Musings on the anxieties, but also joys of graduate school

Today I had a meeting with my adviser to talk about a fellowship that I am applying for.  That is what this fifth year of graduate school is all about for me: fellowships. ABD and on my last year of department funding, I need to figure out how I am going to fund my 6th (and hopefully last) year of the dissertation.

Afterwards, when we finished talking about the nuts and bolts of my application and letters of recommendation, the conversation turned to matters of health, my goal to incorporate more mindful movement into my life, comfort rituals, program benchmarks, and how to talk about the difficulties but also joys of graduate school. Leaving her office, my mind was buzzing with the energy of our conversation, and I wanted to share parts of it here.

I have been dealing with some health issues recently, mostly exhaustion and have been going through a battery of tests to see what the problem is. So far it seems that it is stress related, and though I feel calmer and happier than I have in years, my body is telling me that somethings are still not right.

Today my adviser and I talked about mindful movement and holistic ways to treat myself (I love that this is something I can talk about my academic adviser about!), like going to acupuncture, which has now moved even closer to my home, and has a $10 special for November, trying to incorporate a yoga practice into my life, as well as contact improv.

We also talked about how exercise as a concept is not necessarily helpful, and that one should be deliberate and thoughtful in figuring out what kind of exercise might be most helpful for me, and what feels right in regards to what my bodymind needs. I discussed this blog post that I read yesterday which I absolutely loved which talks about how exercise and yoga can be good in regards to dealing with anxiety and depression but also acknowledges the challenges people with depression and anxiety have in regards to motivation or feelings about the body.

I also really liked the blog post by the same author, Keely, about how keep moving forward even when your brain hates you,  which talks about comfort rituals among other things to do to help yourself, as well as this one about leaving graduate school which gives a really good break-down of things to think about in regards to staying or leaving a program. (Basically everyone should go and read the blog “A Little Dose of Keelium” because it is amazing!).

I read every “quitting graduate school” and “quitting academia” article with interest and sympathy, as I continue to think about my place in the academy in general, and work to make this graduate school experience livable for myself.  When I was thinking of quitting or moving institutions in my second year, these articles hit home in regards to how I was feeling, and they continue to remind me that I am not alone, and that graduate school puts undue pressure on people, that many of us end up feeling like failures because of the constant critique.  Often I wonder if it is worth it, particularly when I see tenure-track faculty running around just as stressed as I am.

These stories of leaving are really important to tell, and I hope that people can feel that leaving is an option, and one that should be applauded rather than seen as something shameful.  I admire people who know themselves well-enough to know something is not right for them.  And it is from blog posts like Keely’s, and blogs like Ph(Disabled) (another must read!) that I know I can and will make the same choice if I need to.  Nothing I might gain from getting a PhD is worth it if means destroying my health or my sense of self.

We need to talk about the stress, the constant sense of “I could/should” be working, the competition, the exploitation of graduate labor. And the answer to supporting graduate mental health is not to simply tell graduate students’ to practice “self-care” as was recently touted to us at a graduate colloquium.  Yes, self-care is important, yes, creating time for yourself as a person is important, yes, sleep, good food, exercise, are important but we also have to look at wider structural issues and I am interested in a system of community-care, not just putting the burden on the individual.

Yet, in the midst of talking about the stress and anxiety, and talking about creating an outside life, and taking care of ourselves, I want to also create space to talk about the joy, and the excitement and the fun of graduate school. Why do those of us who stay, stay? What is keeping me here? How do those of us who want to become tenure-track work toward that goal?

When my adviser told me in my first year to think about the general exam (our first benchmark) as “fun,” I remember thinking she was eccentric and didn’t understand what pressure we were under. It was stressful, and I never want to go through those 72 hours again, but there were moments of fun as well, when I realized how much I had learned that summer, when I was able to include authors whose work that I enjoyed and when I made interesting intellectual connections.

My dissertation research right now is causing me stress, as I wonder about how I will get through everything, but it is also fulfilling, and fascinating, and exciting.  These interviews that I have been conducting with parents are amazing, and I love hearing them talk about their children with so much joy and love. The conferences that I have been going to make me feel hopeful in regards to family relationships and lgbt youth and motivate me to contribute to creating change.

In our last colloquium we talked about alt-ac careers, and the presenters asked each of us to talk about why we came to graduate school and what we were passionate about.  It was amazing to hear about all the reasons folks were motivated to pursue a PhD in Women’s Studies and the kinds of questions, problems, ideas that we were eager to learn more about.  I think we need more moments like those.  Moments where we can talk about our passions, our intellectual questions, our joy at learning and figuring out how the world works.

I don’t know if I will end up in academia.  I love teaching.  I love my students.  I love being in an intellectual environment and forming relationships with professors and being a mentor to other students.  But I know that the tenure-track job market is competitive and difficult and soul-sapping.  That is what I am going to aim for as I finish, but I am also exploring other options. I ultimately want a job where I can teach, and nurture youth, and see that I am making a difference in the world in regards to lgbt rights and queer politics, and it doesn’t matter as much to me where that job is.

Today I felt really grateful that my adviser is someone who I can talk to about all the nuances of graduate school, who I can be open with about my different ideas about academia (and she is good about making me think through the implications of various possibilities and choices), and that we can talk about the anxieties, the joys, the uncertainties and the exciting possibilities.

PS. It is also important to recognize that the support that my adviser gives me is one reason I have been able to make graduate school a place that I want to be. Not everyone is lucky to have a supportive mentor/adviser or department.

Image: Photo of drawing by anonymous UMD student in LGBT Equity Center doodle book.



  1. Your post reminds me of one of the many goofy paradoxes that a PhD involves one in: it is supposed to take over and transform your life as you turn from an intellectual pupae into a beautiful butterfly . . . and it is at same time vital that one maintains some distance and perspective on it, that it NOT be all that you are. Bravo for working out the right balance between the two for yourself, Jessica. I think the yoga etc. is a great idea.

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