The ‘Other’ Graduate School Mess: Tackling Mental Health in Graduate School

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Advice / Lehigh Culture & Community

As the department reassesses the many potential functions and values of graduate work, faculty and graduate students have gathered to discuss the exciting possibilities of newly-envisioned graduate study. We have realized that, as the job market evolves, we must evolve along with it. As such, we have discussed many exciting opportunities for graduate students to tailor their academic experiences, including substituting a traditional language exam with learning an enhanced digital skill set (such as coding); writing a series of interconnected articles or essays in place of a monograph; participating in professional development workshops; serving as graduate assistants, developing team-teaching exercises; and applying for Mountaintop grants. Taken together, all of these opportunities can—and I think do—enhance the coursework and teaching experiences that lay at the basis of our program.

And yet, though I want to commend the hard work that has gone into developing these promising possibilities, I remain hesitant. As we recently discussed at a reading group dedicated to Leonard Cassuto’s book, The Graduate School Mess, having more possibilities seems to inherently demand that we will find the time and energy to take advantage of as many of these opportunities as possible, adding to our ever-extending C.V.’s in the hopes of becoming the most desirable, hireable candidate. I suspect that graduate students are more often hearing “more” rather than “or.” While I believe it is important to prepare students for a changing job market by offering them alternative career paths and multiple sources of fulfillment, I also believe it is important to discuss the stress and mental health risks that often come along with what feels like an ever-increasing list of expectations.

In truth, I am afraid for us.

I am afraid because the bulk of professionalization workshops and academic support services that are available teach us how to be more efficient and impressive workers, though not necessarily happier humans.

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The Chronicle recently published a piece in which Kelly Baker makes a compelling argument that graduate students are the waste of the academic system. Baker attests that, “New Ph.D. holders are not “products” of our training, but “byproducts” of academia. Graduate students and “non-degreed flex workers” exist mostly to serve the university’s labor demands. They generate cheap labor. Then they get replaced.” Given these grim prospects, it is unsurprising that so many students battle with feelings of inadequacy, isolation, and desolation.

As I have started to share my own mental health struggles with my peers, it has become painfully clear that many of my fellow graduate students are likewise struggling with mental as well as physical health issues, including anxiety, depression, suicidal thoughts, chronic fatigue, and stress, among other conditions. In a recent conversation with friends, I shared that I had finally reached the point where I was willing to supplement cognitive therapy with medication, to which I received a chorus of agreement and recommendations for pills. One colleague divulged that s/he knew s/he wanted to seek medical help before exams, as part of the preparation process. I agreed that I would like to get my figurative ducks in a row with my own mental health before starting my dissertation and before family planning (which is another important issue that merits its own post). Though we laughed then about the sad reality of the situation, this is how we deal with mental health: we speak in hushed voices, in hallways, during the stolen moments between classes and writing, or sometimes over coffee, with already-burdened friends we don’t want to further burden.

And if students are interested in seeking professional help from the counseling center, they are limited to six sessions, before being shuffled into group therapy, which might not be beneficial for every person’s issues, especially when one might be in a group therapy session with one’s colleagues and friends.

I don’t say any of this to imply that the situation is hopeless. Far from that, I think we need to acknowledge the wonderful work that we have done so far building structures to nourish our intellectual work, while also recognizing that we would benefit holistically from bolstering these structures with support systems that nurture our mental and emotional health. In fact, I would argue that these mental and emotional health support systems would not only be a “nice addition,” but an absolutely necessary step to take, if we hope to accomplish any of our other department goals, including shorter time to the end of the degree, producing meaningful work inside and outside of the academy, and cultivating rewarding lives.

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The good news is that we don’t have to wait for academia to meet our demands: we can start working on building a more supportive environment now, while also working towards more department-wide (and ideally university-wide) plans for better support networks as we move forward.

To that end, I have compiled a list of personal suggestions and proposals based off of my own experiences, though I realize that this is not an exhaustive list. In fact, I encourage you to add your own thoughts to the comments section below so we can continue to build this list as a resource for our peers and for ourselves:

-One of the most important, albeit painful, lessons that I have learned is that my career should enrich my life, but it should not be my life. Let me say that one more time, so you can hear it in your soul: as important and interesting as your work is, your career should enrich your life, it should not be your life. I suspect I resisted learning this lesson for so long because I was afraid that without my intellectual work to define me, I wouldn’t feel valuable or useful. I needed to learn and relearn that being a graduate student is a job. It is a job that I like and find rewarding, but it is not the entire foundation of my happiness.

Talk to everyone, everywhere, who has the kindness to listen and respond. I’ve found it extremely helpful to ask my colleagues (especially those who are more advanced in the program) about their experiences choosing coursework, building exam lists, managing time, applying to conferences, performing service activities, working on their dissertations, and importantly, balancing their professional lives with their personal lives. But it is also incredibly humbling to speak with my family and friends who are outside of academia about why I believe my work matters in the world. It is also a great exercise in developing my public humanities skills, as it forces me to figure out how to describe my project in ways that are hopefully compelling to non-specialists.

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You do you! Find some kind of self-care rituals to participate in on a daily basis, whether that be taking a long bath, going for a run, doing mindfulness and/or meditation exercises, painting, taking a nap, watching a show on Netflix, reading for pleasure—anything that you can do to be nice to yourself. I know that when I am busy and stressed, the first thing that I sacrifice is my personal “free time,” inevitably to my own detriment. I am not my best self when I do not take the time to take care of myself, before trying to dedicate myself to work or service on campus. In a recent exam meeting, my wonderful adviser suggested re-aligning your self-care to fit your values. For example, if you value your writing, tell yourself that if you do not take time to exercise, you cannot write as well, or if you do not take a long bath after work, you cannot focus on your reading as well—whatever speaks to your intellectual interests.

Figure out where you get our energy from, and where your energy is going. During our recent discussion of Cassuto’s work, we discussed the usefulness of determining percentages to see where we are divvying up our professional time and whether we might need to reassess our time allotments. I would take this one step further and suggest that we also figure out not just the hours that we spend on teaching, research, and service, but also the unseen emotional and mental labor that often goes into these projects, as well. For example, I might only spend 10% of my time responding to emails in my GA position (which is a blatant lie, it’s probably more like 30-40%), but it is a draining activity for me energy-wise, so it’s important to me to intersperse these kinds of mundane activities with other tasks that energize me.

Food. Anyone who knows me know that my lunchbox is my constant companion. That’s because I am a grazer, and though I appreciate that not everyone likes to eat on a Hobbit schedule, you should remember to feed yourself regularly. In a culture that glorifies being busy all of the time, it is often easy to go for half a day without eating. That needs to stop. When I get hungry, my patience is the first thing to go, and although of course not all problems can be solved with a meal and a glass of water, it is definitely a good start.

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Get together in informal reading and writing groups, where you can check-in with each other on not only your progress with your research, but also your personal goals for your life. These small groups can serve a variety of purposes, for individuals who are writing their MA theses, taking exams, writing articles, or working on their dissertations together. Moreover, Michael Kramp has organized a writing group of faculty and graduate students who are working in the 18th and 19th centuries, which seems like an engaging model that folks working in other periods or specializations can follow.

Say no. This may be difficult for many of us, because we want to please others and avoid disappointing our mentors and colleagues, so we sometimes take on more than we can handle. I have found that saying no in a thoughtful way to opportunities that do not actively forward my personal goals allows me to do better work on the projects that I want to focus on. Moreover, agreeing to work on many, smaller projects often cuts into our personal and family lives outside of work.

Advocate for each other. This blog might not speak to your personal issues, but as part of a community in which these issues persist, it is everyone’s responsibility to build a more supportive culture. We can do this by not gossiping about one another’s personal issues and not judging others for having a different value system; instead, we can work towards collective goals that might not directly benefit us in this moment, but do benefit the overall welfare of our colleagues and therefore our university as a whole (such as better parental leave, better healthcare that provides for dependents, the ability to expand our currently limited amount of additional work hours on campus under ACA guidelines, more access to needed counseling services, and creating graduate student unions, etc.).

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5 Comments

  1. Pingback: “You can live in an unreal world wherever you are”: An Interview with Leonard Cassuto | Drown Unbound

  2. Pingback: Managing Mid-Semester Stress and Anxiety | Drown Unbound

  3. Pingback: Making the Most of Your First Year of Grad School | Drown Unbound

  4. Pingback: 4 Articles for Self-Care This Semester | Drown Unbound

  5. Pingback: Tips to Manage that End of Semester Workload | Drown Unbound

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