD student in sociology.  Having gained her undergraduate degree from a college that specifically accepts marginalized and impoverished students, she is a passionate ally to many causes of social justice. Her research interests focus on political participation, social movements, neoliberalism, markets, and financialization. She can be reached at cale [dot] grace [at] uky [dot] edu.

Dear Department, I Quit.

The following post is by an anonymous guest blogger, who writes about her growing frustration with her colleagues and the culture of her department.

Photo by Quinn Dombrowski

Photo by Quinn Dombrowski (


Dear Department, I Quit.

Dear Department,

I quit.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t literally quit. You pay me a pretty decent salary. I’m not really trained to work in the real world. And for the first time in my life, I have dental benefits.

Don’t think that means, however, that I haven’t spent the majority of the past two years thinking about quitting. The fact that I don’t love my job – or even like it most days – as a professor has been one of the biggest shocks of my professional life.

In retrospect, the revolving door of junior professors who filled my position then abruptly left for the 3-4 years before I accepted it should have been a warning sign. As should have been the sheer number of new colleagues who stopped by my office in the first three months of my job to reassure me that we weren’t that dysfunctional – we were just experiencing some challenges.

I can’t actually quit. But here is my notice that I figuratively quit. I will give you the work that is required of me – the courses you assign me to teach, and the one committee on which I am required to serve – but that’s it. No more volunteering for extra committees. No more organizing events. No extra assistance for the graduate students you send my way for just a bit of extra help. No more consoling the ones who feel abused. No more listening to gossip in my office, helping to smooth hurt feelings, or nudging department politics.

Instead, you get the bare minimum. Like so many of my senior professor colleagues before me, I have decided to make my career all about me.

I quit because the burden of teaching necessary to effectively run our program falls on me and my other junior colleagues. I am sick of being part of a college where teaching is valued only as lip service, one where the reality is that everyone seems to expend more effort trying to figure out how to get out of teaching than that actually exerted in the classroom. I used to love teaching, but your hatred of it is bringing me down. It is spilling into my experience and ruining one of my favorite things. I refuse to let this happen anymore.

I quit because of the burden of service and administration that has been place on me. Or rather, I quit because of your lack of gratitude for the service that I provide when ostensibly I am protected from such service until tenure. A simple “thank you” or “good job” would go a long way, probably with colleagues of all ranks. I am sick of receiving no mentorship in how to perform these tasks, but then being criticized for doing them “incorrectly.” Last, I am sick of being told that I have no idea how good I have it as an assistant professor, and how this is the best phase of my career.

I quit because of the condescension I receive toward my rank from those above me. I acknowledge that I don’t know what it is like to be a senior professor. I would appreciate it if my senior colleagues would acknowledge that they don’t know what it is like to be a junior professor in 2015. Tenure is no longer guaranteed. Grant success rates for my field are at an all time low. My interdisciplinary research (allegedly all the rage right now) is difficult to publish, but my tenure expectations are the same as my colleagues with more traditional research programs. The administrative burden for professors is higher and higher as work gets delegated to us from above (but the administration bloats at the same time). My tenure standards don’t take this into account either. I will spend one-third of my career paying off the student loan and credit card debt I incurred in graduate school. My stress over this environment is dismissed as me being silly.

I come from a generation that increasingly values a life beyond my career. This does not mean that I am less dedicated than the (mostly white men) colleagues who have historically walked these halls before me. Academia as a profession, like many others, is suffering from an epidemic of mental health concerns including depression, anxiety, and suicidality. Being shamed for looking after myself is not only inappropriate, but also disgusting.

I quit because of the everyday sexism I have to experience. Including that from senior female colleagues. I am so fatigued by this that I don’t even have the emotional or mental energy to say more.

Last, I quit because I am sick of the politics. I knew that academia was cut-throat business. I knew it valued the individual over the team. What I didn’t know is that I would be surrounded by coworkers who seem to spend a substantial proportion of their time endeavoring to screw each other over. Who create back-room deals that serve to exacerbate the gross inequities of academia. Who, then, act as though my junior colleagues and I are naïve when such deals (which usually only benefit senior colleagues) upset us.

I quit. I am tired of forcing myself to engage in a system where the only path to personal happiness and health seems to be to disengage. So I give in. I disengage. From now on, you only get the most basic things I have to give, and nothing more.

I don’t know what my long-term future entails for my career. Maybe it is time to start looking for a new job. I see so many academic blogs and Twitter accounts describing how terrible academia is…. It is nearly impossible to believe my situation could be any better somewhere else. Perhaps the one advantage to this experience is that it leads me to consider new career opportunities post-tenure. For now I’m going to focus on my own little world, and making it as positive as I can. What do I want my research to look like? What kind of instructor do I want to be? Who do I want to be, beyond a professor? Now that I’m (figuratively) quitting, I should at least have a lot more time on my hands to figure this out.

Invisibly Ill: Notes on Being Academic and Bipolar

sethSeth is a PhD candidate and adjunct professor at a large public university. His research lies at the intersection of feminist, queer, and affect theories, exploring the emotional experience of reading. He has taught classes in feminist theory, American sexuality, and gendered violence. He was diagnosed with bipolar disorder six years ago.  In this guest blog post, Seth reflects on navigating graduate school, the classroom, and academia in general with bipolar disorder.


Each night before bed, I pack my school bag. I carefully place the next day’s lesson plans, papers, and books inside, propping it on a certain chair at my work table all ready to go.  The routine calms me. Two minutes later I retreat to my bedroom and take my now-reflexive drug regime of mood stabilizers, antidepressants, and sleep medication that will allow me to stand in front of my class and critique the very systems (big pharma and the mental health industrial complex) that have saved my own life.

However, my students and most of my colleagues will never know this about me. In fact, from childhood and up to the point where I started writing my dissertation, I racked up several suicide attempts and had willingly overdosed twice. Some of this occurred while I have been in graduate school, but I have taken great pains to keep this information quiet. I know that I am privileged to have gotten emergency treatment on those occasions, to have insurance for my medications, and to be able to go to ongoing therapy even if it is extremely expensive on my adjunct salary. But most of all, I am fortunate have an accepting partner and chosen family. I am thankful for these things everyday; without them I would not be alive.

Navigating Academia With Bipolar

I am a walking contradiction. I teach my students about celebrating difference, but I actively hide and conceal this part of my “difference.” Sometimes it is scary for me to even wear short sleeves during the summer because I worry my students will notice the self-inflicted scars on my arms while I am handing back papers. It’s not that I do not spend hours thinking about telling them. I constantly wonder if speaking about my invisible disability could serve as a transformative teaching moment. But I resist partially because I am afraid, and partially because I want privacy and to keep my dignity intact.

Interestingly, I am out to my students as transgender; they know both my preferred and birth names due to the school’s computer systems and we talk about it in class. I feel no shame about my transition, social or medical. They have seen me physically change, pried apart my body with their curious eyes, heard me talk about my boyfriend as well as various ex girlfriends.

But, I have never spoken publicly about having bipolar disorder or how this diagnosis, which came suddenly during my master’s degree, was devastating. I rarely tell people that during my initial episode: when I brought him letters documenting my disability and the accommodations I needed in order to merely survive, my Latin professor told me that my illness was just a sign I was not strong enough or smart enough for graduate school or academia in general. In that moment I learned that silence was the unspoken rule to sneaking through the maze of graduate school with mental illness. I never spoke about it again, until now.

When I defended my master’s thesis a year later, it did not feel like a celebration of my achievements or scholarly future, but more a militant statement of productivity in the face of hate and discrimination. I showed up at the door of my doctoral institution refusing to register my disability with the campus disability office, knowing that the more that I could “pass,” the better. I now believe this was wrong and the result of an academic climate that values robotic productivity and turns away from any difference, physical, mental, or other.

At my university, as with many universities in the United States, in order for a student to get accommodations or recognition for having any type of disability, they must register themselves through a disability services office that uses various criteria to determine what, if any, help to which they are “entitled.” For example, students with ADD might be given extra exam time, which the office decides on based on the students’ medical files. The problem with this model is that these offices run via a complex mixture of gatekeeping and fear. And with mental illness, something so personalized and dynamic, the situation is infinitely more complicated. Students needing accommodations due to mental illness first have to find doctors or therapists willing to meet them and then ultimately write on their behalf, all in a potentially new city and while on their own for the first time, sometimes without parental support or even understanding. Plus, this requires time, knowledge of insurance companies, and money. Yes, there may be a free counseling center on campus, but appointments can be booked months in advance (as with my university), so students often suffer in shame and silence.

Given these barriers, faculty are faced with the difficult task of deciding whether to give accommodations to “undocumented” student. Often, these students will explain to their professors that they are coping with a challenging situation, but found the disability services office too scary to navigate, or that counseling services was full and they did not have a car or funds to get to an off campus therapist. For example, I’ve had students tell me they were mourning the loss of a parent and that they needed extra time for assignments because they were depressed and at times could not handle their homework. Some of my colleagues choose not to give any accommodations to these students unless the depression is a registered “reality,” because they say students lie. But, I always treat these afflictions as tangible and serious. To give up privacy in this way usually means something is truly happening. Even if the university processes students and their individual affective problems as broken worker bees who ruin the hive, I refuse. I always think about my Latin teacher and how he processed me.

Bipolar Disorder As A Disability In Academia

As someone with bipolar disorder who is heavily medicated, I consider myself to have a disability. I know this is not the case for every non-neurotypical person, but it has helped me mourn the loss of a certain type academic life I know that I will never have due to the limitations of both bipolar and its accompanying treatments. I am currently writing my dissertation, but it is taking me longer than other students. I go to conferences, but maybe only one major association a year and one smaller one. Every step I take, paper I grade, or time I set up a student appointment is influenced by bipolar. For example, I have had to cancel class numerous times when my medications were adjusted because I could not mentally focus on my course material; I cannot schedule exams too early in the morning because sometimes I am shaky or too tired to leave the house; I flinch and become jarred when my students scream out during class because loud sounds scare me. And sometimes, even my huge arsenal of medications and various treatment team fails me. But, that’s the nature of this illness: I get manic or depressed, which leaves me hoping I will not have to go to the hospital. Bipolar is always a student in my classroom every semester; I always wonder how much he will join the discussion.

In an academic climate that favors unparalleled perfection and rewards those who reject affect-based learning, it would make sense why I have remained mute to my students (and lots of faculty) despite teaching classes on disabled sexuality and writing a dissertation focused on psychiatry, sexuality, and affect. I fear that I will be exposed as unproductive, incompetent, or weak. From Day One of graduate school, they told me the best scholars wrote the most books. With a life-altering illness, it is hard to think of myself as ever having that ability to compete on that level even though I technically haven’t even centered the arena because I am still in graduate school. Bipolar has taken so much time from me and I mourn it everyday I see yet another colleague publish an article or win a fellowship. I simply cannot do all of the herculean academic tasks demanded by the current state of affairs. I can do some and try to modify, like when I went to an Ivy League summer school and snuck away from several of the large evening lectures to rest in my dorm room and call home for some grounding. Humanities jobs are scarce (like we all know) and I am already at a disadvantage because of my health. I know that I need to adjust my idea of success and what it means. I am learning that this adjustment does not equate me with failure, just difference.

Mostly at this point, at a time that I feel stable, I worry for my students who are learning that silence is the only way to get through college, that is it is better to fail a course than to tell a teacher about one’s anxiety or depression because the stigma of mental illness is worse than the stigma of perceived laziness. To those students I say: I may never see you and you may never see me, but we are not alone.

Life’s Turning Points And My Academic Career

"Crossroads - Cruïlla" by MorBCN

“Crossroads – Cruïlla” by MorBCN

My career path thus far has been bumpy and unpredictable.  In this essay, I reflect on major turning points in my life — positive and negative — that have steered my academic career.


My loose plans to become a mathematician as a rising high school senior have led me to a career in sociology, working as a professor just one state south of home (Maryland). My goal to attend a liberal arts college for my undergraduate studies did not lead me to become “a big fish in a small pond.”  Yet, today, I am a professor at a liberal arts college. The big price tag and small scholarship offered from those liberal arts colleges were discouraging to my parents. That led me to a state school of medium size, a growing reputation, and that offered a full scholarship for STEM majors. But, within a year, math no longer held my interest, and no other STEM major could.  So, I left the Meyerhoff Scholars Program on blind faith that I would find alternative funding. I did, without constraints on my major.  I ended up double-majoring in sociology and psychology, with a certificate in women’s studies.

Early in college at the University of Maryland Baltimore County (UMBC), I took a leadership role in the school’s LGBTQ student group. Though I moved on to the student events planning group – a much bigger budget, more clout – I began advocating for the creation of a campus resource center for LGBTQ students, as well as other LGBTQ initiatives. At the peak of our group’s efforts, we caught the attention and commitment of the university’s president. But, our efforts were stalled by the bureaucratic response of creating a university task force to conduct a needs assessment.

I turned my attention to graduating and applying to graduate schools.  I was encouraged by two advisors in sociology to devote my honors thesis to a topic that would help to advance my advocacy, and help me to look good to grad school admissions committees. I decided to study anti-LGBTQ attitudes among students at UMBC. With my advisors’ support and encouragement, as well as that from other faculty, staff, administrators, and fellow students, I felt validated in pursuing a career as an activist-scholar. I had finally seen that one could forge a career that brought together teaching, research, and advocacy.

Then, There Was Grad School…

I looked to continue on the path of becoming an activist-scholar beyond graduation.  As with many (naive) student-activist, I assumed graduate school would help me to become a better activist.  But, I prioritized finding a program that would help me excel academically.  Weighing possibilities of student affairs, gender studies, and sociology, I decided on PhD programs in the latter field because I assumed it may afford access to the other two fields, but not vice versa. I applied to programs with strengths in sexualities, including those that might allow training in gender studies (e.g., joint PhD, MA, or graduate minor). Half of the six schools rejected me, half accepted me. The collegiality and resources at Indiana University made the decision even easier.

I entered grad school with the goal of studying queer people of color and racism in LGBTQ communities using qualitative methods. But, I soon learned every detail of that plan was not considered “mainstream” sociology. Those interests — a joint PhD in gender studies, for example — were not encouraged, for they would not lead to (R1) jobs. And, it was made clear that grad school is designed to “beat the activist” out of students. Those marginal interests to which I clang became private matters – secrets, even. The rest were lost in pursuit of a mainstream career.

I was not certain that I would even get past the master’s degree. I was miserable during my first year, and then depressed in my second. During winter break of Year 2, a major car accident that coincided with (or was caused by) a bad stomach virus rendered me unable to care for myself. I couldn’t even open a bottle of pain reliever because of my badly injured hand. My mother, though angry that I totaled her car, looked after me for a few days.  I felt helpless, yet extremely grateful for my mother’s care.

Something about the experience forced me to make a tough decision: leave grad school already or make it work!  I was wasting my time being miserable. So, I decided to stay and threw myself into my work. Teaching for the first time during my third year was a saving grace. So, the unforeseen curse of the blessing of a fellowship was being unable to teach; I was “freed” from teaching to focus on research. The severity of my Generalized Anxiety Disorder became worse late in Year 4.  I asked my advisors whether I could defer my fellowship for one year to teach during Year 5, citing concerns about my mental health.  My request was mocked as foolish, and my mental health problems were dismissed.  One professor theorized the mental illness stemmed from “too much service”; another told me “a little bit of anxiety is good” to fuel productivity.  I decided to make my fifth year the last before going on the job market.

Three Funerals And A Wedding

While focusing exclusively on research, I stumbled into research on discrimination and health, which later became the topic of my dissertation.  I presented my first paper on discrimination and health at the 2011 annual meeting of the American Sociological Association in Las Vegas.  I felt the presentation went well.  But, during the Q&A, two senior scholars argued back and forth about the measures I used.  The paper seemed hopelessly doomed.  But, after the session ended, another senior scholar said to me, “great paper!”  I felt reassured.  When he leaned a little more, his tame tag fell, displaying one of the biggest names in medical sociology!

That evening, my parents and I had dinner. When my mother left the table, my dad looked at me seriously and said, “don’t forget what is most important to you – to make a difference.” His words surprised me. I began to tear up, trying to hide it by looking away.  But, I should not have been surprised, as my parents know that I am an activist, and are aware I pursued graduate training to better equip me to make a difference.  I suspect he saw how excited I was following the successful presentation, and worried I might get caught up in academic fame or prestige, thus losing sight of the world outside of the ivory tower.

Before we left Las Vegas, there was an earthquake in the DC area – very unusual for home. And, on their flight home, my parents received word that my 19-year-old cousin, Danny, had passed away from a grand mal seizure. I had to stay in Indiana for a week before going to Maryland for his funeral. I cried sometimes, but the weight of this tragedy did not fully hit me until I was with other grieving family.  At Danny’s funeral, grief seemed to strike me hard.  At one point, I cried heavily into my hands for five minutes, which felt like forever. My parents took turns holding me, attempting to console me. I hadn’t been held by them like that since I was a child. I guess I have not needed it since then. I was also sick at the time – pneumonia (something I had never had before then).  I was out from work for another week after the funeral to recover.

The very unexpected silver lining from this tragedy was meeting my partner, Eric, on my way back from the airport.  I initially told him that I was not interested in a relationship because I was grieving.  I did not want to burden someone whom I was just beginning to date by relying on him emotionally so heavily.  But, I slowly opened to the idea over time, though making very clear that I was planning to graduate and leave Indiana within two years; I was not looking for anything casual.  So, we became official.

Danny’s death, and all of these other events, changed something in me. After thirteen years of atheism, I found myself questioning things. Out of such a tragedy that I thought would confirm my atheism, I ended up believing again. Maybe there was something meaningful to come from his death. The not-so-coincidental illness that followed forced me to take my own health seriously. Life could end at any moment. Do I want to waste it selling out, attempting to appease others, or chasing status?  No!

In summer 2012, I published my first solo-authored paper in the Journal of Health and Social Behavior, the top journal in medical sociology in the US.  So, I felt confident to go on the job market in my sixth year. I faced resistance in going so early (by the department’s standards), but I was not convinced it would benefit me to stay longer.  “But, you’ll have more time to think,” was not selling me on the idea of another year on grad student wages.  Department funding was not guaranteed.  And, I could barely muster the patience to even finish my sixth year, let alone one or two more years thereafter.

Shortly after my successful proposal defense, I attended my sister and her partner’s wedding.  Caught up in the sentiment of the day, I felt I knew, then, that I wanted to get married, and that I wanted it to be with my partner, Eric. But, the happy day was eclipsed by news that my uncle was in the hospital. He had stomach cancer. He died within a month – pneumonia. He was HIV-positive – a consequence (I was told) of being in the closet all of his life, having secretive and possibly condomless sex with other men. If he could have been out, would he still be alive today? The contrast of my sister’s wedding (she’s white and middle-class) to my uncle’s death (he was a Black, poor, frequencly-homeless veteran) was striking. Inequality aside, I found yet another sign from the universe: be authentic.

At the start of my final semester, my grandfather fell and hit his head. He had an aneurism. There was hope of recovery; at 97 years, what could stop him now? But, he later had a stroke and ultimately passed. I flew to Pittsburgh from Indiana along with my cousin, who had already been attending IU for a year, though we had never connected until then.  Just as we made it to the hospice, our grandfather passed. It was as though he heard our call from downstairs and decided to pass on rather than let us see him suffering. My sister and I weren’t out to him, but apparently he already knew. I felt I had missed my chance to be totally open with him; our father didn’t think grandpa would understand because of his age. But, I was more disappointed that he wouldn’t make it to my graduation in just four months. I knew ailing health or not, he would be there – he promised me that. Almost 100 years on earth! What was his secret? The four Hs, of course: “health, hope, happiness, and home.” The man danced when and where he pleased – literally. What’s the point of embarrassment?

A New Perspective

I may be weird, maybe too reflective for looking for signs and meaning. But, it seemed the universe started to scream at me to get me to listen: life is short. Why not live authentically? Why not live it up without shame and embarrassment?  Why let a career control my life?

In the past few years, I have worked to live in the moment, to assume today could be my last. I have begun prioritizing self-care and authenticity in my life, and my career.  I chose a job that celebrates a commitment to teaching, community service, and even advocacy (even my advocacy). Today, I am working on becoming healthier and more authentic en route to tenure. I refuse to keep putting my life, my family, and my values on hold until I … get a job … get tenure … get a promotion … die?  I need job security, but I don’t need an institution to define my worth. (I did my time in grad school. Enough already!)

I hope what others take from this is encouragement to let life offer new directions. Check yourself – how often do you let your job’s demands dictate your life? Do you only consider your health, family, personal life, etc., after the fact, if ever? Do you fill up your schedule only to get angry when life pushes back on work-life imbalances? Do you work until you are exhausted or sick?  Do you put off X until you… get a job/tenure/full professor/retire/die?

I have learned from having a form of mental illness, now for four years, that our bodies tell us when they need something – rest, food, sleep, water, activity. When you chronically ignore it, you set yourself up for health problems. Now, I have to check my body for physical manifestations of anxiety and stress: chest pains, numbness, tightened muscles, shortness of breath, eye-twitching, digestive problems, insomnia, teeth-grinding, headaches, nausea, bad dreams, etc. I am still working to change my perspective, work habits, and lifestyle to effectively manage and hopefully eliminate the anxiety. Allowing those turning points in life has been a matter of health.

It is not too late for me to make changes, though I wish I didn’t need three deaths in the family and anxiety to push me to change. It is my hope that future generations of scholars learn to prioritize self-care from the start of their careers – and that their advisors equip them with the tools and resources to do so.  It would make academia a healthier and happier place.

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.”

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

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?


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.