Things to Repress about Grad School

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.


About thevenerablecorvex

I have the heart of a poet, the brain of a theoretical physicist, and the wingspan of an albatross. I am also notable for my humility.
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4 Responses to Things to Repress about Grad School

  1. n8chz says:

    Maybe it is not the ability to withstand stress that they are vetting for, but the willingness to do so.

  2. Lindsay says:

    My ex never had any mental illness, but he took longer than most.

  3. xykademiqz says:

    There is definitely an element of hazing in most science and engineering PhDs. I don’t think it’s necessary and as you say it doesn’t select for the smartest or the most talented people.

    However, I am thinking that in order to stay and work in academia (I can speak from experience about the physical sciences), one does need considerable stamina (simply the ability to work very long hours at times) as well as resilience to stress (constant rejection on the academic path). I know these shouldn’t matter, but they really really do. I know several extremely smart people who have either very little stamina (must have lunch and dinner at set time, must get to bed at a set hour, or they completely stop functioning) or who get paralyzed by rejection or setbacks; unfortunately, they haven’t done as much as their talent, their potential indicated they could.

    So for remaining in academia, the right kind of tough is really important. I am not saying that’s how it should be, I am saying that’s just how it is.

    I try my best to keep tabs on how my students are doing psychologically. Most of them won’t be academics, and they need to keep healthy and happy and do enough decent work for a dissertation. I have had only 1 or 2 who I felt would make good academics, and you can tell from pretty early on that they have what it takes. There is a whole host of psychological and character markers that are indicative of a potentially successful academic, and I can tell you that the most brilliant ones are often lacking in some key aspects; they would thrive in the right setting, but such a setting simply doesn’t exist in most of the western world of science these days.

    Luckily, I don’t think any of my students have had mental health issues, but I have been the second advisor to 2 or 3 who came in after horrible burnout elsewhere. It takes a while for them to get back to being themselves, but luckily they do if the advisor is not an a$$. Crafting the projects so they are able to see something come to fruition early on is very important to get them to perk up and regain confidence. Also, group cohesion is extremely important. I select students so that, among other things, they are nice people who will get along with and support others around them; existing students definitely have a say in selecting new students.

    Sorry, I am rambling. But I am really sorry for all people who have or have had crap advisors. Graduate school should and can be one of the best, not most torturous times of one’s life. You should not have to be miserable; if you are miserable within the first year or two, switch advisors or get out ASAP. However, a certain level of resilience to failure and general doggedness will be necessary no matter where you work…

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