Sunday, February 04, 2007

The crushing nature of grad programs

So I've been thinking for weeks about what happens to people who go to grad school - especially to particular types of grad school - with a severe tendency toward depression or other mental health issues.

This thinking has been prompted by a couple of very, very bright - let's say brillliant, actually, in at least one case - students of mine, both of whom are struggling with their own issues right now. Both have legitimate reasons for the hanging around of leftover work from last term. One - shy and reserved - has kept this mostly at arm's length from me, though I know the contours of the thing. The other, the one I know is brilliant, has let me in a bit, has come to see me and chatted about things a few times. About the challenges of keeping herself on track when battling severe depression and OCD. This week we made a plan for her to submit her late work. All of her energy right now is directed toward not fucking up this year. She has been in university for seven years, and her transcript is a patchwork, reflecting a couple of years when depression swallowed her up and she couldn't complete her courses. Right now, she is looking toward graduation and the years beyond with such fragile hope.

She has applied to several graduate programs, including a couple of top-flight ones in the US, ones that are so competitive that I imagine the F's on her transcript will disqualify her, even when accompanied by an explanation. That is the first problem, right there. Can grad school admissions even take account of mental health?

She is, as she told me somewhat emotionally this week, in love with theory. The programs she's applied to are theory programs, and she wants to be there, I can see, because this is what she knows. Theory is what she knows she is good - great - at. It is where she feels safe. There's a really charged psychic identification there.

But the hairs on the back of my neck go up when I think of the environments and the expectations she's in for in those programs. I did my PhD in such a program, and it was a vile, noxious place, sneakily competitive and sexist and nasty. I managed because I had my life outside, I kept my distance, I removed myself.

But I worry about this student - and others with similar histories - in such environments. Because I see how expectations - including, most importantly, her own - have crushed her, even at this undergraduate level. Goodness, if the walls closed in on her even last term, in her last year of a degree in which she is clearly the shit, clearly at a level above almost everyone else - well, then, what's going to happen when the pressure is really on, when she's surrounded by insecure people who are as smart as her, but who (try to) work out their insecurities by making other people feel small??

When we got on to talking about the culture of such programs, a couple of weeks ago, I just said, "you'll need to make sure you have lots of support." But I felt panicked for her.

This might be really condescending; she might be able to manage just fine. Perhaps I am re-victimizing her. If I managed by making a life outside, there's nothing to say that she can't, too. But I just see her fragility and her hope so clearly right now, and I so don't want her to be crushed.


Earnest English said...

No. Just no. You are not re-victimizing her. She needs to be warned. Everyone I know around here -- and not just people with prior conditions making them more susceptible to depressive episodes -- is on medication, either anti-depressants, other things to control what they figure is ADHD, or severe alcoholic self-medicating. My program is strangely vicious, certainly not one of the ones that you'd think of as mean, except that there are a lot of us and limited resources. Some have and get; others get very little. Despite the efforts of some wonderful faculty, we have a strong star system at work here because of these limited resources.

A PhD program especially is a painful identity shift process as well, no matter what the program. Also, there are profound inequities in the system itself. If you are at all a critical thinker (and what's the training for anyway?), then it becomes clear that we argue for equity in class and then are expected to live with profound inequities in the structure and workings of the system.

People need to be forewarned about these things. The profession also needs to take seriously graduate student issues and not just look at grad life as some kind of hazing process that weeds out the "undesirables." But until the profession transforms itself, she needs to know that there's just an amazing amount of crap and that the only respite from it is the work itself. The pleasures of the work itself.

Don't go into grad school expecting to find a bunch of people who love to sit around and talk about the same things you do. You may occasionally find someone who can set the other crap aside. But generally not. Tell her to save the great convo for her blog! =)

Uhhhh. I guess I should write about this. Sorry Hilaire for the splatter. A couple years ago I wrote something very unpopular about how grad life tends to weed out people who either because of mental health needs or dispositionally demand a healthy balance in their lives.

Tiruncula said...

I think you're quite right to worry. I have the feeling her app will send up enough danger signals that she may not get in to the places she thinks she wants to go, but if she does, and it comes to choosing a program, could you guide her to talk to a real live somebody in the programs she's considering, with whom she could have a frank talk about what to expect?

Hilaire said...

Thanks for your extensive comments, Earnest. I was pleased to read them, and I think it would be great if you wrote about this, too. What you've articulated is kind of the way I've been thinking, but then I found myself questioning it, once I started writing. Because it feels to me as if depression is akin to a disability, and to try to discourage someone from doing what they want to do, because of their disability, feels wrong. So I think you're right that it's a systemic problem, absolutely.

I have been pretty honest with the student, in terms of telling her every time we speak about how emotionally difficult it's going to be. But I feel I need to tread lightly - I want to be realistic, and not discouraging - if such a thing is possible in this case.

Tiruncula, that is excellent advice about having her talk to people from the programs, if she gets in. Another way to put into practice the realistic-but-not-discouraging effect.

texter said...

It may be "like a disability" but if we are clear-eyed, we'll admit that grad programs and academe in general does NOT deal well with mental illness or depression. There are not many acceptable excuses for not publishing. The thing is, you can have another disability and compensate for that and still be a productive scholar but mental illness and depression stymies the very production that is the essence of being an academic esp in those competitive programs. I'm not saying it is fair but it is the reality as we know it in actually-existing academe. You sort of make yourself a pariah if you are "dead wood" or "are not collegial" both of which may be hurt by depressive episodes and mental illness. But this is an issue that could (and should) be further discussed and I'd love to hear others talk about it.

texter said...

actually, it occurs to me that mental illness is analogous to liberatory politics in the way it is discussed in enlightened ways in the classroom and ignored once we exit the classroom

Hilaire said...

You're so right, Texter, about the ways we treat mental illness in thr classroom as being akin to the ways we talk about liberatory politics. Yup. Exactly.

I don't know. This whole thing just seems so fucked up. It is *outrageous* that this is so systemically entrenched. (How's that for a useful comment??)