One of the most unfortunate things about my current living situation is how few of my old friends still live in this city, so as you might imagine, I was absolutely delighted when my best friend from High School returned for a visit. Now, I’ve mentioned this friend in passing a few times on this blog, but there is one salient point that you need to understand about his character, and this is the fact that he is the smartest person that I have ever met. It will therefore come as no surprise to you to learn that when last he and I spoke, he was in the process of getting a PhD from a rather prestigious University that I shall not name here.
Yesterday, I met him for lunch. When I asked him how his degree was going, he confessed that it was not; that he had left his program for the same slew of reasons that are all-too-common amongst graduate students, namely extreme stress giving rise to mental health issues. Longtime readers may recall my own adventures with anxiety a few years ago.
I must confess, this really bugged me. Not because I fault my friend, mind you, but because of just how bloody normal such a story is in Grad School. I can’t speak for my friend’s chosen discipline, of course, but when I was doing my physics degree, nervous breakdowns were looked at practically as a rite of passage. I can’t even tell you the number of times that I ended up collapsing into a pathetic, sobbing heap at four in the morning after a night of obsessive, feverish studying, wishing that I was dead so that I wouldn’t have to keep going. And of course, there’s a certain stigma to mental health issues too, so for a long time, I thought that I was the only one suffering in that manner as well. Gradually though, I came to hear similar confessions from more and more of my peers until, by the time of my graduation, I had gotten into the habit of assuming that pretty much every graduate student was suffering from at least one mental illness of some kind. It’s something that I have been without for long enough that I have almost forgotten what it felt like, but this of course was one of the main reasons why I stopped after my Master’s rather than carrying on.
And for what? Why is this cycle allowed to continue? I can only assume that a lot of professors and administrators must look at this stress as a means of separating the wheat from the chaff, but it doesn’t. It’s not a meritocratic system; you’re not necessarily a better, smarter, or even more dedicated person if you can make it all of the way through the gauntlet. The ability to withstand stress is an ability to withstand stress: nothing more, nothing less. And the idea that there is something heroic about willingly enduring such pointless suffering, or that each generation of students should have to do this because of some warped sense of “tradition” needs to die.