I’m a fifth-year PhD student, finishing the seventh year of my graduate studies overall. I’ve been trained in pedagogy, in writing a thesis, in publishing articles, in archival research, in networking, in library research, in organizing conferences, professionalizing, in mastering a field of literature.
But never have I been trained in how to deal with the emotional and psychological stress of writing a dissertation.
It has been difficult, to say the least. My mind is constantly hovering around the exigencies of the imminent job market, and on where my academic partner and I might find ourselves the year after next. Will we find jobs? In the same place? In the same country? WHAT WILL HAPPEN?! Needless to say, these persistent thoughts and questions do not inspire passion or motivation to write about fourteenth-century apocalypse prologues written in Anglo-Norman. They do not push me to delve deeply into my dissertation material, or traipse gleefully through bibliography items. They make me question the point of it all, and they are deeply and profoundly unproductive.
And there are other things. At this advanced stage, many in my cohort have become isolated with our projects, rarely crossing paths and engaging in the fun, collegial decompression and emotional support that occurred frequently during coursework. I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one gripped with fear and anxiety about The Future; we all develop our own coping strategies, sequestering ourselves with our work, pouring all free time into surfing listservs for networking and publishing opportunities, simply attempting to stay sane with television and other hobbies and relationships. (I frequently insist that we need to maintain lives outside academia, to enjoy these years as funded [hopefully, if insufficiently] graduate students, not because doing so will make us more productive as academics [though it will], but because “academic” is not the sum total of my identity, as much as the academic superstructure attempts to inculcate our identities differently.)
A little over a year ago, Jana reposted this article from The Guardian about the “culture of acceptance” in academia over mental health issues—not only is mental illness rampant in academic culture, but it becomes almost a marker of accomplishment, as though if you don’t push yourself to the brink of depression or alcoholism, you’re not doing it right (in the follow-up to this article, various PhD students suffering from mental illness share their stories as they battle the attitude of “if you can’t stand the heat, you shouldn’t be here”). A post on The Professor Is In assesses the paralyzing effects of academia’s uniform dependence on “the principle of external validation. You are good only if others in authority authorize that you are good. Your comps, your diss, your job docs, your job talk, your book, your article, your grant proposal, your tenure case…all live or die based on the judgment and approval of people ‘above’ you. And the properly socialized academic makes that approval the core of their identity.” I really do want to follower Dr. Karen’s [edgy] advice to “write like a motherfucker”—to “say no to the less-than status, the linking of your identity to others’ judgment, the servile dependence on others’ stamp of approval.” Sure….I’m all about empowerment and fierceness, but–barring leaving the profession (a perfectly viable choice, of course, but I’m still holding out hope here), how do we do that, exactly?
I wish I had more answers to such questions, but I guess I’ll just keep striving for a healthy work-life balance while fighting against the complacency fostered by the #DWYL neoliberal dictum, as Melissa has so eloquently blogged about. Despite my whining, I have some wonderful, brilliant, and supportive friends, both inside and outside the institution, and I’ve been part of productive academic communities, such as the online writing group that Christy Pottroff described a couple weeks ago. I have library buddies, yoga buddies, and cat buddies. I think I’ll be okay, but the point stands: there are some serious structural changes that need to happen in order to begin to reverse the endemic guilt and anxiety that thrives in precarious academic communities, and a simple bulleted list of coping mechanisms and facile individualized solutions just ain’t gonna cut it for me right now.