On mental health and exhaustion in grad school

One final thought on my last post about the crazy sacrifices academia demands from you: I think what was actually most upsetting about the whole scenario wasn’t that these two professors were going around giving crazy advice, or that some students reacted to it with bitter humor rather than outrage, but that, even worse, other students thought that these professors were really “telling it like it is,” “being honest about the state of the job market.” “The job market is really tough right now, they’re just giving us straight talk on what you have to be willing to do if you want a chance – if people aren’t willing to make sacrifices then they shouldn’t be in this profession.” Ok, thank you – I wasn’t willing to sacrifice my relationships or my interest in things other than my narrow field of research, and I decided that I indeed should not be in the profession.

But the thing is that these professors’ advice is not in fact “straight talk” about the realities of the academic job market. The reality of the academic job market is that there are simply not enough jobs for the many talented, qualified people who make all kinds of sacrifices to finish their PhDs every year. Making enormous sacrifices in your personal life will not guarantee that you find a job. It’s not like the people that write your letters of recommendation will say, “AnotherPostAcademic cares so much about the profession that zie was willing to give up everything else that mattered to hir to succeed!” Or, god, maybe they will. There are a few things you can do that will probably make your chances of getting a job better (and “better”, considering how bad the market is in the humanities, is still almost meaningless here) – having a “marketable” dissertation topic (whatever that means), having published articles, and having a decent amount of teaching experience – beyond that, the job market lottery is pretty random. You can’t control your odds of success by being really really really super dedicated to your work, and it is not “honest” or “telling it like it is” to advise students to make incredible sacrifices when the real odds are that regardless of what they do or how smart or dedicated they are, they will not find a tenure-track job. End of story.

Ok, I spent longer on that than I meant to – what I really came here to talk about today is what prompted my exit from grad school. Other post-ac bloggers have written about the issue of mental health in grad school, and I think it’s important to acknowledge the serious toll academia can take on one’s mental well-being. I’m sure, for those who have done the dissertation, especially with unresponsive or excessively difficult committees, that it can be its own new circle of hell (even more so if you’ve started to hate the work). For me, preparing for Ph.D. exams was bad enough that I had no interest in sticking around for more fun after that particular horror show.

In my program (and I imagine this is the case elsewhere), there are recommendations for how many items should be on your exam lists, but they are only recommendations. I once heard that when the topic of creating real limits to the number of texts students could be asked to read came up in faculty meetings, some faculty refused to even discuss the issue because they were so fixated on their particular way of doing things. The result was that the length of lists varied quite widely. Some people worked with sane committees who stuck with the recommended amount of reading; others (yours truly) had one or more committee members with very different ideas of what was a reasonable amount of reading. In any case, I ended up with about 3-4 times the recommended number of items on my list, and I didn’t have any recourse for dealing with this kind of insanity.

The first semester when I was supposed to be reading, I was also still taking a full load of classes and teaching. This didn’t go well, and about a month into the semester, the stress got pretty ugly. There was one day a week when I had a very long day on campus, and I would come home so tired and stressed out that some trivial thing that happened once I was in the privacy of my apartment would cause me to burst into tears from exhaustion. This happened once a week, like clockwork, for four weeks before I emailed my exam committee members to tell them that I would need to wait till the next semester to schedule any more meetings to discuss exam reading. I wasn’t totally sure why I was turning into a regular waterworks – there were some other crappy and upsetting things going on in my department at the time, and I also thought maybe I was just really sick of going to classes and ready to move on to my own research. Probably all of these factors were contributing to my crazy stress level.

But things didn’t get better the following semester when I had finished coursework and was just preparing for exams. Because of my insane reading list, I worked all day every day and only took one weekend off during five months (to go to a wedding). It was totally miserable – I was exhausted but often had a hard time sleeping and still had a lot of mini-emotional breakdowns. Then, about a month before the exam date, I finally decided that I wanted to quit grad school. I had stumbled across some post-academic blogs at some point during exam prep. I spent one weekend unable to read for an upcoming exam meeting because I found the material horribly boring and every time I sat down with it I was plagued by the sense that the work I was doing was totally meaningless. And so I read through the archives of a bunch of post-ac blogs instead. Reading other people’s rants about all the crappy aspects of academia helped me to admit that academia was not, after all, the best job in the world, and was in fact making me really unhappy. And reading people’s stories of success and new-found free time after they had left enabled me to see leaving as a possibility instead of something scary and unimaginable (thanks for sharing, all of you!). So I decided to finish the exams, partly to prove to myself and everyone else that I wasn’t leaving because I “couldn’t cut it”, and then to leave.

I know I wasn’t the only one who found the exam prep to be insanely stressful. Another person who was taking the exam around the same time vomited before going into hir exam (I guess it’s worth mentioning that we had both written and oral components to the exam). My exam ended up going ok – my committee said afterwards that they had no criticism to make. But by then, no amount of nice words could have made up for the stress I had endured to get to that point. While I did become much more knowledgeable about my field than I was prior to the exams, it was also hard not to feel that the whole thing was some kind of cruel and elaborate hazing ritual.

Other people had much nastier committees who had no qualms about being very critical, often over rather petty issues. Although some of my committee members had seriously unreasonable expectations of what I should be able to accomplish, they were not very critical in meetings – my stress didn’t come from mean feedback, just from the sheer amount of work that I was expected to get done. Working the hours I was working in any line of work for an extended period of time would probably cause most people to have a breakdown of some sort – it just isn’t healthy to work that much. And once I started talking to people in the department about leaving, one staff member acknowledged that most people went through something like post-partum depression after finishing their exams. Note to self: avoid any more careers where a regular step in your career development will cause you to experience depression similar to someone who has just birthed a baby. Jeez-us.

I mentioned in a reply to a comment on my last post a particular professor in my department who would tell first year students that if they were working hard enough in grad school, they should be sleep-deprived, with bloodshot eyes and acne. Another example of horrible advice to give to grad students, because it is absolutely not healthy to be that stressed for 6 years or longer. I was that stressed during exams, and it was bad news. The kind of work you are doing in academia is in no way so important that you should be working yourself into the ground – and even if you are doing something really important (something that might, like, save lives) you will not be doing your best work if you are completely exhausted and never have any time off.

To end this long post, I should say that since I have left grad school I feel something like 100% better than I did during exam prep.

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9 thoughts on “On mental health and exhaustion in grad school

  1. So glad you’re feeling better since leaving!

    I’ve noticed too that grad school stress mentality has been carrying over into my new job too. I think I’m so used to associating work with exhaustion and pressure that I’m having a hard time turning that off, even in new environments.

    I hope the grad school guilt feelings and overall academic cultural promotion of feeling shitty=doing good work won’t cause permanent trauma!

    • I imagine it takes some time to totally get rid of the academic stress mentality – I can definitely see how trying to learn a whole new line of work would trigger it! I certainly find myself feeling that way about my job search sometimes, because it makes sense in a certain way to feel that I should be searching and applying for jobs all the time because HOLY CRAP I AM UNEMPLOYED, but I am not sure that this is the best way to approach a job search either! In any case, hopefully once you’ve fully settled in to your new job (and once I have a job that I can settle in to!) we can kick the academic guilt to the curb once and for all!

  2. I truly appreciate your blog and this post! I can relate about what you are saying, right now I’m in PhD hell! wanting to get out so finally I can see the ‘start of my life’, anyway… I feel guilty since my committee is pretty good, it is the work that I can’t stand anymore, reading this post makes me feel less guilty, I mean… I always feel bad that I hate my PhD since compare to other postgrads my committee is pretty sweet… But still it is a nightmare, ya know? Thanks for sharing this bit, makes me feel tad relaxed, thanks!

    • Thanks for your comment! I also felt like my committee was pretty good (except for the one super demanding member) compared to other committees who were both demanding and super critical. Still, I think if you’ve decided you don’t like the work, there’s no reason to feel guilty – it just means you’ve learned something important about yourself in grad school, which is that academia may not be your ideal career after all.

      Other post-ac bloggers have written about seeing yourself as a career changer if you decide to leave (here’s a good example: http://leavingacademia.blogspot.com/2011/09/yes-virginia-you-are-career-changer.html). People change careers all the time when they decide the one they’re in isn’t working for them, and in the “real” world, this is seen as a perfectly normal thing to do. I definitely reached the point where I couldn’t stand the work anymore, and that is part of what led me to quit, since I was at a natural stopping point anyway between exams and starting the dissertation. So, whatever you end up doing, don’t feel guilty for not liking the work – there may be something else out there that you would like a lot better!

  3. I completely agree: unless a faculty member is telling grad students “You can do everything perfectly and make all the sacrifices and STILL NOT GET A JOB… in fact, it’s LIKELY that you will NOT get a job,” then they are not being truthful. I remember being told time and time again, in BOTH programs in which I was a PhD student, “I’m sure you can get SOMETHING…” whether that something was the teaching-focused, full-time position in the midwest I *wanted* or cobbling together a dozen adjunct gigs at a handful of regional CCs or a crappy VAP in a crappy location, they never REALLY clarified, but I wanted to believe SO BAD that I really thought option A was what they meant!!

    • Ah yes, that vague “I’m sure you’ll get something!” How sure, exactly? 99.9% sure? 75%? 50%? Less than that?!

      Also, I know you’ve written a lot about grad school economics – it really frustrates me to see these professors making very comfortable incomes (they do make decent money at my university) advising students in very financially precarious situations to be super dedicated and cut off interests that might turn into back-up plans. It’s hard to take the “you must make sacrifices!” advice from someone who has a fancy city apartment, a six-figure salary, and got their job when the market was not nearly as bad as it is now.

  4. Pingback: Conditionally Accepted | Acknowledging The “One-Body Problem”

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