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.

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  1. It doesn’t get any better as a full-blown academic. But it starts in grad school. I think it’s especially worse for women because we are (somewhat rightly) told that talking about having a life outside of academia (especially if said life involves being a mother) will lead our (old male) colleagues to believe that we’re not taking our professional, academic careers seriously enough. Sigh.

    Having shared that particular Bad Female Academic post, I am sad to report that I can’t remember the last time I went swimming. Sigh.

  2. This is why, though from time to time it pains me, I’m really glad I decided to stop at the Master’s level. I so wanted to continue, but as a single woman, the financial part of it was daunting. I know, of course, the challenges being in a relationship or family bring, but that part of it to me was overwhelming. I was tired of working full time and doing school on top of that. I don’t want to go on for a pittance more and a title. Sometimes I hate that about myself, but I know it was the right decision for me.

    Guilt sucks. Being a grad student CAN suck. There is a lot of pressure, and I think stepping back from it all was a healthy choice for me.

  3. well and the more we talk about it the less it makes it seem like women who have kids can’t be profs

  4. Ha. You know, the thing that nearly pushed me over the edge when I was doing my PhD was this: I went into the grad student lounge and was reading with my feet up on the coffee table. Another student admired my toenail polish. I thanked her. Then she said this:

    “[Sigh] I wish *I* had *time* to paint my toenails but I’m writing an article and I have two conference papers accepted and I’m writing a guest lecture for Professor Bigshot.”

    Grad guilt is a competitive sport. Frankly, I wanted to punch her. She was actively trying to undermine both my confidence and my work-life balance strategies.

  5. My grad school guilt didn’t come until after I finished my master’s. I spent about my first year as a full-time comp. instructor feeling guilty that I wasn’t researching and writing papers. Because I wasn’t married and had no children while I pursued my master’s, I was able to completely immerse myself in my studies (and also had time to paint my toenails! re: Aimée Morrison). Now I’m working on my PhD and I’m married with a 5 year-old daughter. I waited longer than most to start PhD work, get married and have a baby, so I think I’m too old and jaded by academia to feel guilty about putting off academic pursuits to achieve a balanced life. I know I’m accomplishing what I want to and as much as I want to at this stage in my life, and that’s what matters–not what my unmarried female and male colleagues who have their laundry done and their meals cooked for them think. Before I was married and had a child, my goal was to be an academic superstar. My priorities have changed, and I’m glad to have both lives. Indeed, becoming a mother has made me a better teacher, and my family obligations make me appreciate even more the time that I do get to spend researching and writing. There will be a time when my daughter has little interest in spending time with me. That’s when I’ll devote myself more to this other love. With 20+ working years left. . .what’s the rush?

  6. Since I happily admit that I am lazy and refuse to take anything seriously I have never had to deal with Graduate Student Guilt. 😛

  7. I read the entire conversation here and on Janni’s Blog and all I can say is OMG YES! Graduate Student Guilt is soul crushing. I think it goes without saying (but I’ll say it anyway) that the myth of the diligent grad student who is in it for the love of life of the mind, devalues the hard work we all do. It’s behind the conflict I’ve had with my primary diss advisor who always reminds me of the amazing time she had in the dusty archives to just think and write. That’s great, I’m envious, but it creates a standard by which I can never live up to. I have a toddler and a family that I can’t just up and leave for a year to study prints in the British Museum. I remain optimistic that with conversations like this, we can dispel the myth of the life the lone scholar rubbing his temples and replace it with the reality of the hardworking multi-tasker that we all are.

    :: standing ovation for this discussion ::

  8. It’s totally true! I’ve gone the clinical route, so for me my days are spent seeing clients and for the first few months of my internship I haven’t done much on my dissertation (gasp!). I’m back on the ball again now (mostly because my chair emailed me). But even while I was managing “just” the internship, my friend (also in grad school in another field) said to me, “oh, Twitter? Yes, I have an account but I never have time to look at it.” She is living that ideal you mentioned, she TAs one class a week otherwise it’s all about her dissertation. I see that and I kind of feel like, “Yeah, I’m ok like this.” I don’t want that to be my life. I’m into my topic, yes, but I don’t want it to swallow me up. Thanks for writing about this!


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