Academics on Academia: Grad Student Guilt (Fourth Installment)

Janni talked in her last post about the importance of support networks, both professional and personal. She emphasized that support networks not only help us in terms of job prospects (which is what first comes to mind when we think of the term “networking”) but also emotionally: in a career track that can be isolating and challenging, having people you can count on can make the difference between finishing and not finishing.

Janni’s post brought to mind the myth of the life of the graduate student…a myth I’ve mentioned time and time again when I talk to student writers in my line of work, or when I refer to my own experiences as a graduate student. You see, as graduate students we are discouraged from discussing our “personal lives.” We are supposed to be completely dedicated to our work. I can’t count the number of times I talked about or heard others talk about all the work we have to do, how we haven’t left the house in days, how we fell asleep in our office because we had to hand in that paper in the morning. Even though we talk about these things and we are aware that they are not necessarily positive things, we try to top each other in our stories of academic agony. We do it because we believe, deep down, that a committed graduate student does not have a life. The only life he/she has is the life of the mind. And so we put the pressure on ourselves and on each other.

The problem with this mindset is that it is a myth. Yes, I said it: a myth. This vision of a graduate student who eats, sleeps, and dreams scholarly work is rooted in an ideal, an unattainable ideal. We tend to think of this ideal graduate student who doesn’t do anything else other than think deep thoughts and be brilliant as the bar that we should live up to. When we fail to meet that ideal, we suffer graduate student guilt.

Graduate student guilt, as I like to call it, is a dangerous thing. This is what it sounds like: when we take time to watch a movie, we complain that we wasted our evening. When we have some free time we think first about what we should do for work when our body and mind probably needs a break. When we can’t write down 10 pages for the day, we curse our inability to produce. Grad student guilt can harm us because it can prevent us from seeing all the work we really are doing and focus on our shortcomings. We forget that few careers require that we commit all of our lives. We may think we have to fork over our lives to graduate school, and that only in that way will we be good enough. The truth is that we need balance. Balance keeps us sane.

The academic culture that graduate students are coming into now is harder than the culture I came into, and I’ve only been in graduate school eight years, total. The demands are more intense, the expectations even higher. Graduate students are expected to produce during the course of their studies at the rate of tenure track faculty when they don’t even have a clear grasp of the field. Add to this the myth of the single graduate student who has no emotional attachments. How many graduate students have families, have spouses, have children? How many graduate students work part time or full time off campus? In these cases, they feel guilty because they don’t commit every single moment to school…or the opposite: they might resent the people around them because they keep them away from academic work.

There is no easy solution to this problem, but I suggest starting by talking to students about mental health and how to manage their time. Grad school is not easy; it’s not supposed to be easy. However, students should not isolate themselves or  beat themselves up because they don’t meet unrealistic expectations. It’s all about clarity. We need to teach students how to take better care of themselves so they can take on the challenges of academia.