#459: Do I have to destroy my health to be in grad school?

I’m in grad school for creative writing. It’s hard. Right now, I’m taking three classes, which means that I’m reading 500-plus pages a week, in addition to commenting on my classmates’ writing and producing a poem every week. Plus, I’m teaching a basic composition course for struggling writers, and a literature course (for the first time ever), so I’m writing lesson plans and grading essays for nearly 60 students. AND I work ten hours a week to supplement my stipend enough to buy things like toiletries, books and the occasional beer on a Friday night. Also, I need to clean my apartment and do laundry and run errands sometimes. And in addition to all of THAT, I’m expected to participate in meetings, go to outside lectures, and attend all the readings by my classmates and visiting writers. And I WANT to, because oh my god I love school. School is the best thing ever. I work my ass off and I LOVE IT. This is not really about grad school.

What people think an MFA is like.

Except it kind of is. I have Polycystic Ovary Syndrome, which causes, among other things, crushing migraines and extreme fatigue. And there’s no cure for it, because ovaries, ew. Mostly, I manage. But there are days when I can barely drag myself around, and did I mention all the stuff I’m supposed to be doing? Sometimes I can’t do it all. Sometimes my whole body feels like a bag of wet sand that I’m not strong enough to lift. Sometimes I have to lie down and rest before I die. So I miss the reading, or the lecture, or the lunch meeting.

I apologized to a friend for missing her reading, and she ranted about how much it sucks that people don’t go to stuff. And the professors who went to everything and did everything and walked uphill in the snow both ways while carrying their dissertation on their backs give us VERY SERIOUS TALKS on why we must do everything. They mean well, but it hurts me. There’s a kind of gleeful masochism in grad school where being overworked and sleep-deprived is a point of pride. Long story short, I feel guilty, but also mad.

I don’t go around telling people about my health, because it’s personal. But I’ve built up a reputation as someone who’s dedicated and hardworking, and I’d hate to think people assume that I just can’t be bothered to show up to things. Do I woman up and tell people about my defective gonads? Tell them to fuck off? How do I balance my health needs with my need to be a good grad student?


My Candle Burns at Both its Ends

Dear Lovely Light-Giver,

Sweet Machine, fellow MFA-survivor and chronic migraineur, reporting for duty. I have so much to say to you that I am not sure I know how to say it, but let me start by declaring, in the sincerest way, I KNOW THAT FEEL BRO

It sounds like you have your medical situation taken care of, in terms of having doctors and knowing your stuff, so I am going to ask one question and then shush: do you see a neurologist for your migraines? Even if you’re managing your PCOS through a ladybits doctor, a headache specialist might help. It took a while, but I have gone from basically having 3-4 migraine days a week to having maybe 1 (and some milder headache days), with the help of Big Pharma and my neurologist. Now that I’ve got that tidbit out of the way, I’m going to ask the Awkward Army to kindly refrain from making “have you tried this” suggestions in comments. There are two reasons: 1) That’s not what this letter is about, and 2) People with chronic illnesses or medical conditions usually have tried everything you can suggest. (See also: saying to fat people “Have you tried diet and exercise?” WHY YES. YES I HAVE. THANK YOU, DR OZ.)

Grad school.
What an MFA is really like.

So here is the thing about grad school, which I have completed (oh god) eight years of. Grad school is a black hole of selfhood. Grad school is a monster that wants to take every shred of your time and your identity and your well-being and store those shreds in a place you can’t access. Grad school will, if you let it, become your whole life and then demand more like it’s young scary/sexy Rutger Hauer. Grad school does not want you to be a person; it wants you to be a body in a seat in a lecture/reading/office/library chair, and it never wants to let you go.

I personify grad school because it’s really not that any one person wants you to sacrifice your self and sanity for this experience. Your profs are concerned with making events worthwhile for visiting speakers and such; your friend is upset that she’s expected to go to all these readings but not everyone showed up for hers; your students think you live in your office and sleep at your desk and love, beyond all reckoning, to grade their shitty essays. Individually, it’s all a bit much but based on the right things: passion, community, fairness. In toto, it’s a godawful nightmare of stress, which, oh hey, is a huge migraine trigger. And this all goes double for an arts degree, because it is Your Art and Your Passion and You Are So Lucky To Get To Do This and You Should Be Grateful.

Now, most grad students would really, really, really benefit from some kind of artificially enforced boundary that says “you get to stop working now [at 8:00 every night/on Saturdays/when it’s time to watch more Buffy].” But you have an actually enforced boundary: your body’s needs. You have a chronic medical condition that, while manageable, means you need rest. This is a fact. Your body and your brain both need down time in order to function, and if you don’t take that time they will fucking well let you know about it. This is not you being lazy or weak or fragile; this is you having a trick knee and needing to take the elevator sometimes when you’d rather take the stairs. The secret is that everyone needs to take the elevator sometimes, but for people without a chronic illness, it’s usually a more visible situation: I broke my leg skiing and I need the elevator till the cast is off. For chronic and invisible illnesses, you need the elevator sometimes and no one but you knows why.

You say you’ve developed a reputation for being dedicated and hardworking, but you don’t sound like you believe it. I’d suggest that you start by trying to believe it! Start with that assumption and work forward. Think about yourself with the same kindness which you bestow on your friends and colleagues. If someone doesn’t come to a reading, is your first thought “What a dick,” or is your first thought, “Oh, I hope he doesn’t have the flu that’s going around”? Assume everyone is working on assumption #2. Now let’s think about specifics: your school probably has a disability services office of some kind. You may not think of your condition as a disability, which is fine, but the people who work there may be able to talk you through university policy about absences/substitute teachers/disclosure of information and the like. As for individual professors you work with, there are a few options. You are under no obligation to discuss your gonads, as you put it. But if you have a sympathetic advisor, you might tell them that you have a medical condition that means you get frequent migraines and need to rest regularly as part of your health management. You may find that people are more sympathetic than you expect. (My own version of this has kind of an epic back story involving ER trips and brain scans, but the short version is I didn’t know my constant headaches were migraines until a couple of years ago; I just thought I was a fucking wuss. When I got a proper diagnosis and realized that my “oh, it’s Wednesday” headache was most people’s “I might be having a stroke” headache, I felt way way better about saying “Hey, I have to rest today” and taking care of myself.) Of course, the simpler option is simply to say “I’m sick” when you need to skip something; it happens, everyone gets sick, and much as the black hole monster of grad school wants to deny it, you actually do get to stay home and rest when you’re sick.

I am rambling because I feel so passionately about this — the “gleeful masochism” of academia is in fact a profoundly ableist cultural norm. You can do grad school and practice your art and your craft and teach struggling students how to write without sacrificing yourself on the altar of Unstoppable Grad Student Who Can Do It All. You get to have a private life. You get to have a fallible body. You get to be an adult human being who can tell another adult human being, “I am sorry that I cannot attend this lecture, as I’m sick today.” You get to do all that and you still get to be a poet.


Sweet Machine, MFA, PhD, D. Migraine Lore, M. Div. IBS recipes

211 thoughts on “#459: Do I have to destroy my health to be in grad school?

  1. Yo, I have no particular advice, but I just wanted to heap sympathy on the LW and anybody else going through this. One of the many reasons I left grad school was because it was absolutely wrecking my mental and physical health, and I am so much happier and healthier working a job with regular hours where I get to go home at the end of the day and be done. I’m not saying you should quit, dear double-burning candle, but letting you know that you are far from the only one who has experienced this. There is an overwhelming amount of pressure from all directions and adding chronic conditions on top of that does not help. (And migraines are basically the worst; I get them occasionally and my mom gets them on a regular basis, to the point that she is now getting Botox shots all over her head.)

    Also, I now work on the administrative side of academia, and without divulging personal details: a lot of our students take time off for health reasons. I doubt it is just my school/area that has had this happen, and the faculty are uniformly in favor of the students not killing themselves by inches. They know it’s a rigged system.

  2. LW, first of all, serious Jedi Hugs because grad school+chronic health stuff is hard. Sweet Machine, I think a lot of graduate student centers need to post your response to this letter on their walls. Everywhere.

    The thing that resonates most with me is how the already problematic masochism model of academic achievement gets so much worse when you throw chronic illness or disability into the mix. Because even people (grad students and tenured faculty alike), who believe the academic Holy Trinity of Class, Race, and Gender is real and worth paying attention to can still buy into Really Wrong things about disability, even visible disability. Like, for example, “Oh, you’re here in this program. That means you have Transcended All the Things, and I no longer have to think about you as a person with a disability ever, and you must be just having an Emotional Day by trying to get me to pay attention to it and claiming you Need Things.”

    And in my experience that’s just what happens when you walk around with a disability people can see; forget the invisible ones. It makes me Hulk Out a lot.

  3. So basically, grad school is Hotel California.

    Girl, you’re allowed to chill a bit and enjoy your life. Try treating yourself like you would a good friend. No amount of pure want is going to get you more spoons.

    1. “No amount of pure want is going to get you more spoons.”
      Adding that to my quotes folder!

  4. Grad school is terrible. Just, really really terrible. Because if you just existed in a bubble of grad school, it might be okay. But, you know Life is this other really Big Important Thing.

    I’m in grad school, on year six, with no end in sight (because life happened at me).

    Anyway, I’m hoping this doesn’t fall into the “have you tried this” category, but I’m going to throw out that you might want to make sure your support network is tight. For me, when life happened, I realized I didn’t really have one, and decided I needed to get on that. I’ve created my “real” one (with organically developed friendships, both old and new, where I can kind of vent and/or ignor grad school for awhile) and my “artificial” one, which consists of a support group at the mental health clinic for grad students. And it’s a lot easier to deal with your Life Issues if you’re talking to other people who are dealing with their own Life Issues, as opposed to seeing everyone else’s facebook versions of their lives.

    1. Grad school really is a bitch, but it’s far more nefarious than most people think. Since only 44% of PhDs in the humanities get jobs associated with those degrees, grad school has become an enormous game of chicken. They want you to feel like failure so you’ll drop out. They raise the bar ever higher so more and more people get knocked down. And if you are struggling with illness (my illness was epilepsy and boy was THAT one fun, esp the petit mals where no one realizes you are seizing and just thinks you’re a sleepy lazy dunderhead), it does not play into this SUPER COMPETITION MODE that all people associated with grad school are in — the profs, students, advisers, deans, future employers ALL OF IT.

      I will say this: create a list of personal goals. And stick to those goals. A grad school colleague of mine refused to work more than 40 hours a week on grad school stuff. He took one whole day off every single week. That didn’t work for me; when I have the chance to throw myself into writing, I lose track of time and suddenly it’s 20 hours later. But what did work for me was making list of:
      – Nine Hours of course attendance each week
      – One dinner with friends per week
      – Two lectures or readings per week
      – 10 hours of grading (see this for grading tips! http://unbeelievable.wordpress.com/2008/02/21/grading-papers-fast-and-fairly-tips-for-teachers/)
      – One card game with friends per week
      – Five books per week (tips on reading faster: http://blogs.hanover.edu/students/2012/11/07/the-art-of-skimming/
      – At least an hour of unwinding time per day NO EXCEPTIONS OR EXCUSES
      – between 6-8 hours of sleep per day NO EXCEPTIONS

      You can make your own list, but it helped me make a mix of “obligations” that included your sanity, rest, relaxation, tasty foods, time with friends. Sometimes you know that pushing harder will produce poor work. Recognize that and give in. Grad school will be fine if you sit that lecture out.

      1. Oh god. I haven’t gone to grad school (yet?) but I was the super-undergrad–with epilepsy. Fistbump of solidarity.

        It took me a long time to stop this jerkbrain of mine from telling me I must do everything, do it well, and not let my epilepsy interfere. LW, take care of yourself. Do whatever it is you feel like you need to do.

        I have this full-time job–and some days, I wake up, and I’m having partial seizures. It is not safe for me to drive, so I call in. My company is awful about accommodating me–my manager tends to huff and sigh before she relents (there was another incident that I won’t go into here, but suffice to say, they suck). At times like that, my inner momma bear that’s super protective of friends and family comes out. She does not let my manager’s petty guilt trips pressure me into doing something so very stupid like driving during a spell of partials.

        Let out your inner momma bear, LW. You deserve her protection, too.

        1. All I can say is, holy shit your manager.

          I suffer from occasional bouts of vertigo and I have seriously considered asking management to sign a liability form saying they will take responsability if I land under the bus I’m trying to get on. Not because I think they would, but because it might finally help them “get” what I’m dealing with.

        2. I hate guilt-tripping managers. I called in SICK. I shouldn’t have to deal with feeling guilty for that when I’m too busy dealing with whatever illness has decided to rear its head today.

          That was at my last job though. At my current job you just call an answering machine and leave a message saying you’re sick, so there’s none of that crap involved.

      2. This is pretty much what I did in grad school and worked great at allowing me to do what I thought I had to do, while maintaining a balance in my life. One additional suggestion: when possible, prioritize those events that are done by your fellow students/friends. So if it’s a choice between your friend’s reading and a Big Name reading for your event of the week, go with the friend unless there’s a compelling reason not to. The people you are in school with now are the people who will be in your network (personal and professional) later. Support them, and they will support you.

    2. I’m in my sixth year too, high fives!

      That is very good advice, I feel pretty isolated and that makes it harder.

  5. Oh, this post realy resonates with me. I have no health conditions to make life additionally hard for me, and I still find that academic culture of ‘do ALL THE THINGS’ exhausting and counterproductive.

    As someone who’s been through grad school and is now out the other side into academia, my one piece of advice for EVERYONE is: draw boundaries. There is ALWAYS more to do in academia. There is ALWAYS another talk, another job to pick up, another deadline. It will never stop and it can easily consume your life and make you sick and unhappy. So, sometimes you have to say no. Become the person who doesn’t always agree to do stuff, but who can be relied on to follow through with the stuff they do agree to do. That way you get to be hardworking and reliable without killing yourself.

    Regarding telling people about your medical condition – you only have to disclose what you feel comfortable with. However, it is enormously helpful for the university to be aware when there is a specific problem. One way of handling this is to tell just one person who can advocate for you when needed. I handle the pastoral care for our grad students, and I always let students who come to me with a problem know that I can be a buffer for them. That is, I am happy to be the point of contact and to go to other staff and say ‘Person x needs x and y support for personal reasons’. It might be that the person has a disability, has suffered sexual assault, experienced a bereavement, has financial troubles, whatever, but regardless I don’t disclose what those personal reasons are unless the student asks me to do so. I just let other people know that they have a legitimate reason for, say, missing a lot of seminars. I am sure there is someone who could perform this function on your behalf, if that was more comfortable for you.

    1. I should add that I am still working on taking my own advice in the matter of drawing boundaries!

      1. “Become the person who doesn’t always agree to do stuff, but who can be relied on to follow through with the stuff they do agree to do.”

        Great advice for anyone in a high pressure situation! Quality versus quantity, in effect … and not something that we are conditioned to do.

    2. I really like your point about how there will always be one more thing to do. I think sometimes we get into this headspace that says if you can always do “just one more thing” until suddenly you’re stuck doing more than is sane or reasonable or healthy. Also, pastoral care sounds really interesting. I don’t want to threadjack, but I’d love to talk to you more about what that is and how you got involved in it, if you’re amenable.

  6. One thing that I wish I learned in grad school was just to say no when I needed to. It hurts, not attending an event, a night out, etc., but there’s something great about saying ‘It’s 9 o’clock. I’m done with work. I’m just going to chill out with a cup of tea and a TV show and then I will go to bed.’
    It’s the sort of treating yourself with love I wish I had realised during my studies.
    (Also Kellis is right! Treat yourself like a good friend).

    1. Word. When I was doing my student teaching, I made the decision to make Saturdays no-school days. Saturday was my day to go grocery shopping, do laundry, hang out with my friends, and take care of me. Having that boundary was what kept me sane through the 70+ hour work weeks.

      And honestly, if you don’t make those kinds of boundaries, and take that time for yourself, what ultimately happens is you can’t keep doing the things that you want to. This is the difference between a teacher who teaches for five years and burns out, and a teacher who can make a 40 year career out of it. Do you want to look back on your grad school experience and remember it as a time of growth and learning about a subject you love, or do you want to remember it as a time of misery?

      1. Coming from someone who made weekends a no-school/teaching stuff time when I was a teacher, this is important. I am no longer a teacher. Sometimes you can make those boundaries and still burn out. But even if that happens, making those boundaries makes it a lot easier to move on later, b/c you don’t find our self burned out AND disconnected from everyone/everything you loved.

        Having those boundaries helped me so much in being able to recover when I quit teaching, b/c my whole identity wasn’t bound up in teaching. At some point, LW will no longer be in grad school, and s/he will be a lot better off if s/he’s had a life outside of it. “This is not school time” boundary setting is excellent advice.

    2. This definitely applies beyond grad school, too. The grad student who never says no becomes the professional/PTA member/spouse/etc. who never says no. My job would take over my life if I let it–this kind of thing does *not* stop when you get your degree! The earlier you learn to draw boundaries and say no, the easier all of life will be. No one else will ever do it for you.

  7. Jumping on the sympathy bandwagon here, as someone who’s currently in the thick of a six-year-long degree. I made the decision long ago that I am not required to sacrifice all of my time, sanity, and physical and mental effort on the altar of academia. Doing ALL of the things ALL of the time and burning yourself out completely is not a sustainable way of working. In fact, I firmly believe that I am a better scholar when I attend to my physical and mental health–after all, how am I supposed to concentrate on writing this dissertation chapter/grading this stack of papers/understanding this lecture when I have blinding stress headaches or debilitating anxiety?

    This necessarily means that I can’t do everything, and I’ve made my peace with that fact. And you know what? The gleefully masochistic culture of academia is only going to change if people within it stand up for themselves and reclaim the right to live a balanced life. Academics should NOT be made to feel like terribly lazy people for wanting to attend to their own well-being.

    1. That…that reads like a George Saunders short story.

      Third, we are pleased with how Science Coffee and Journal Club are going and thank the many students who help make both of those opportunities available to everyone. We also recognize that we as a faculty need to do a better job at participating. Yet we have received some student comments about the way in which faculty do participate. Namely, that some faculty-student interactions have become too intense. In these cases, it is not the faculty member’s intention to make the student uncomfortable. The faculty member means to interact with the student as he or she would a peer. That should be flattering to the student! Faculty questions (at least in this department) do not arise from a desire to embarrass a student speaker, but from a real scientific interest in the answer. In such cases, the student should do his or her best to respond and, frankly, to consider the experience good (and relatively gentle) training for any discussion at Caltech or at Tuesday Lunch at the Princetitute.

      1. I know that feel Miss Which. I’m a grad student in the biomedical sciencey arena at a research-driven school (so I kinda get the feeling it’s a little more intensely into research than other schools, but I might just be making assumptions), just read through it, and while we haven’t received an email like that, there’s so much of the email that sounds like things my boss has said to me, or other faculty here.

        I kinda love the “should be flattering” line – and FWIW at a recent talk I was aggressive (but respectful) right back to a faculty member and it was a pretty empowering experience 🙂 but I don’t think I felt flattered in any way 😛

  8. I’m just finishing an MFA and while I don’t have a medical condition, I do have a FT job and two kids. Don’t ever apologize. That’s all I can say. You need to get what you need out of the program. You don’t owe it anything. All the activities and talks are to benefit you, but that’s the great part. If they aren’t a benefit (for whatever reason) then you shouldn’t feel bad about missing it or in telling people that you had other priorities.

    I’m a bit ranty about things like this. But I spent too long feeling guilty for having said family and job when (90-95%) of my program were singles who weren’t working FT. It made my program work when it should have been advancing my writing career and just maybe been a little fun too.

    Good luck, draw boundaries, and never apologize for having a life/needs.

  9. They mean well

    No, they don’t. People who mean well will say “Hey, I know it’s tough, so here are some ways I found that helped me cope with having to walk uphill both ways in the snow five miles, so that it will be easier for you.” The gleeful-masochism When I Was Your Age bullshit is bragging about how tough and hard-working and amazing they were and is profoundly unhelpful.

    When I heard this kind of stuff (I’m not a grad student, but I am in the kind of field where bragging about self-destructive hours is also common), I assume the person is both exaggerating and conveniently omitting the time that they took a whole weekend off for a beer bash or the night they spent quietly crying in their bedroom because the stress was overwhelming. You are allowed to take care of yourself, and don’t let some macho WHEN I WAS YOUR AGE WE SPENT THIRTY HOURS A DAY ON OUR ART crap get to you.

  10. So, so timely. I’m currently on a looong weekend’s leave from my full-time job specifically so I can recover from the stress of school/home/life, including the death of a family member, and the subsequent pileup of undone coursework. It’s not like a vacation — I’m buckling down to get the work caught up — but it’s an extra ~40 hours to work and sleep and take care of myself. And don’t we all wish we had extra time in the week?

    I worried about disclosure to my professors, but after working it through some realized that there was a middle ground between no contact at all and “I think my life is falling apart because X Y Z and I don’t know what I’m going to do!!!”. Really. You can say “I have a medical condition,” if you want to, and not have to explain more than that. Maybe have a doctor’s note, and/or speak to your school’s counseling center about what is appropriate/necessary to share and how that works. For me, it felt more legit after my manager had approved me for official leave. So that evening I bit the bullet and emailed my instructors (and my neglected group members for this project) and apologized for falling behind, and then said that I was working to get back on track so that I can graduate on time in May. And you know what? NO ONE YELLED AT ME. The professors were appropriately sympathetic and professional, and encouraging as well. So were the other students. So was my manager, and HR, and my parents, and my wife. Because they do not want me to burn out either. Some of them will be more concerned with the details of when I’m going to get my work done, and its quality, and less with my wholeness as a person, but no one hates me for doing this necessary thing. And no one hates you.

  11. Oh dear god THIS.

    I’ve only told a small fraction of my story over at my own blog, but here’s the gist of things: Biology graduate student, in love with science, wants desperately to contribute to Human Knowledge and cure diseases and write lovely papers. Also has depression, anxiety, and an assortment of mysterious stress-related health problems that seem like they shouldn’t count because every girl gets UTIs sometimes and everyone has tense/sore backs, except Hey! most people don’t end up in the hospital for a week with bacteria killing their kidneys and Hey! most people don’t have muscle spasms that severely restrict their range of motion in their neck/shoulders and keep them from sleeping at night!

    So yea, I feel ya.

    Personally, I wasn’t really given a choice in the end… my advisor decided I was “insufficiently committed” to science, and that I make too many mistakes (when I am forcing myself to work through panic attacks or extreme pain because I am trying so hard to look committed and not get fired). So there went my lab. And then because science funding is quite literally more difficult to get than it has ever been in the history of publicly funded science in the US, I couldn’t find another lab that was willing to take me AND had money.

    So I’m mastering out. My thesis got approved last week and after I wrap up coursework (in the next two weeks) I’ll be DONE.

    And for me personally, it’s good fucking riddance. Academic “we’re all so proud of killing ourselves slowly from overwork” culture is so fucking toxic and bullshit and I can’t tell you how many young professors (including the one that kicked me out) I have watched deteriorate into flaming piles of Stress and Angry and Overwork and But It’s All For SCIENCE from the combination of this culture and the epically bad funding environment, and fuck it, I am not volunteering to be part of that shit anymore.

    …or so I tell myself, so that this whole thing doesn’t hurt anymore than it already does.

    Anyhow, I don’t write all of this because I’m recommending that you leave. I think you should totally know that it is a legitimate and not at all shameful option if it comes to that, but it shouldn’t have to. Take care of yourself and don’t feel ashamed doing it. With people that have no actual say in your degree progress or your general well-being, don’t tell them unless you feel like it. Not your problem what judgmental shit goes through their heads. With people that have some power, be honest when you have to, and not overly apologetic either. Don’t act like it’s reasonable for them to expect you to sacrifice your personal health for your degree, because it ISN’T.

    And mostly, just hang in there, and know that you aren’t alone. Grad school really does SUCK, hardcore. It really is an INCREDIBLY unhealthy environment a lot of the time.

    *jedi hugs*

    1. Keely! ❤ I have a letter to pass on to you, here it is:

      "Dear Keely,

      I love you so much and I want what's best for you. I'm glad that we're taking a break right now. Things really got on top of us, huh? I think I started to lose sight of what's important. Anyway, I think we're all the better for having some space. I can't wait for you to have your lovely future. But I just wanted to say that I'm really glad that I met you, and I've always thought that you were really, really great.

      Love, Science


    2. Congratulations for figuring out what you need to do, and I’m so sorry that your adviser treated you so poorly. *fistbump of solidarity*

    3. Personally, I wasn’t really given a choice in the end… my advisor decided I was “insufficiently committed” to science, and that I make too many mistakes (when I am forcing myself to work through panic attacks or extreme pain because I am trying so hard to look committed and not get fired). So there went my lab.

      OH MY GOD THIS IS THE STORY OF MY LIFE RIGHT NOW. ❤ I'm in the scrounging phase, looking for another lab to pick me up because I love it, even though it hurts to do. Sometimes it feels like everyone's right, that maybe this isn't for me, that maybe I'd be happier doing something else. But other times that sentiment feels like just one more barrier in the way of me doing the science I love, love, LOVE with all my heart.

      This letter and these comments are really hitting home, and I don't know what to do with all these feels.

      1. Ugh, I am so sorry you’re in the same spot. Good luck in finding a lab. I wish I could give you advice but obviously my efforts didn’t work out. :-/

        On the bright side, if you master out you CAN still reapply into PhD programs. It SUCKS, of course, to have to go through that process again but if it turns out that I just can’t live without DOING SCIENCE, then that’s my plan B. or C. Or something.

        1. Yeah, that’s my Plan N+1, where N = the number of labs at my Uni that I have a possibility of transferring into.


      2. I am so sorry. I may be in the same situation soon, and I am really trying to figure out whether or not it’s worth starting up in another lab, especially because my subfield is notorious for asshole PIs and abysmal work-life balance. I loathe the culture of my field, but I love the science (or did, before I burned out recently, and still think it’s pretty cool in theory). I don’t know what to do either. Part of why I wanted that PhD was to get myself credentialed enough and able to get into jobs with enough clout that hopefully more people in the field would listen to me, and I am now seriously considering just doing something else and trying to tell myself it’s their loss. Which it is, but they’ll never see it.

    4. Dude – congratulations on your masters! Seriously. Not being facetious. I know that within academia mastering out is seen as quitting (heck, even switching careers post phd is seen as quitting in some circles), but that’s such bullshit. You’ve achieved a really high level of education which deserves recognition. You’ve also worked out that this path isn’t for you and cut your losses which is a serious personal achievement. I hope you find a new path that will allow you to do the things you love but in a better environment. I’m currently searching for the same thing in the humanities having decided that while I love research and writing, the hoop jumping, politics, and 60+ hour work weeks as standard just aren’t my cup of tea. And guess what? I don’t feel like a failure at all, I feel like I’m finally taking control of my life.

  12. Oh, goodness, did this post knock me sideways. At age 31, I’m still an undergrad (because life reasons), and only part-time at that, and I’ve spent most of this semester feeling like I’m drowning. I’d never even considered that my own PCOS and depression, which for me fall into that category of things that I Just Deal With, Oh Well, might be something I could seek university accommodations for — so far I’ve been relying on the goodwill of individual instructors when I have a flare-up that knocks me off-schedule; and while yes, most instructors are full of goodwill for students who are Obviously Trying, there’s always the stress of not knowing whether you might have one of the rare less-goodwill-filled profs, or not knowing if you’re Obviously Trying hard enough to meet their goodwill threshold. So, Sweet Machine, thank you so much for writing this.

    That being said: Here I’ve been planning/daydreaming to stay on for my MFA, and having read this — eep. Grad school sounds less awesome all of a sudden. Or, rather, still very awesome, but much more daunting.

    1. As someone with an MA and a PhD who is now working as a prof, I have to say: grad school is a gauntlet. The people there may say nice things to you, but they want you to give them money and then to fail. They want to make you paranoid, to knock you down. You might read through this: collegemisery.com (profs being frank about students and grad school) or this: http://100rsns.blogspot.com/ as you make this exciting but daunting decision.

    2. Also someone with an MS, a PhD who is working on her MLIS (I can stop whenever I want to! Really! *ahem*) my best advice about going to grad school is to consider why you want to.

      If you really want to learn about the field, if you’re heavily interested in some of the subjects, if you want the degree because it will help you get to X goal related to the subject, then go for it.

      If you’re going simply to go and do Something Else? Don’t. If you think it will lead to an easy life because you have X degree? DON’T. If you think it will guarantee you a job FOR THE LOVE OF ALL THAT’S HOLY DON’T.

      1. If you’re going simply to go and do Something Else? Don’t.

        I would disagree on that point, to some extent. While the best advice an advisor ever gave me was “if you don’t feel like your life will END if you don’t get to do a PhD, DO NOT DO A PHD,” I did a Master’s Program for fun, for the experience, for the love of [x] subject, and I’ve never regretted it. YMMV, of course, but it can be worth the experience points. 🙂

        It was definitely a gauntlet, and there were a few stressful breakdowns of OMG CANNOT, but the good times far outweighed the bad, for me. Boundaries are wonderful, wonderful things — another great piece of advice from this advisor was to implement a 48-hour rule with emails. No email from students or whomever was so important you had to reply within 48 hours. If someone wanted to get you on a committee/to an event at the last second? Whoops, emailed too late. A student needs to know the assignment topic at 2am the day the paper is due? That’s what office hours earlier in the week were for.

        I personally found grad school less stressful than undergrad — there’s more work, but the smaller classes and more close relationships with the profs meant they knew me as a person rather than a name and a student number.

  13. This is an accurate description of grad school. It *will* suck your soul out and you are the only one who will be left a post-vampiric husk, because you are up against an Institution, and Institutions are not known for their compassion. The Institution assumes that you can take care of yourself, and it will therefore push you until you make it clear that you will take no more. Malice? Not generally. Callous? Most certainly.

  14. Grad school is a black hole of selfhood. Grad school is a monster that wants to take every shred of your time and your identity and your well-being and store those shreds in a place you can’t access.

    I feel this, and I know a HUGE part of this is real expectations from above. But at the same time… I think that grad school is like this in part because we keep saying it about grad school. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. “Oh, you get enough sleep and have an active social life? You must be doing grad school wrong.” “Your hair’s not falling out from stress? I guess you’re insufficiently committed.”

    Overwork and exhaustion become status symbols, emblems of dedication and personal purity. To say no, to sleep, to slack off at all, is so sybaritic it’s practically sinful. So then it’s 10pm and you close one book and think, Do I sleep now? What would a good grad student do? and pick up another.

    So there are actually a fair number of students who do make it through grad school sane and healthy, but it’s like they’re ashamed to say so. And so the cycle feeds back into itself. When actually, studies of the most successful students show that they quite deliberately draw boundaries and keep parts of their life free for sleep, play, alone-time, and a social life. Those are the things that give you the energy to do grad school well.

    1. “But at the same time… I think that grad school is like this in part because we keep saying it about grad school.”

      I so want to agree with this sentiment… but I think a lot of us keep saying it because we HAVE to. Because our advisors regard us with suspicion if we are happy/well-rested/healthy/have active social lives. I was actually scolded by my advisor once for having “too much of a social life”… and all she knew of my social life was that I had a boyfriend that I saw multiple times a week and that I worked out at/had friends at a climbing gym in the area. Oh, and maybe once every few months I threw a dinner party and cooked a nice meal for my friends.

      I DO think we need to stop saying this about grad school, but the people who really need to change are the people in power… professors, advisors, administrators… and not necessarily the students. Because fuck, I did not have any choice in being miserable in grad school… it was that or be told by my advisor that I wasn’t trying hard enough.

      1. And thiiiis is why I’m leaving my job at a university counselling centre as soon as my contract runs out. Because succeeding in university means actively fighting a system that wants you to drop out. After all, in some schools, four students who drop out halfway through a degree are actually more profitable as two students who graduate. Mine isn’t like that, but they do have programs that literally only accept half the first-years back for the second year, based on flat quota, not performance. It doesn’t matter if the entire class are fucking superstars, the bottom half gets dropped.

        It is so, so frustrating to try to help people stay functional and maybe even happy, knowing that their choice to do so may cost them their spot in school. And every time someone says, “I don’t know what I’ll do after I graduate… grad school, I guess?” I cry a little inside.

      2. YES. ALL OF THIS.

        I think the fundamental problem is the faculty don’t have any training on how to teach or advise students, which is about half of their job. The higher-ups assume that if you’re good at research, you’re qualified to do all the other stuff. Some people are, and some people are terrible at it, and if you’re stuck with an advisor in the latter category, everybody blames the students for not being able to get along with them.

        And a lot of students seem to have some kind of Stockholm syndrome thing going on where they buy into the idea that working 80+ hour weeks and tolerating all the abuse is just the gauntlet you have to run in order to earn a graduate degree, and you have to pretend it’s never difficult to do that because you’re just superhuman. There seems to be resentment towards people like us, who work hard but do have some work-life balance, like they think it’s unfair that we’re not secretly suffering like they are. And the more dysfunctional the lab (thanks to an advisor who’s bad at their job), the more students seem to turn against each other like that.

        1. I think the fundamental problem is the faculty don’t have any training on how to teach or advise students, which is about half of their job.

          That may be true at times, but I think it goes deeper than that.

          Being a professor — being a *young* professor — is stupidly stressful. There *is* no work-life balance. You are given a half-decade to prove that you deserve a guaranteed position in an institution — a position that hundreds of other people will kill to take. And things are *far* worse now than they were, say, three decades ago. Funding rates have plummeted — there are a lot of subdivisions where the grant funding rate has dropped below 10% (pre-sequester!). You can write an amazing grant, but you need data to back it up — and even then it’s still a crapshoot. (I’ve heard some argue that maybe the top 25% of all grants are virtually equivalent. So, at best, your chances of getting funded with an *incredibly* good proposal are a coin flip.)

          You need funding to get tenure — departments don’t want to deal with deadweight (and, honestly, it’s no fun for anyone involved). You need results to get funding — and you need results to get tenure. And, if you want results, you’re going to have to get them from your grad students.

          There is a nearly universal new professor personality that I’ve seen over and over again — it’s composed of equal parts intensity, ability, aggression, and paranoia. You can have all the training in the world, but you are still going to pressure your students to get results, because that’s what your job depends on.

          Want to change the system? Don’t blame the professors themselves. Blame the funding structure.

    2. But at the same time… I think that grad school is like this in part because we keep saying it about grad school. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

      This is exactly why I try to be as open as possible about the fact that I do draw boundaries — I have an outside life, I have family commitments, I have hobbies, I take breaks. I always tell new grad students that they will be better researchers if they also have a favorite tv show (or what have you) — not just for relaxing but because it is a concrete way to say “my brain is allowed to do something else” and mean it. I think it’s often extra hard in literature-related fields, because everything you do is reading and writing. There’s no other thing you could be doing to switch tasks for a while; you just read and write and read and write. No human being can sustain that at the pace demanded by grad schools, so you have to say, to yourself and out loud to others, “I will do something other than reading and writing.” Whatever it may be!

      One of the most important points in my grad school career came from a conversation with a particular prof known to be a hardass. I mentioned to her that my mom was very ill and that I had to take a lot of trips out of town because of it, and she said, with sympathy and without judgment, “Well, all this [sweeping gesture towards books] must feel totally unimportant right now.” It was one of the first moments when I realized that the people in charge really do know that you’re human, and can be reminded of it if they forget.

      1. Yes. One of the other problems with the multiple mortar boards routine is that no matter what you’re doing, you’re neglecting fifteen other things: no matter how hard you work, you are always, always, always fucking off. I had to deal with this kind of competing responsibilities over the past few years, and it’s…it’s emotionally exhausting. Forget the actual stuff you have to get done: it’s the feeling that you are never accomplishing anything.

      2. Oh, my, I envy you. I told my PI that my stepdad was just diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer and that I’d like a week off sometime this month to go visit, since I usually only make it home twice a year. He said, “We’ll see how your research is going then.”

        Needless to say, I kinda hate my PI. I can’t even call him my mentor. (I’m a postdoc.)

        1. Wow. I actually cannot imagine being the kind of person who could say that to someone with an ill Family member. I kinda hate your PI too, but I’d hate BEING him even more.

    3. I stressed during my phd because I didn’t feel stressed enough to persuade myself that all nighters and constant weekends were something I should do (setting myself up for failure since my brain goes to bed at 10pm, whether I go with it or not). I didn’t do them, but I did feel guilty about it, and thought that maybe I was going to fail because there was some secret work that other students knew about that I just hadn’t done. In the end I passed with no problems.

      1. Yes, this. I have this stress too. I like to say that as a grad student I have plenty of free time (because grad school has actually made me more, not less, of a slacker), but I have no guilt-free free time. I’m working on that (both on making my time management skills better so I actually can get more done, and my guilt and stress– really both those things are so intertwined that working on either one means working on both). No clue yet if I’ll actually finish, etc.– I’m less than halfway through a PhD right now, although I do have a shiny new MA in hand that I finished on time (though just under the wire) last spring.

        But I’m doing reasonably well in my program (see above re: finishing my MA– that’s the point most students drop out in my program, it seems– they either decide during the first two years that grad school is Not For Them and leave with an MA as a consolation prize, or take much longer than the regular 2 years to finish the MA, and in the process make it clear to both themselves and their advisers that grad school is Not For Them, but still they soldier through and finish that one degree). And I could be doing just as well in the program, or better, and also be a happier person, if I just got rid of that damn guilt that grad school is supposed to be soul-crushingly hard and I’m not working hard enough and that means I must be terrible and awful and incompetent.

        1. I worried about this a lot in grad school – it was this weird complex guilt that every moment I was slacking off meant that I wasn’t actually GOOD at this whole graduate school thing. My classmates would talk of pulling all-nighters for papers and grading, and I would just wonder if I simply had better time management or was just not as dedicated as them (it was a toss-up). I ended up creating a lot of stress for myself by wondering if I was doing ENOUGH.

          There’s definitely guilt from professors and faculty though, don’t get me wrong – “Why aren’t you publishing yet?” was a question that plagued me (“because I don’t want to in this field?” was never an adequate answer…) – but I often felt the most pressure from classmates who were doing so much MORE than I was. And I had to settle myself with being the “slacker” of the group (even though, if you looked at my schedule, I totally wasn’t).

          Grad school ends up being this weird mess of stress and perfectionism and peer pressure from all sides and does not lend itself to boundaries very well. And that’s crappy.

          I dunno. It’s weird.

        2. Sometimes general you ARE smart and competent, and school comes easily to general you, and that’s why school isn’t hard. That’s just a thing that is, and it’s nothing to be ashamed of.

          (If only people in educational authority had said to me, “Bird, it’s great that school comes easy to you, but you still have to complete your assignments even though you understood the material and it’s been not but busywork for three lessons now because you’ve got to learn to slog through things that bore you sometimes.” and not gone on and ON about HARD WORK when the work was never actually hard to me, I might not have been as miserable in school as I was.)

          1. I think one of my issues, and many other people’s too, is that grad school is the first time that being smart and competent wasn’t enough; we also had to work hard and be organized, etc. I mean, not that I was perfect in undergrad, but then there was enough organizational structure decided for me that I could just follow it and be OK; as a grad student I have to be a lot more self-directed. Which is why my problems with time management, organization, and related issues (like executive function difficulties) really became clear to me when I started grad school, and they’re still things I am struggling with on a daily basis.

          2. @Knights, I’m the same way. Also, I took a few years off between undergrad and grad school, and after having a taste of just working at a job and then coming home and doing whatever I wanted, it was really hard to get back in the mindset of having assignments and scheduling time to work on them. I’m a chronic procrastinator, and getting myself to do my laundry is a challenge, so grad school was hell for me.

          3. Knights, that was my problem with grad school, too. School came easily, and it wasn’t that the work was hard in grad school–it’s just that there was a lot and I had no real idea how to organize my life to do it.

            Ultimately I dropped out due to chronic migraines, but I think the stress of not knowing how to DO grad school was a large part of the trigger for them to start in the first place. I was also dealing with weird, different institutional culture than I was used to; changing countries for grad school: not actually reccomended.

          4. Bejeweled Bird and Knights Who Say Knit:

            Me too. I have ADD and a hearing impairment, and I was one of those kids who never had to study for anything. That was kind of great for me because I always tested at the top of my classes without even trying, but it was also awful, because it meant that I didn’t learn study skills when I was young. My disabilities made note-taking nearly impossible (I can write or listen, but not both at once, and anytime I glanced down at my notebook, I’d miss whatever the teacher was saying), so in lieu of actual study skills, I mostly just memorized everything after only hearing it in class once. That only worked until a certain point, and then I found myself in college with no idea how to study.

            Organizing and planning my time is also one of the really hard things that I wish I had learned earlier; what do you mean I can’t write my Master’s Thesis overnight? Not even if I stay up all night? Augh, how on earth do I do it, then?

        3. Same here! I’m only months away from starting to write up and expect to have submitted by 2014, and some part of me still expects my supervisor to suddenly discover I have not been putting in All The Hours (or, really, *that many* hours) and go OMG no PhD for you.

      2. I never pulled an all-nighter during my PhD work. I did in film school a couple of times and once or twice in undergrad, but not then. Other people would talk about how they were up all night finishing a paper and I was just, “nope, I printed it at 8pm last night and then went and read fanfiction until bedtime.”

        I was stressed, no doubt, and I did have some late nights, but that’s partly because my Writing Brain comes online at 10pm and not before, but I didn’t sacrifice sleep entirely at any point.

    4. I struggle with this SO MUCH. I’m in clergy school, in order to be a clergy, but there is a lot of the same poison around high expectations/ perfectionism/ working ALL THE TIME in my program (although I have never had a professor be less than accommodating to me and my needs). Part of it is because we all work several part-time jobs in our field outside in the community, which means that the part time jobs we need to FEED ourselves are also professional growth opportunities that we must focus our energy on. Part of it is that professors genuinely do assign us a lot of reading, and most of it is in other languages

      But also, I was fortunate enough to do an undergrad program that shares a lot of commonalities with my current course of study, so I am used to a grinding courseload and I have a familiarity with many of the subjects I’m studying. And I feel so so guilty that sometimes, I have more free time than other people.

  15. Former grad student here. Also migraineur (isn’t that a fancy word?) who discovered, during grad school, that neurologists don’t think it’s normal for someone to have 6-9 migraines per week (I hadn’t focused on it myself until the neurologist started making me keep a journal).

    Grad school is like a gas: it will expand to fill all available space. Your task, should you choose to accept it, is to make sure that there are some spaces in your life it doesn’t fill, so you can do things like laundry and healthcare and work-for-pay and sleep.

    The important thing here really isn’t what anyone else thinks of you (except your advisor. Make sure your advisor is kept up to date and on your side) but your own acknowledgement that you are, in fact, doing the best you can with what you have. You are not lazy for not getting to those outside readings and not careless when you miss a class because of health reasons.

    Do not listen to those grad school lies! You are strong and thoughtful and everyone needs not only sleep but downtime and time to do things which are not grad school!

    Grad school assumes that no one sleeps, that everyone has enough resources (and that being temporarily poor is a virtue, while being unable to pay your rent without “wasting” your time on a job is weakness on your part), and that no one has a social life. It’s fucking toxic.

    But with a good support system and a decent advisor you can weather the storm (I did), and remember to be kinder to grad students when it’s your turn. 🙂

    1. who discovered, during grad school, that neurologists don’t think it’s normal for someone to have 6-9 migraines per week

      Dude, high five! My first visit with the neuro also involved adding up dates and numbers, and he said something like “Okay, so according to our rubric you are severely disabled by migraine” and it blew my damn mind.

      1. I almost cried when my neurologist said I had “relentless headaches.” YES, that is what’s happening, it’s not supposed to!

      2. Oh God. I have migraines, but they’re more along the lines of twice a month. I would be incapacitated if I had to deal with them several times a week. Severely disabled indeed.

    2. Man, I can’t imagine having 6-9 a week, but only because mine never last less than 24 hours.

  16. Also, this:

    “One day, my adviser called me into his office. The campus newspaper had just published a little profile of the stand-up-comedy-performing grad student, and my adviser happened to read it. Over the next 10 minutes, I learned that my hobby was an embarrassment to the department, that there was no way I could properly focus on biology, and that every negative lab result I ever produced was a direct result of telling jokes at night.”


    1. “I was curious about the alcohol content of my mouthwash, but the label on the bottle didn’t say anything about it. I guess the proof was beyond the text of this Scope!”

      I just guffawed in my apartment.

      I’m so sorry for that person’s experience, though, what an awful thing to be told. I’m glad he seems to have kept up with the Batman-comedy career.

    2. Thank you so much for linking this article, which I will share with all my grad student friends on Facebook as soon as I finish reading it. Even though I am in the humanities, and therefore many of the biology jokes are probably going way over my head.

      My department did a similar thing to me last year as the yelling-about-stand-up-comedy thing, except instead of stand up comedy it was presenting a paper at a major academic conference in my field. I gave a paper at this big conference, it was a damn good paper, and I was– and am– very proud of doing it, and now I have a nice impressive line to add to my CV. But I was also working on an MA thesis at the time, on a different topic entirely, and I was struggling a bit with meeting deadlines and getting things done on time, and all of my professors decided that this was because I was spending too much time on Big Conference and not enough time on my thesis.

      Except that was not why I had trouble with my MA thesis at all. I had trouble because I am a perfectionist and a procrastinator and also I chose a huge topic to write on which required lots of research on topics I didn’t know that much about and also my finished paper was about twice as long as those of my classmates who finished more quickly and also (I found out only recently; my advisor did not tell me this) about 15 pages/35%ish longer than the supposed departmental maximum page length for MA theses (I was not told to cut it down or anything– the maximum page length is, apparently a lie).

      Also, the paper I gave at the conference was already written, in a seminar the year before, and only required fairly minimal revisions, so it wasn’t much work to actually prepare for this conference. And also, the conference itself got me all excited and fired up about my field and caused me to have a big burst of thesis-working energy afterwards.

      But the faculty in my department didn’t know any of this (they didn’t ask any of this). Instead, they just told me that they were very worried about my ability to prioritize and (because of me– and my advisor directly told me that it was because of me) made some new rules about conference attendance that have already directly affected colleagues I care about.

      The reason I tell this whole story is partly to vent, I guess, but also because the whole time I was like, “damn, even in the humanities, I feel like people with PhDs should have a basic understanding that correlation does not necessarily imply causation.” And as this “every mistake you make is due to your stand-up comedy career” story shows, even PhDs in biology don’t always remember that, at least when it comes to making grad students feel bad. And that… makes me sad in all sorts of ways.

  17. Grad student here too. When I was doing undergrad I had the same feelings as keelyellenmarie, that I desperately wanted to Do Science with big dreams of changing the world and yeah OK maybe showing off my smarts a bit because I’m a human I have pride haha… And now after a year of PhD-ing I’m seriously reconsidering an academic career afterwards because it is just such a stressful and competitive environment and I really don’t think it would do good things to my mental health.

    (Not to mention the fact that there are so many people working for so few tenured positions – there’s a guy in my office who’s on his third PDRA position in as many countries, and that’s not an uncommon occurrence these days. You have to be amazingly good and incredibly lucky to have a hope of upwards career progression, but that’s slightly besides the point.)

    I *have* tried setting boundaries (that I will leave the lab no later than 6:30 pm unless there genuinely is something that needs doing right the fuck now) and been pretty good at sticking to them, but the guilty feelings that I’m too lazy and stupid and not committed enough and maybe I don’t deserve to be here are still making it very hard. It’s not really said outright, but a lot of the other members of my lab do hours like 8-8 and often work weekends, so the expectations are there even if we do all acknowledge them as incredibly unhealthy. Since starting my PhD, my depression and anxiety issues which I previously had under control have come back in a big way, mostly because of the constant pressure to work more and work harder until you physically can’t keep going, and then work some more.

    I honestly think academia (and really workplace culture as a whole but that’s another discussion) would benefit immensely if it dropped its whole schtick of ‘you’re lucky to be here, now give us everything that you are so you can achieve your dreams’ and started letting people be, y’know, people – we make mistakes and we need rest and we have lives outside of our one very narrow sphere.

    So, I guess what I’m saying is that yeah, academia is hard enough even if you don’t have chronic health problems and it is totally toxic and it sucks. Following the advice here is pretty good – especially getting advice and help from your school’s disability office will help immensely. You might not feel like your problems are bad enough to need their services, but students like you are what they’re there for and they will be so happy that you’ve come to them now rather than after you’ve completely burnt yourself out.

    1. I hear you. I’m in the third year of my program and my second lab, and I’m seriously considering mastering out very soon. I’m on medical leave right now (depression, anxiety, and multiple personal losses, woohoo!) but will be figuring this out sometime in the next few months.

      My advice on a career in academia tends to be similar to my advice on going to grad school–only do it if it is the only way to get to where you want to be. Industry pays a hell of a lot better and is often better about safety because they actually care about OSHA.

  18. There was a particular line in your letter that jumped right out at me:

    “I apologized to a friend for missing her reading, and she ranted about how much it sucks that people don’t go to stuff. ”

    You are a person, yes, but you are not “people”. Your friend was being unfair to you here. You are not responsible for “people” not attending her reading, you are responsible for you’re not attending the reading and your reason was a valid and worthy one. You didn’t just blow off a friend because you couldn’t be bothered to attend an event that was important to her, you were taking care of your greater need *and* you were kind enough to apologize to her for not being there. Your reputation for being hard-working and dedicated didn’t develop because you’re in a habit of screwing people over, so, please, don’t add someone else’s misdirected frustration at other people’s behaviors to your list of burdens.

  19. I’m doing nursing school, where not only are the expectations ridiculous academically but someone is actually, personally, on your case to tell you what a subpar job you’re doing at all times (My nursing school is known for this, sadly, it’s not in the brochure). I have always excelled at crazy overscheduling but I have found my limit finally.
    What I did to survive is the same thing I did when I found myself a single mom – change my expectations. I made a list (lists are awesome) of all the things I do and sorted them by have to (shower, eat) and all the things I have to do for school. Everything else is extra stuff which can be negotiated. But if I complete all the stuff I HAVE to do, anything else is a bonusMy family will survive eating off of paper plates (no washing up!) and you can make deals with other people for things that save you energy ( if you have to use the laundrymat, do yours and your friends laundry and let her do yours the next time. Same with shopping.
    It definatly sounds like you need to lower your expectations about what you SHOULD be doing. The only thing you HAVE to do is keep yourself alive and as healthy as possible. Everything else is bonus!

  20. I just finished a master’s degree part time while working full time, while taking care of a boyfriend and a horse, so I hear you. I didn’t even have any physical conditions that interfered with my productivity, and it was still sheer hell.

    I have a theory that success in grad school is not about being the smartest/most committed/most creative/most studious: it is about staying on your feet while being punched in the face, over and over and over again.

    Boundaries are good. Maybe writing them down on paper to remind yourself, stick ’em up next to your computer monitor. I like lists. I know if I gave myself a list like “attend 2 readings this week” I could hit that goal and not worry about going over it unless I actually wanted to, rather than felt obligated to.

    1. “I have a theory that success in grad school is not about being the smartest/most committed/most creative/most studious: it is about staying on your feet while being punched in the face, over and over and over again.”


  21. Grad school, check. Migraines, check. Endometriosis, check. Destroyed my health in grad school, check. I went through an MA in history with honors, gave papers at conferences, and learned a second language all in two years and in the process I developed an anxiety disorder and gained until I hit 250 pounds. I dealt with the migraines and am dealing with the anxiety disorder, but it’s taken me several years past grad school to deal with my health issues.

    The profs in my program were wonderful and very human, but they never let you slack one bit (well, at least until the very end when one of my profs gave me permission to stop reading for one day. I literally cried in gratitude). The other students in my program were wonderful – but there was this unspoken, yet omnipresent idea that if you complainer or slacked off, or heavens to god *cried*, you weren’t a real academic and you should woman up and deal with it. Be tough. Exceed your norms. Etc. No one batted an eye when I gained 60 pounds in one semester.

    After grad school I did a lot of reading on grad school and its effects and I discovered that grad school is, by and large, very dangerous to your health. Lots of people (anecdata, sure, but no one is actually studying this) develop anxiety disorders. Lots of people (nearly everyone) self-medicated. I played with Ambien and No-Doz and ate chocolate because it was the one bright spot in my day and I was in a program I LOVED. Some of my friends drank or smoked pot. As mature, responsible, intelligent, educated, driven, creative people we current and ex-grad students should really speak up en masse and create a culture where we can take a night off, ask for help, and say “I can’t do this right now” without fearing being considered not tough enough, not dedicated enough, or not intelligent enough. And without developing issues.

    I think people think “I went through it, and I turned out all right, so it’s ok that you’re going through it, too.” And that’s a fallacious argument, but it’s a tough one to lose. I value the self-confidence I gained going through grad school, but I wish my body hadn’t suffered so much for it. There should be some way we can develop our intellects and creativity without having to suffer quite so much for it.

    1. There should be some way we can develop our intellects and creativity without having to suffer quite so much for it.

      I agree wholeheartedly with this, and I would also like to add that there are some jobs that, no matter how otherwise qualified and experienced you are, you can’t even apply for without an advanced degree. That’s the reason I went to grad school–because you can’t get a job as a librarian in most places without an MLIS. But it turned out I couldn’t do grad school, even though, with a little training, I’d be perfectly capable of doing the job of a librarian. The culture of grad school suffering keeps people from getting jobs.

  22. I also have a great deal of sympathy for you, LW. And the advice to draw boundaries, to say no, is absolutely right and essential. But horrible thing about grad school is often there are negative consequences for not being a superhuman, hyper-productive, obsessive type academic. Now that I’m nearing the end of my doctoral program, I can see that while there are exceptions, the superstars (typically, able-bodied men with wives who took care of the house/kids) are the ones getting job offers, while the people who limped to the finish line after dealing with things like health issues, pregnancy, or personal crises are not having as much success.

    It’s a system that rewards people who are either uniquely equipped to do it all, or people who just about kill themselves trying. It’s an unfortunate reality that the constant pressure and anxiety is not just in our heads, but reflective of reality — any competitive system that rewards the most productive people is going to to be like this. For me, I had to realize that it’s not worth it. I have a certain amount of time and energy for academia, and if it’s not enough for the tenure-track dream job, that’s okay. I need to draw lines even when there are consequences, because the alternative is destroying myself.

    I also had to let go of the feeling that I had to minimize my debt whenever possible. I finally realized that it’s not the end of the world to need an extra year in school, even though it meant another student loan. Also, trying to work when I didn’t have funding was really wearing me down — so after trying that for a couple of summers, I ended up not working during my last unfunded summer. I decided spending $5000 was worth being able to take care of myself and get my work done. Obviously I can’t advise anyone “just quit your job” without knowing the details, but I know that I changed my view of what is an acceptable level of debt over time — and it might be something to think about.

  23. My chair gave me a bit of advice: every night, do SOMETHING for yourself that isn’t grad school or research related. At least an hour.

    And, really, it’s commendable that you want to do everything and go to everyone’s events. But in the end, the only things that really matter are your committee and your portfolio.

  24. I get migraines and work a physical job that is actually kind of dangerous when I’m about to get one (I get mad dizzy and use a lot of knives) but for various reasons was always afraid to step up and, you know, ask for help/accommodation of any sort because I need to do All The Things and don’t want to impose. When I nearly lopped a finger off trying to work through one I realized I couldn’t keep quiet and just grit my teeth and get through it and trying was stupid and dangerous.

    Your situation is obviously different than mine (less potential for maiming, I imagine) but the core idea is the same. You, and your health, matter, and if that means having to speak up about your issues (“I have a health problem that prevents me from (blank) can you accommodate me with (letting me work from home/take a smaller course load/communicate with me via email instead of in the office/skip this reading without a guilt-trip/what everwill help you)?”) and risk occasionally inconveniencing someone, then that is a fair price to pay for your health and sanity.

    For what it’s worth, in my books, knowing someone is working and going through school and taking on this super-human load ON TOP of struggling with some sort of health issue? That makes them seem like a freaking super-hero.

  25. The thing to remember about grad school and academia is that it is truly a marathon, not a sprint. If you burn yourself out sprinting for short-term seemingly crucial goals, you’ll never reach the finish line (or whatever: metaphor fail, but you get the point). There is absolutely nothing wrong with measuring your effort and holding energy in reserve to support your long-term goals, even at the expense of short-term goals like “please my professors, serve my students, support my fellow grad students, etc”.

    The other thing that is really key is accepting that effort and engagement are most effective when they come and go in cycles. So if you are really jazzed up about some shitte you are reading/writing, and you spend twelve hours a day for two weeks on it because “TOO EXCITED TO STOP”, that is fucken great. But then you need to recover, which might mean disappearing for a few days and/or only working six hours a day for the subsequent week or so.

    And *you* get to decide the appropriate balance. Because even though there are people in academia who will try to pressure you into doing more, more, more, the bottom line is that they really have no capacity to enforce those intentions. So long as you are making good progress on your research and satisfying your teaching duties, then no one can fucke with you.

    1. “So long as you are making good progress on your research and satisfying your teaching duties, then no one can fucke with you.”

      In what universe is that true?

      Even when my project was WORKING, and I was pumping out data, my advisor was still constantly on me for having a social life or leaving at 6 or 7pm. And when my project was stuck–mind you, I was still DOING EXPERIMENTS every day, they were just giving us inconsistent results and/or not the results my advisor expected–I was immediately out on your ass.

      If you are making good progress on research and satisfying your teaching duties and have tenure, then no one can fuck with you. If you’re a grad student, you have to do all of those things and you’re still at the mercy of your PI/advisor.

      1. Comradde’s from a different generation, I do believe. I will tell you a fairy story about those times.

        Once upon a time in the far-away land of Academe, many years ago, there weren’t many prospective students, and the land was rich, and money flowed like honey, and the Ivory Tower shone most white and pure. There was not much competition for milk-white middle-class males, and they rose gently to the top like the sweetest cream, in those faraway fat years of butter. And there they could stay, happily settling into the warm bosom of tenure, with wives attending to their needs and students who looked just-like-them-in-their-younger-days hanging on their every word. And verily, there were six-figure salaries, and yea, they were Professors. They built the Ivory Tower and they climbed into it and furnished it with many throw pillows, for it was impregnable, made of milk-white glass that could not be broken or climbed. Occasionally a brave young knight would ride up to the tower alone, and the Professors would hear him out, and they would let down their great long white beards and allow him to climb up. This was the only way into the tower. Eagles brought them their food. The laboring peasant classes paid them in gold coins and luxury goods. Their obedient wives labored in the bottom cells of the tower, ensuring that the place was clean, quiet, contemplative, and running perfectly smoothly. All the Professors had to do was to comb out their luxurious beards, looking out the windows and contemplating the infinite, and occasionally quarreling for flavor. It was a beautiful life.

        And verily, the magical land of Academe slowly fell into disrepair and ill-repute, and lawlessness, and sorrow, yet the Professors remained, expressing genteel bafflement…

        For from the warm and sheltered nest, the Professors watched the new generation gathering at the foot of the Ivory Tower. And they were surprised, for at the base of their lily-white symbol of phallic purity, there crowded a huge group, a more diverse and desperate group. The Professors were surprised, for they seemed to be mostly Peasants, but they claimed that they were Students, and that they intended to get into the Tower too.

        “Good idea,” called the Professors, “The trick is to work hard!” and they tucked into the lovely luncheon that their wives had brought up.

        The students below worked long hours for relatively little, which was only fair, because the Professors vaguely remembered doing that – forgetting, of course, that those were the butterfat years, and that living wages in Academe had not increased for forty years. The group at the base of the tower occasionally shouted “Let us up!” but the Professors were able to say that there was no room, as none of them had died yet, and Academe had ever been ruled this way. Occasionally, as was traditional, the oldest Professor would let down his snow-white beard and a nice able-bodied young man from the pool below would climb up it. It was all very satisfactory, for a while. But the students continued to clamor, sounding very entitled and spoiled to the Professors.

        “Let us up!” the students at the bottom cried.

        “There’s no room yet,” the Professors would call down. “Keep working.”

        They would say to one another: “It isn’t that hard, after all. We managed perfectly well.”

        The group at the base of the tower continued, tearing pieces off one another and fighting like crabs in a bucket. The Professors watched with amusement, and began to realize that the group at the base of the tower served most well as free labor.

        “We can do literally anything we want to them,” they said with glee, and set to work. One of their more brilliant ideas was the Tenure Track, which they had the student laborers construct of the same milk-white glass as the tower. It was a sharp, steep spiraling ramp which led halfway up the side of the Tower. “Whosoever attains the Tenure Track will be let into the Tower!” the Professors announced, and the students below howled with bloodlust and began to fight for the honor. In the resulting froth of bones and blood and hair, some made it onto the steep ramp and began to slip and climb.

        “I can’t do it,” said one student, on its hands and knees, “It’s too hard,” and it began to cry.

        “Well, obviously, you’re going about it the wrong way,” the Professors chided.

        “I don’t have enough money. My stipend doesn’t cover my living expenses, and my parents are too poor to help. I’m hungry and cold and I haven’t had time to maintain social connections or relationships. I can’t remember when I last cooked food, or went to the bank, or did anything about this cough.”

        The Professors snorted, “Silly! You’re obviously not cut out to be a Professor! Don’t you know that those problems are what a wife is for? Go get one and she’ll do all that for free.”

        “But I’m a straight woman,” the student replied. “And the world is really, really different from down here.”

        The Professors said, “A woman? How weird.” They watched, baffled, as the student finally let go and tumbled off the white ramp. They began to study the seething pool of students and found that it contained some strange, confusing people that they had never really looked at before. There appeared to be a lot of women, and some black and brown people, and some sick people, and people with funny accents or strange headgear, and a good deal of poor people. They were all complaining loudly about the ramp and demanding that the Professors let down their beards.

        “These students complain a lot these days!” the Professors said, “It isn’t that hard. We all got up here.” But the students howled, and they looked a bit yucky, and some of them were almost making it up to the windows of the Tower, clutching for the Professor’s dangling beards with their bloody, frightening, chaotic hands.

        “This is disturbing,” said the Professors, quickly reeling in their beards. “Let’s see about making that ramp a bit steeper. And maybe we can build a moat and fill it with aquatic bears.”

        The laboring students obediently built the ramp and moat, and duly stocked it with specially engineered bears, and found that now it was nearly impossible to climb anywhere at all. They began to cry. Most of them got up and walked away. They left trails of tears, snot and blood behind them, like sad wounded snails. The ground around the Ivory Tower began to resemble an abandoned battlefield, strewn with orphaned research projects and theses left to rot.

        “Thank Darwin! Praise Newton!” said the Professors, “We thought they’d never leave,” and they sank back into their leather armchairs with relief. But there was a funny sound downstairs, so they looked out of the windows to investigate. The students who had remained at the base of the tower were determinedly chipping it away with a laser.

        “Whyever are you doing that?” The Professors cried out in alarm.

        “We want to get in,” the students said.

        The Professors said, “How dare you! This tower is so easy to get into! All it takes is hard work and passion and commitment! And the labor of others, usually unpaid, supporting you at every level! And an entire social system in place that ensures your success! And occasionally, aquatic bears.”

        “About that,” said the students, and ——–

        (Here ends the first Chronicle of Academe. The rest of the page seems to have been chewed away by bears.)

        1. Chiming in to say, yea, truth has been spoken!

          Also, as much as I think revolutions are bloody messes that end up in just another kind of corruption for many decades, I kinda think if we are all killing ourselves slowly anyway, then why not revolt. But oh, wait, I’m pretty much a (somewhat priviliged) peasant and when Occupy was in its height, I had to feed myself while navigating this truly godawful soul-crushing system.

        2. I know I am late but this is THE BEST THING EVER. I love it and want an illuminated manuscript of it to post prominently in my department.

    2. No capacity to enforce those intentions. Sure. Right. Until they start talking about kicking a third-year student whose work they’d been pleased with out of their group for vocally wanting some approximation of a 40-h workweek and the full vacation time legally agreed on in the grad student union contract (which they don’t give two shits about, like a significant fraction of the other professors in the department). Bullshit.

      1. That situation sounds so familiar! (3rd year student, mastering out because 50+ in lab on weekdays, plus weekend animal duties and experiments as necessary, plus work at home… wasn’t enough.)

  26. I heartily +1 the advice to see disability services. I had a shoulder injury when I was doing one of my degrees, and it turns out that you use your shoulders ALL THE TIME. It was hurting to study, and I was getting stressed out because I couldn’t not-study just because I was in pain but I was terrified of setting my injury off again (and I went to the worst GP ever, who told me that if my physio plan was finished then there was nothing she could recommend except that I take painkillers every day. I cried in her office and then foolishly didn’t got and see someone who was actually a good doctor, because I’d spent the past year seeing a physio and a specialist and my GP and I was meant to be DONE with this pain thing).

    And eventually a counsellor I was seeing prodded me into seeing disability services and… it was GREAT! I could get extensions on assignments if my body was just not working well enough to get them done on time. I could not drag myself in to uni on days when I was in agony. I could talk to my lecturers and my supervisors (who could be told that I was registered with DS, but did not have to be told anything more and none of them pressed for more details because they knew that if DS had ticked off on my condition that it was legit and also none of their business outside of how it affected my studies) and we could find ways to make sure I kept up on anything that I couldn’t be present for.

    Disability services, if they are doing their job right, will make things a lot easier. They can hook you up with a note taker, they can help you talk to course coordinaters about recording talks and lectures so that ‘not being able to attend’ does not equal ‘completely misses this experience and can never access it ever’.

    And not only that, I found that it was just a really positive experience to have someone say “This is a legitimate problem and we will find a way to work around it”. The message that my stupid shoulder injury would not define my life was something that I really, really needed to hear.

    Finally, I’m sure that other people have suggested this – but counselling might also help. Doing anything with a condition that affects your day-to-day life is so emotionally draining, and it creates so much stress, and having someone you can rant at or cry at or even just sigh heavily with exhaustion at is a big, big help. If your uni has counselling services, those counsellors will also know a whole heap about university policies for things like taking leave from study for health reasons or negotiating extensions, and even just what kind of education services you are entitled to that will assist you in Getting Shit Done.

    1. And not only that, I found that it was just a really positive experience to have someone say “This is a legitimate problem and we will find a way to work around it”. The message that my stupid shoulder injury would not define my life was something that I really, really needed to hear.

      I hear you on that front… the first time I went to the disability service was actually before I’d been diagnosed, and I pretty much expected them to laugh me out of the room (I have Asperger’s, and the stereotypes about self-diagnosis are… not good). It was such an INCREDIBLE experience to sit there and talk about the problems I was having and actually be believed. I still remember how amazed I was when the person I spoke to told me she was worried about me. You think my problems are real, that I’m not just making this up for attention, enough to actually be *worried*? Unbelievable!

      At the time they couldn’t offer accommodation due to me not having a diagnosis but they were instrumental in helping me *get* one, and the DS at my current uni has been amazing – they even managed to get me the support where I was going “having this would be fantastic and it would solve so many of my problems, but it’s never going to happen.”

  27. LW and anyone else in a similar situation:

    Please absolutely DO talk to campus Disability Services. That tends to be one of the more effective ways, in my experience, to cut down on the systemic shittery. (And like the post on hotlines, this is another situation where they need to prove they’re doing stuff. And seriously, it’s better to have documentation before the fact than to have to deal with Paperwork after a serious health crisis has happened.)

    His first semester of grad school, Spouse had an instructor loudly proclaiming all about how nobody needed accommodations in his class (and therefore, [insert unreasonable expectations here]) – at a point where the bureaucracy hadn’t yet gotten him into Disability Services. Better believe he went there *immediately* after to go through the whole thing of, “I always register because I don’t know if I’m going to need it, but it’s better to already be registered if I do need it.” The office also had enough teeth to tell ableist asshat instructor to fuck off, which was very helpful.

  28. I’m finishing up my second attempt at graduate school and, this time around, I was lucky enough to find a place where it is culturally expected for graduate students to have a life beyond grad school. The times I come into lab on a weekend or stay past 6pm, the building is almost completely deserted because the faculty and graduate students have gone home or out climbing or running or what have you. About 6 months ago my big-name-scientist, known for over-scheduling herself, advisor sat me down and talked to me about saying no and setting boundaries so I don’t over-extend myself.

    This isn’t to say that grad school is a bed of roses or there aren’t occasional weeks of nonstop work or piles of stress, but one thing I’ve worked hard at is to set my boundaries carefully. I’ve learned (both before grad school and in it) that I don’t function well if I don’t sleep for 8 hours most night and I’ve learned I work better if I try to eat healthier and exercise at least 4 days a week. Essentially, you need to spend part of graduate school being selfish and make taking care of yourself a priority as much as possible, whatever that means for you as an individual. You can maintain a reputation for being dedicated and hardworking without doing ALL the things, so long as you can decide what’s important and maintain your commitment to those as much as you can, while letting other things go.

    This is all easier said than done, and every school and department has a different culture with regards to that. Someone above mentioned setting priorities – an hour a day for this, an hour a week for this – and I think that’s a great idea. It can take effort, but it’s possible to make it through without losing yourself. That said, there is also absolutely nothing wrong with deciding grad school isn’t for you, either ever or just right now. I know plenty of people, including myself, who quit grad school for Reasons, and they usually end up fine. Grad school does not pay you enough to be worth seriously risking your mental or physical health.

    1. I am so relieved to see someone else in a good situation! There are lots of horror stories in this thread, but I’m finishing a Ph.D. in two months despite health problems and nothing like what folks are describing has ever happened to me. All the grads struggle with our own expectations of doing All The Things, but my department is very laid-back even when individual bosses might not be — it helps enormously to have a culture saying that everyone gets to have a persona life. As for teaching, we have an active union that stops us from being required to work more than 20 hours a week, and I highly recommend that despite the disconcerting feeling of being part of United Auto Workers as a biologist.

      If anyone is still considering grad school after reading down this far, definitely learn to set your own boundaries around the self-care you need, but also choose your department wisely. Talk to the grads who are there; a good department will encourage you to do that during the interview process.

      1. And not just talk to them, but really try to dig. Ask the excited students whose projects are going well who the bitter ones in their groups are, and talk to them too. Ask if there’s anyone who left the group, and why they did. Ask if there are any common features of students who left. Ask specific questions about management style. Try to figure out whether your stress/failure modes are relatively compatible with that style or whether something in your life going poorly is likely to result in a giant flaming mess. (Examples: student with anxiety about pleasing authority figures plus micromanaging adviser. Student who withdraws when things aren’t going well plus absent adviser. Etc.)

        And believe them. Don’t assume that you will be different because you’re willing to work hard and you’re brilliant, so this won’t apply to you. I think that’s actually the hardest part of this because if you’re going to grad school, some part of you knows that you are in fact brilliant and hardworking and have made it through a lot to even get there, so of course you can take what it throws at you!

        1. Oh my giddy aunt – THIS!

          I was the student who withdraws when things go badly, coupled with a supervisor who was ‘hands-off’ i.e. completely uninterested in what you did in your first year unless it was shiny, shiny rainbows. I then had a whole tonne of family-shit go down, on top of a brain with a tendency towards depression. This resulted in me nearly failing my first year, and being put on probation for six months of my second. And it could’ve been avoided if I’d dug deeper about my supervisor. Although, I’m not sure I knew myself well enough at that point to judge it.

          This despite previously being a straight-As student with a wide range of extra-curricular activities.

          Things are now going swimmingly but it was agony, and I still regularly struggle with wanting to pack it all in, although at this stage I’m that close to finishing there’s no point.

          What I would say is that there appears to be significant differences between the US and UK systems. Here in the UK, PhDs are 3-4 years TOPS, unless you’re doing it part-time. As in, if supervisors don’t get you through your PhD in 4 years the Research Councils make it very hard for them to get money and students in the future, and if too many students drop-out/fail to complete the University suffer serious consequences to their reputations.

          Also, at least in the Biosciences, there’s not the culture of working all hours. My supervisor doesn’t expect us to work more than 40 h weeks unless it’s exceptional circumstances. The other thing is that UK post-grads aren’t expected to do TA stuff. You can teach in UG labs but people do it because it pays very well (£10-12/hr) and isn’t a time-suck.

      2. Yeah, my MA is pretty good. This is partly because I don’t want to be an academic, or at least not this decade; I just want the professional credential. It’s a lot easier to deal with the stress when I know this will not be basically the entire rest of my life, and I will not have “failed” if I don’t end up a tenured professor. Because a lot of the grad school stress at its root is, “IF YOU DON’T PLEASE US YOU HAVE RUINED YOUR LIFE FOREVER.” But getting an industry job is not the end of everything!

      3. Yeah, I’m in the final stretch of PhDing while disabled and although some aspects of the general PhD horror definitely apply and I do feel guilt for not working 24/7, that guilt isn’t really reinforced by my department or my supervisor. My supervisor in particular has been absolutely fantastic about accommodating me and generally seems to be a great fan of the “well-rested students who get leisure time are more productive” idea. He’s told me + academic siblings to go away! have a holiday! stop doing maths, you need the break! before. (Note: although I’d say the department generally doesn’t have the sort of culture of HORROR being described, not everyone is this awesome – some of my officemates are under a lot of pressure from their supervisors, even during periods like the first six months where we were meant to be doing courses, not research. I am VERY glad I picked where I wanted to go primarily based on supervisor, and picked my supervisor not only on reputation grounds but also on how well we seemed to mesh in interview and what people were saying about how he treated his students.)

        I will admit that like staranise, everything became so much better when I decided I wasn’t going to go on into academia. It was a *really hard* decision to make, because doing a PhD really leaves you feeling as if it’s academia or YOU ARE A FAILY THING MADE OF FAIL, and I had to repeat “you should try to find a career that makes you happy, academia will not make you happy” at myself a lot to get through this… but it’s so relaxing when you start treating your thesis as the final goal-post and not as the gate to More Research and don’t feel like you should be broadening your knowledge of other areas on the side.

      4. Yeah. I mean, there are a lot of things about my current department that are unusual, as far as grad school goes. We’re a new interdisciplinary department and we’re still creating ourselves and we have a lot of faculty who actively care about grad student welfare and inquire for and listen to grad student input about the path/culture of the department. We also aren’t a department which accepts students we don’t plan to graduate – almost everyone leaves with the degree they intended to get. And I have an advisor who had to blaze a lot of her own trails and is really good at helping people find their own paths (no pressure that we must pursue a specific job) within their own limitations, boundaries, and priorities. After my first miserable grad school experience, I was super careful about my second attempt. All of quartzpebble’s advice is spot-on about really digging and asking questions within the department. One of the reasons I came to this school is that when I visited the majority of the grad students I talked to seemed actually happy – both enthusiastic about their research, and about their non-school activities.

        All of the academic shit people are talking about in this post happens, way too often. I saw it in my first school and I see it in other departments in my school. And there’s certainly been bullshit I’ve had to deal with and lessons I’ve had to learn also. But mostly I want to let perspective grad students know it doesn’t always have to be that way, and there is hope for the future of academia. At the same time, I always advise undergrads to not go straight to grad school – to take some time to figure out what they want, what field they actually want to be in, and if they actually want the degree. And to know that if it doesn’t work out, it’ll be okay. Surviving in this environment really takes a certain level of masochism.

  29. Can’t give any better advice that Sweet Machine but I just want to send hugs and say I feel you! I don’t have PCOS, but I did have a pretty long, bad case of mono while I was doing my master’s. There were days when all I could do was just lie in bed with a book propped open and kind of hope that the proximity of the book and my face would somehow equal productivity. It usually didn’t, but ultimately the program worked out for me and I know it will work out for you – you sound amazing and dedicated! Jedi hugs!

  30. The more of this thread I read, the fewer regrets I have about dropping out of grad school when I did.

    1. Right? Every once in a while it is nice to be reminded of why I decided not to Grad School. (I TAed with some grad students in my field, and they had pretty much never slept.)

    2. Abruptly I feel very lucky that my grades are far too low to even apply for an MSc. If only I didn’t have to lie to my family about it.

  31. Captain: Despite what you said, I’m going to make a medical suggestion here, purely because I’m a doctor and I see this sort of shit get overlooked: If this has not already been done, it is worth getting investigated for other causes for the exhaustion rather than attributing it to the PCOS (which wouldn’t typically cause tiredness as a symptom).

    Opinions vary amongst doctors as to what constitutes a reasonable level of investigation for chronic tiredness, because there are an endless number of things you *could* do and at some point you have to pay heed to the law of diminishing returns, but I think a reasonable minimum would be:

    Full blood count (I think you call this ‘complete blood count’ in the US – I practice in the UK, so you say tomayto and I say tomahto)

    Ferritin (this is the carrier protein for iron, so provides a good proxy estimation of the body’s iron levels – low iron stores, *including iron stores that are at the low end of the ‘normal’ range*, are an extremely common cause of fatigue in young women)

    Thyroid function

    Either a fasting glucose test or an HbA1c test (these both test for diabetes – I won’t bore you with the technical differences)

    And probably renal function (almost never shows anything up in young people, but cheap and easy to add in when you’re having a sample taken anyway, so I tend to tick that box on an ‘oh, what the hell’ basis).

    Sweet Machine, if you haven’t had at least the first four of those done in the past year or thereabouts, it is worth speaking to a doctor about getting them done. (In the case of ferritin, I’d say within the past 4 – 6 months as levels can change). If you have and they’re all normal, ignore my derail. Oh, and I completely second the Captain’s advice about getting advice on migraine prophylaxis from someone who knows about migraine prophylaxis. Good luck.

    1. I’m confused about to whom this advice is directed! I wrote the advice in the post; the LW is the one with fatigue. The Captain didn’t have anything to do with this one except running the awesomest blog.

      1. Ooops, sorry! I scanned up the page quickly while writing the comment to see how the LW had signed herself, and, in my haste, accidentally read your signature instead. Yes, the comment should indeed be addressed to ‘My Candle Burns At Both Its Ends’, or however it was the LW phrased her sig.

        1. Agreed. I DO have PCOS and I would be extremely reluctant to be treated by any doctor that still, in the face of all recent research, was treating it as an ovarian problem, vs an overall endocrine issue.

          I agree with the tests, but also suggest a fasting insulin AND an educated evaluation of the ratio between insulin and glucose (PCOS is very likely to involve insulin resistance, which will make you feel rotten if not managed)

          And I would humbly advise seeking out a reproductive endocrinology specialist who has specific, recent PCOS knowledge.

          Good luck.

  32. Here is another thing: you mention writing poems. You are in grad school to write poems, to learn to write poems better, to think about art and writing in general and poetry in specific.

    You can’t do that when you are a complete physical wreck.

    I’m a full-time fiction writer and also a person who deals with chronic health issues, and on the weeks when I try to pretend that I am only a full-time writer and la la la what health issues I can’t hear you–it only works for a limited amount of time. And then my fiction goes to shit. I think this happens in technical fields, too–I quit physics grad school before I could find out, and my health issues were far less severe then–but in the arts? It just plain happens.

    I don’t know if this happens in poetry, but in fiction there is a certain amount of “hell yes I am so hard-core I write with the bleeding stumps of my own fingers!” cultural reaction. So when I talked about having written an entire 4500-word story in one day with severe vertigo, some of my writer friends were like, “Yes, but: see above re: completed story.” And I had to point out that one day of doing that cost me the entire rest of the week in recuperation, so really, I generally shouldn’t do that. It’s not the smart choice for the rest of my life, but it’s also not the smart choice for my work.

    If you’re in grad school for poetry, you’re serious about this. Someone else above said that grad school is a marathon, not a sprint, and that’s absolutely true. But your poetry career is even *more* a marathon, not a sprint. You want to get through grad school and come out of it a better poet. Sometimes that means that you go to a reading to hear amazing poetry and inspire yourself (or awful poetry you can react against, whatever gets you going). Sometimes that means you have to miss the reading for self-care. As you get established in your field, your poet friends will understand that. They’ll be doing it themselves.

  33. I enthusiastically second the suggestion to see your school’s disability resource center. I work at one (and also get services from them) and we help with ALL kinds of problems. Anything from knee injuries to anxiety to bouts of pneumonia… if it’s interfering with your studies they might be able to help.

    The biggest benefit is that it gives you someone on your side who will back you up when you talk to faculty. You don’t have to explain all your personal stuff to the teacher, because you’ve already sorted that out with a counselor. They’ll just send an official note saying “We verify that LW has a disability, and requires X accommodations in the classroom. Please contact the DSPS office with any questions.” The exact nature of your condition stay completely private. And the counselors are experienced, understanding, and know exactly how to get stuff done.

    Obviously you are not obligated to do this! But it can make life a LOT easier to know you have an Official Person fighting for your needs.

  34. The happiest moment I had in grad school was when my doctor told me I had pneumonia and I was ordered to bed for two weeks. She even wrote a note. I felt like a knife was going through my lungs, but at least I was prone and in a dark room and could eat all the ice cream I wanted and people were nice to me. Finally, something legitimately was wrong with me and I could sleep, which is all I ever wanted to do.

    I don’t understand why our culture does this. I don’t want to see a first-year medical resident who is working 90 hour shifts. I don’t want to take a class from a TA who has 100 other students to grade. I don’t think architecture students really learn that much by sleeping in the A&A building and getting all their meals out of vending machines. I look at the time I spent in grad school and I think, “What was that? Were we trying to approximate a battlefield?”

    Do not sacrifice your health for a degree. One day, you will be finished, and all the good habits you have developed in saying no and setting boundaries will be useful to you in your future life.

    1. You know it’s bad when you’re wishing for physical illness just to get a goddamn rest. Something I’m all too familiar with.

    2. I had a job that was so demanding for a while that essentially if I was awake I was working, except when I was driving back and forth to work, and I used to spend that time fantasizing about running my car into a tree –not because I was actually suicidal; I didn’t want to die, but I figured then they’d have to let me rest.

      1. I would do the EXACT same thing. I was so exhausted that if I happened to be sitting down, I would fall asleep, and that included while driving the very short distance to school. Like you, I was far from suicidal, but I was just so, so tired that the thought of a minor bang-up that required a hospital stay was preferable to going to class. Developing pneumonia was the best thing that could have happened to me. Unfortunately, some of my professors and supervisors managed to make it all about them–even though I wasn’t getting sick AT them–and they took it personally and tried to make me unhappy. The upside of catching a deadly disease was that I no longer cared and I was able to set boundaries in a rather spectacular way that helped my fellow students (think the scene in Harry Potter when the Weasley twins get the better of Dolores Umbridge). Things changed in that department after I coughed my way through.

        My one regret is that I tried to return too soon. Two weeks bed rest was the minimum the doctor recommended. I should have taken three. I relapsed about six months later. But I’m healthy now and my current boss encourages a balanced lifestyle and taking mental health days.

  35. Thank you so much, LW, for this letter, and Sweet Machine for your response! It sounds, from the comments here, like my department is actually relatively awesome in terms of expecting students to actually have lives and stuff, but I definitely have faced a lot of the same issues talked about in the letter and the comments– this is not actually as bad as PCOS or migraines, but my first year of grad school I developed chronic stomach problems, and so many of my fellow students have had grad school wreak havoc with their health, mental, gastrointestinal, and otherwise.

    This post really gave me the push I need to get back into therapy to deal with grad school stress issues as well as interpersonal issues I’m having at the moment (my roommate hates me; I have to see her all the time cause she’s a student in my program; it means I want to cry approximately 30% of the time). So many thanks, and best wishes for you, LW!

  36. Echoing what others have said, downtime isn’t just conducive to mental and physical health. It’s conducive to productivity.

    I still remember the night my brain was tying itself in knots over a take-home stats final. I took what was supposed to be a quick break to go down to the laundry room and ran into a friend. We talked about Star Trek for a while. Part of me judged myself for wasting so much time on an activity that couldn’t have less to do with statistics. But then I went back to my apartment and found that my head was much clearer. I was able to actually comprehend what I needed to do.

    Because I talked about Star Trek with a friend.

    I was healthy and I still needed downtime. You probably need it a lot more than I did, and I suspect you’re getting a lot less. Please give yourself some. You deserve the self-care.

  37. Reading through these comments reminded me of a really useful post I read on why working longer and longer hours is not only a bad idea but a really, *really* bad idea:


    Basically, a summary of a shitload of research showing that trying to spend every possible hour of your life on work is *horribly counterproductive*, and you are going to work vastly better if you set a limit at around 40 hours a week of work.

    I got this, by the way, from this post over at the excellent Wandering Scientist blog – http://www.wandering-scientist.com/2012/06/project-managers-view-of-long-hours.html – which is also well worth a read (in fact, it’s much more readable than the first one I linked to, which is great in parts but also more of a ‘skim through and take away the general message’ as it does get more technical in some places than most of us would want to deal with when already suffering from brain overload). The Wandering Scientist post is about working in the science or computer industries, not about grad school in the humanities, but I think the basic points still hold: Excessive hours = bad, bad idea.

    1. This year i’m finishing my first year of my MA while coping with depression and anxiety and grief, and i heartily second this. When i tried to guilt myself into working All The Time i got very little done. When i limited myself to a 40 hour work week, with exceptions for major stuff due the next day, i could get so much more accomplished. I’ve also learned to translate faster, whic is wonderful. I don’t know what boundaries specifically would be appropriate to your situation, LW, but it might be good to try, say, being Done at 8 or 9 every night and taking every saturday off, just for a week or two and see how it goes, and adjust from there.

  38. Knowing your limits and building boundaries are important skills to learn in Grad school that will help you reach your goals. I’m a scientist and there is always more to do, more to read etc. I like the story of the glass jar filled with pebbles (see here http://www.sparkpeople.com/resource/motivation_articles.asp?id=264) representing your life and your priorities. Choose which pebbles to put in, and make sure the biggest are the ones that pay you, that are your work (not teaching/ lectures etc – these are also important, but are the smaller pebbles). The version I saw before finished with pouring in a cup of coffee and saying that there is always room/time for coffee with a friend.

    I also like this booklet http://www.vitae.ac.uk/CMS/files/Vitae-Balanced-Researcher-June-2008.pdf

    I know for myself that I am most productive when I do less, make time to exercise, cook, eat well and engage with things rather than reacting in a mad panic. Good luck!

  39. Have you considered rejiggering your classes to be easier on you? (Like, becoming That Professor who everyone loves because it’s 4 scantron tests and an essay that’s not worth as much as the scantrons, or becoming That Professor who everyone is kinda kajhfjkdfasd about because it’s one essay worth 40% of their grades oh noes.”

    The thing about general ed is, well, in the grand scheme of things it’s probably not going to make a huge difference in these kids’ futures, because IMO what it’s actually for is teaching kids to show up on time every day, to work with other people, to follow instructions, and to shut up when others are talking. Which are all equally valuable knowledge to picking out the themes of Moby Dick.

    And they’re going to pick up those skills whether you’re Scantron Professer or One Essay Professor or Six Essay Professor Somebody Pass The Bourbon It’s Gonna Be A Long Semester.)

    One of the things I’ve been given as “homework” is to stop volunteering for tasks – As in, if someone wants my specific help, they can come to me and say, “Bird, I need you to do my thing.” But if I hear someone talking about a thing I can do that needs to be done, I have to think about it. Can anyone else complete this task? If it’s time-sensitive, am I the only person available who can do it fast and well? Do the people we have to assign tasks know it’s in my skill set? And if someone else can complete the task, and if someone else is available who can do it fast and well, and if our task-delegation team knows I’m capable of, I wait to be asked, because I’ve got enough stuff on my plate without taking on another helping of butweneedyou.

    I know it sounds harsh, but if it won’t affect your academic progress, you can cut it. Or part of it. Or only do the parts that bring you joy.

    A thing you can do is figure out what’s “expected” but what won’t affect your academic progress. Because here’s the thing: if it doesn’t affect your academic progress, then no, it is not required. It may be crawling with the mold of guilt, slimy and spreading inexorably outward, but your ultimate degree has been dipped in anti-fungal solution and you can stand in the face of the mold of guilt and say, “No. Not anymore.” or “No, not today, I need to knit and watch the latest episode of Warehouse 13* for my personal well-being.”

    And if people give you crap about it, you can tell them you’ve chosen to prioritize being healthy and living like a human being to doing ALL THE THINGS.

    People might resent you for it – they might be upset with you about it – but that doesn’t change that your health, which allows you to do whatever percent of THE THINGS it allows you to do, is more important for your continued function and well-being than people feeling a little bit mad or resentful that you’re better at setting boundaries than them, or that the boundaries they set involve them.

    * Or whatever it is you need to do to be the best you you can be.

    1. My guess is that LW is working as a TA, not a lead instructor, and therefore has approximately zero control over what assignments to give her students.

      Also, I disagree with you fundamentally about the purpose of gen ed classes. My gen ed students already know how to sit down and shut up. That’s what they learned in high school. In my humanities gen ed class, they’re learning how to write, how to think critically in a way that their classes in other fields might not teach them. And many other valuable skills they get from “picking out the themes in Moby Dick” and similar exercises. And they don’t get from Scantron exams.

      1. You’re right, we do disagree fundamentally. I believe it’s absolutely possible for a lecturer to be engaging and compelling and to use scantrons as their primary means of assessment. I also believe it’s a valid place for a person who does have that control to take back a little of their time, and that critical thinking for people who are not going into academia is learned better and more thoroughly in the field than in the classroom.

        All of that said, at most US schools (where I am), gen ed is spread out over 60 credit hours. No one is going to have their academic career irreparably shattered because a handful of their undergrad professors decided to go easy on themselves, and by extension their students.

        I’m agreeing to disagree at this point in the conversation.

    2. People might resent you for it

      It’s a tough thing that people sometimes feel bad when you show you can set better boundaries than they can. Doesn’t mean your boundaries are wrong, but sometimes you have to put some energy into believing that you are nevertheless allowed to draw boundaries and that their issues are not your issues.

  40. I’ve posted this quote here before, but I think it is relevant:

    “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”

    Audre Lorde

  41. LW & everyone, a couple observations from the person who got a PhD and a tenure-track job and walked away:

    1) My former employer, let’s call it Hoth, expected everyone to go to every event on campus. I could not do that. The people I knew who tried were crispy from burn out. They have an ungodly turnover rate at that institution partly because of this expectation that faculty will cease to sleep or eat and just be At Work All The Time.

    What I did do was pick certain things I would go to – attended every concert and play because I wanted to support those departments. I went to certain events at the library regularly. Try to pick some events that you will always make it to and let the other stuff go to an “As I feel like it” category. People will see you there, they will know you are making an effort. It will not stop some of the judgments but it allows you to control your life more.

    b) A member of my PhD cohort who I shared an office with one day sighed and said, “The worst thing about this job is you never go home from it.” 100% accurate. There’s always something you should be doing. It never stops. Neither does the guilt, unfortunately. Boundaries are essential, and they don’t always work.

    iii) Everyone has this same guilt. It feels like a dirty little secret that you’re feeling like a failure but I would bet money that everyone feels the same way. You’re not a terrible person for either drawing boundaries or feeling the guilt. Sadly this reality has not changed the practices. 😦

    4) For the LW specifically – if you’re continuing for another year, make sure you teach the same courses again. Course prep is far more demanding and complex than anyone who hasn’t done it realizes. It’s much less stressful when you’ve just got to tweak some things and not create the entire course from scratch.

    You’re allowed to prioritize as well. Your own school work and your grading are the two priorities. Everything else falls below that, so if you get exhausted just doing those two things, IT’S OKAY TO STOP. You need to pass your classes. You have an obligation to your students. These are not negotiable. Everything else is. And don’t be afraid to use those things if other people start making noises about you not showing up. “Oh I had a tough set of papers to grade that night, it took a lot longer than I was hoping.” “Yeah I got blocked on the assignment for that class and I had to work on it.”

  42. FFS, LW, grow up.

    a) You’re in grad school. That means that your professors have invested a lot of money and energy in you. No, they’re not going to like it when you tell them that you can’t make it to their reading/lecture/whatever it is that people do in the humanities. But they’re going to like it even less when you end up sobbing in their office because you can’t take it anymore and you’re dropping out. Because then, all that money, energy (not to mention their credibility, because a professor who loses too many students ends up losing the capacity to hire new ones) will have been wasted. I’ve had professors tell me that a student had quit over personal problems, and they always tack on “I wish he/she had told me, we could have found an arrangement for him/her.”

    b) You’re in grad school. That means you work with your brain, and your brain can’t work if it doesn’t get enough rest, and if the rest of your body doesn’t get enough rest. Whatever you do when you’re overtired will be crappy work. YOUR NUMBER ONE PRIORITY IF YOU WANT TO DO GOOD WORK IS TO BE PROPERLY RESTED.

    c) You’re in grad school. Where do you think you’re headed if you get your degree? You’ll get a job where you have to manage people, and you’ll be a failure at it if you can’t tell when they’re reaching their limits. If you can’t even recognize and respect your own limits, how will you be able to recognize and respect the limits of those who work for you?

    Graduate school is all about learning to manage yourself and set your boundaries. Nobody tells you about it, but learning how to say no and to manage yourself in order to be as productive as possible are an essential part of grad school. Every grad student worth their salt goes through the same crisis you’re going through, even if they’re in the best of health (grad school usually takes a toll on everyone).

    Unless you’re dealing with complete psychopaths, your professors won’t take it badly if you go to them and explain your health problems. You don’t have to disclose the gory details, but you have to discuss it with them so that you can both put a plan together that will allow you to graduate without killing you. And if you’re dealing with a psychopath, then you need to get out of there, fast, and find a new program (and don’t worry, everyone will know why you had to get out of there – pychopaths and narcissists always have A Reputation and a high turnover – if they can get students at all).

    I’m sorry, but if your ambition in life is to be The Nice Girl Who Pleases Everyone, you’re in the wrong place. Grad school is about getting your dissertation written and defended, and if your friends are hurt because you didn’t go to their poetry reading because you needed a nap in order to write a good poem yourself, then you have all the time in the world to feel guilty about that after you’re done with grad school.

    A post doc

    1. Telling someone who is in an institution that depends on kowtowing to “elders” and putting up with being constantly infantilized to “grow up” is not helpful. In fact, I would say it’s the opposite of helpful. The things you say are true, but the fact is that this model of academia is ableist (not to mention deeply patriarchal, because of course your wife is supposed to do all that “personal life” shit). At this blog, we are huge on discussing *how* to set boundaries, not just telling people who write in that they *should* set boundaries. No shit. LW is discussing a real conflict in the way that women (and grad students!) are trained to act, and it is not shameful that she needs help figuring out how to manage. In fact, if what you’re trying to say is “Don’t be afraid to open up with your profs,” then shaming the LW for opening up with us is deeply counterproductive.

      1. The “grow up and get over it” vibe really bugged me too. The advice is mostly okay, if a little over optimistic (with the assumption that if you are open with your problems/take care of yourself professors will just deal), but the tone was rather mean.

      2. Mollycoddling the LW just because she has health problems is not going to help her. Do you think she’s weak?

        I’m not trying to shame the LW, but if her description of her life is correct, then she’s not that far from burning out, and she needs to talk to her advisor. The time for reading books on how to set boundaries is over, she needs to set them now.

        There are plenty of people who have problems of one kind or another in grad school, and there are always arrangements to be found: helping her find an easier job on the side, giving her an extra year to complete her degree, giving her an easier course load… It’s in her professors’ best interest to help her, and a lot of grad students are not aware of that (of course, they don’t talk about it with students, because they’d rather not make arrangements, but once you’re on the other side they open up about it). Please don’t think I don’t know what I’m talking about, because I really, really do.

        Also, I’m curious, but what about me screams “healthy married man” to you?

        1. “Grow up” is not meant to shame someone?

          That’s not actually true, what you’re saying: it’s not true that accommodations will be made and solutions found and problems solved. Sometimes, , the standards are unfair. Sometimes, institutions and professors are ableist. Sometimes they fuck you over, and you don’t have any leeway to set healthy boundaries. There’s a heap of evidence on this thread: there’s a link to a faculty member telling his grads to abandon all hope having entered his department. Several grad students with just as much experience as you have flat-out contradicted your assertion that people will be kind to you if you confess personal or medical problems. Sometimes people are not helpful. Sometimes they think you’re lying.

          It’s not unusual. Half of my mother’s job was explaining to faculty that a dyslexic student would need accommodations for every test, every semester. And on the blogosphere, it’s a story that comes up over and over again. Steve Kuusisto couldn’t get a break for going blind.

          It’s not mollycoddling to offer support and constructive suggestions to someone who is seeking advice on how she–and she alone, none of us here can actually hold her hand–can manage a difficult set of responsibilities. And it’s not childish to seek advice from an advice column whose crew are half professional student. She is doing the adult thing here, and you have no reason to tell her that she’s being weak. You can tell her to seek accommodation without telling her she’s a whiny little girl for not doing it sooner.

          I honestly don’t understand why you think you’re being helpful. I suspect you know you aren’t. I think you decided to piss in this woman’s Theraflu because it makes you feel better to treat her like a dunce.

        2. Nothing screams “healthy married man.” Sweet Machine was talking about the fact that academia is a deeply patriarchal system, and has been constructed around the assumption that advanced students/professors will mostly be men, and will mostly have wives whose job it is to grease the wheels of the rest of their lives. That is pretty obvious from her comment.

          What’s fascinating (read: hilarious, if you have a cruel sense of humor) is that you berate the OP for not opening up to her professors, lecture her about how she’ll be expected to manage people and recognize their limits, and in both of your comments profoundly demonstrate exactly why the OP has said nothing so far. Why? Because she expects people to behave like you are behaving–like a complete asshole. If you are this condescending and snotty to folks who are breaking down, what you are teaching them is that when they DO come to you, you will mock them and make them feel shitty. Per your own advice, you DO realize that, as a post-doc potentially heading into a professorial position, YOU will also be managing people? And that it will be part of your responsibility to create an environment of trust and mutual respect for your students? Your methods here are directly counterproductive to that, if you care. Responding with kindness and sympathy to overwhelmed people is not “mollycoddling.” Recognizing the real, physical limits that illness and disability place upon others, AS WELL AS AND IN ADDITION TO the overwhelming cultural pressure to ignore and downplay those limits that chronically ill and disabled folks experience is not “mollycoddling” either.

          Furthermore, boundary-setting is learned knowledge. The OP has clearly never been taught how to do that before, and so is reaching out for help. Your response is apparently to mock her for not already knowing. That’s a great strategy for someone in a teaching position, yup.

        3. Marie, I didn’t say you were a healthy married man, I said the infrastructure of academia assumes that we are ALL healthy married men, and that’s part of why it’s so grueling.

          The time for reading books on how to set boundaries is over, she needs to set them now.

          Which is why that’s what I advised her to do. Your hostility toward the LW (and everyone who has responded to your “grow up” comment) is coming out of nowhere, and I am asking you to disengage. I have no interest in fighting straw men constructed by someone who thinks speaking respectfully is mollycoddling.

          1. And it’s kind of ableist to see “Stop being mean to someone about her disability” as coddling: people complain about that language because it leads to harmful policy, not because it’s mean.

      3. Actually, Marie’s post sounds JUST LIKE the voice in my head that tells me that I will never succeed at anything because I don’t work hard enough and am not smart enough and goshdarn it, no one likes me. The one that doesn’t give me credit for all the things I do well, doesn’t offer me basic courtesy or consideration, and has zero sympathy. The voice that I project onto all my professors before I email them to ask for something, even though none of them have actually ever treated me that way. Hit real deep and turned the knife, is what I’m saying. Thanks for framing it differently, SM.

        1. I had been sitting here feeling oddly thankful to Marie for that offensive comment… and trying to figure out why I felt THANKFUL, since it certainly wasn’t for the content of the comment.

          I think you nailed it, though, Remy: Marie’s comment sounded so much like that voice in my head that tells me to suck it up and get over myself (even including the parts that I can’t just “get over”, like a hearing impairment that I was born with; my inner critic sometimes appears convinced that I should not only grow up, but I should also grow an ear canal or something, just through sheer force of will), so it was incredibly refreshing to see so many people talking back to that voice and explaining why that kind of response isn’t helpful or compassionate. It felt just like all of those people were inside my head, helping me talk back to my own inner critic.

    2. You know what, Marie?

      Your advice is so special and unique, you should start your own advice blog! Because who are you to squander your insights on comments to little old blogs like these? No, you should definitely make sure all your advice-giving is done somewhere else from now on, because commenting here is only for woolly-headed little people who believe in things like “compassion”.

    3. Marie, since you were so full of advice for the LW, let me give you some. When you jump into a civil discussion of your fellow adults with “FFS, grow up” it kind of undercuts anything helpful or substantive you say after that. Also, you risk immediately identifying yourself as a patronizing ass who is not invited to parties anymore, including the one called this blog discussion. I’m hoping you’re having a really bad day or something, this isn’t usually how you behave here.

      College throws way too much at students partially so they can figure out how to prioritize, grad school is the same, in a sense, but a) there is no virtue in making it harder on or being mean to people who are already struggling b) the expectations and culture of your department is not universal.

    4. Wow, I didn’t know it was possible to give theoretically excellent advice so unconstructively.

      You really should start your own blog. It would be a great read for people who want to feel better about their own advice-giving skills.

    5. Marie, in addition to what others have said, I also wanted to point out that the phrase “whatever it is that people do in the humanities” also gets my guard up big time. Maybe you didn’t mean this, but to me, from past experience, phrases like this say “This person does not think that what I’m doing with my life is worth doing.” Just FYI.

  43. Oh, the Mutually Re-enforcing Rule of Communal Masochism. It is very prevalent in college, worse in grad school, and makes its way into a lot of work places.

    Everyone is working all the hours in the week. That’s what doing your best means. Nobody has time to get lunch. Or dinner. Or sleep. What sort of lazyarsed nonsense is that? Basic self-care is for the weak.

    Anyone who challenges this is very dangerous to the social contract that Everyone is Mindblowingly Busy and There is Just No Choice. The problem is that being mind-blowingly busy 24-7 for multiple years is not very productive for many people. For a lot of people, rests and breaks and peaks and troughs are important. For many, they are non-negotiable. There is definitely at least one other person that you know who is maintaining the line that They Are Doing All The Things, while in fact they are mostly lying awake at night, just counting all the things they haven’t done.

    I wish you good luck – it is NOT more important than your health and your well-being. And it is not a Faustian pact. It probably does not feel like it, but you really do retain your right to back away from it and take care of yourself, or, should it come to it, run for the hills. That’s not a recommendation to do so – but it sometimes helps to remember that you are allowed to.

    1. I worked for an NGO one year, and I got to the point where I more or less treated my schedule like a game of Tetris: empty space was there to be filled with another block of work.

      As it turned out, it was a terrible way to be productive.

  44. Oh LW, I feel you. I’m lucky, in that my grad program is trying to have a systemic discussion about how to support students who need to work more and more hours outside of school and have more and more demands on their time, but it is still hard.

    I also want to bring up something that I feel causes a lot of my problems, that maybe will be relevant to you? I am in school for the thing that I am most passionate about in the whole world. I want to grow up to be a community leader and save everyone, and become a brilliant scholar while I’m doing it (I never said my future goals were REASONABLE). So any thing that I pass on, whether it’s a course or a job opportunity or whatever, it feels like I am neglecting this thing that I am SO PASSIONATE ABOUT.

    And also, here is what helps me. First of all, I make it a regular point to talk to my advisor about my personal life as well as my academic challenges and goals, and I’ve found her very understanding that a grounded personal life leads to better quality work. Second of all, I am working on developing a spiritual practice for myself. For me, that’s a combination of time that my butt is sitting in services, a regular Sabbath practice, and dancing. It could be any combination of things for you, but I would definitely advise finding time to do something that makes your soul feel fuller and more alive.

  45. I spent a while wondering why my MFA experience is not like this at all… and then it hit me, the head of the department here got her own degree as a single mom of three who was also at that time employed doing hard physical labor to keep herself and her kids fed. She knows first-hand that going to readings can’t be everyone’s first priority all the time.

    So I’d like to offer that, for those of you who do end up sticking in academia, all you may be able to do is take care of yourselves right now, but someday you may have the opportunity to make things better for those that come after you. It really does make a difference.

  46. This is a bit funny to me because I like working in academia (not as a researcher) *because* I don’t feel the pressure to work 60 hours/work and am not surrounded by a culture of “I never sleep and am proud of it.” I’m also in grad school, but getting a professional degree, which is way different.

    When I worked at a hospital, that was where I can into the culture of everybody working 12-hour (or more!) shifts and 6-7 day weeks because they were all fucking drowning in debt and desperately needed the cash, and everyone was super proud of coming into work even if they were obviously sick. I guess it really depends on the field you’re in.

    I’m of two minds about disclosing things. On the one hand, it’s no one’s business, and sometimes people can be huge unsympathetic jerks when you do, even with legal stuff in place to try to prevent them from doing so. On the other hand, if your health stuff starts flaring up badly, I think it’s better to let people know that something is up, so they’re not wondering what’s going on and why things with you have changed suddenly.

    In either case, I +1 everyone else’s comments about learning to say no. It is HARD and sometimes you’ll get flack for it, but you’ll burn out if you don’t learn how to do it.

    1. That’s so funny, what you say about medical professionals. If I’m sick and going to the emergency room, chances are my immune system is compromised. The last thing I wanna deal with is a sick doctor giving me his or her bugs.

      I know it’s especially commonplace this time of the year with flu season in full swing. But man, physician, heal thyself! Don’t cough in my face and tell me it’s misty outside!

  47. I am not a grad student, but I have a chronic illness/disability, and a wacky demanding schedule in terms of my job and social life (which are sometimes linked). The first thing I want to recommend is creating and enforcing some serious boundaries on your time. I find that just setting a “bedtime”, even if if it really means “go to my bedroom and do things to de-stress for an hour before actually going to sleep, is essential. Don’t take phone calls or make commitments that will keep you out past your bedtime. It’s a boundary that you might get teased for, but that no one can really argue, especially if you set it for something like 11pm. I frequently turn down both work assignments as well as social engagements if they run past my bedtime (unless I can leave early enough to be home in time, or on special occasions where I make an exception). Getting enough resorative sleep helps not only with pain management, but stress as well. It also gives you a regimen, so your body can adjust to going to sleep at a certain hour, which helps with insomnia as well.

    My second thought is support. Do you have friends or family who can help you out? It’s hard to ask for such things in a culture that expects us all to be superheroes, but you’re going through a situation with a tangible ending, and you can assuage your guilt by knowing (and maybe telling them) that there will be a time when you can happily return the favor. Maybe a friend can go to the reading and take notes, so when someone asks why you weren’t there, you can surprise them by showing that it was important enough to you to ask someone else to go and tell you how it went, and it also solves the “presenter staring at empty seats” problem. Maybe find someone who is unemployed or under employed to do housework or errands, and “pay” them in barter; cooking them a meal, or lending them your car to go to interviews, or a reference letter. Reach out to your “Team You” and see in what ways they can be of service; we all get a satisfaction from helping those reach a goal; when you walk, you will have people in the audience who were just as much a part of yout graduate work as you. Even those without disabilities need a break from their daily routine, and maybe reading some essays for easy things like grammar and spelling for an evening can be fun! Don’t be afraid to reach out; they love you and want to see you happy and successful, not miserable, in pain, and chroncially behind. In fact, if someone really wants some of your time, let them know what’s standing in the way and that if you can get some help meeting those tasks, you’d happily go. It’s hard to admit we’re not superheroes, but think on this: if a friend or loved one was battling the same issues you are, wouldn’t you want to help them? That’s how your Team feels, I promise you.

  48. Learning to say no is very helpful, but be prepared for the fact that people may want to know why. They may not be entitled to an explanation, but they also might need one in order to maintain the relationship they have with you. If Friend Y comes to all of my performances when I offer an invite, and then it’s their first ever poetry reading and they invite me and I don’t? They’re probably going to assume that the friendship means less to me than it does to them, unless I give them a reason why (horribly traumatised by a bad sestina in my youth! even iambic pentameter brings back bad memories!)

    An “I’m a bit run down at the moment so I need to gather my reserves for X” (where X is a deadline, exam, essay, whatever) can be a helpful way of not actually talking about medical stuff, but giving people a reason why you can’t go to their reading/lecture/performance.

    Also, it very much depends on your school, but I’ve a friend who works in the access-and-support department at her university, and one of her big takeaways is that they can be helpful in a lot of little ways as well as big ones.

    Like, they can discuss taking weeks and even terms off, ensuring you have the proper tools (in the way of supplies, software) and so on, but they can also help in minor ways– one of the things her dept. did for a student in the past was give them access to a quiet room for when they could feel a migraine coming on and wanted to head it off at the pass or lie down in a dark, quiet place until the painkillers kicked in enough for them to be okay on the bus. It wasn’t a big thing– they moved a couch into a room that wasn’t being used– but it meant that student felt like they had options other than make-it-worse or stay-at-home.

  49. Apologies if this has already been said, but I wanted to mention that ‘coming out’ with a disability or health problem can be a huge relief. I tend to say, ‘I have a (type of disorder) which means that I get (pain and suffering), so I often need (x extra time on assignments/to do x from home/to do no more than x hours’ work a week). And then explain what I need from them at this moment/next week.

    In my experience most people look a bit baffled and then do what you’re asking (including not taking it personally if you don’t come to their event). They usually forget your issues later on and have to be reminded, but do what you want when asked. A minority – the lovely people – will remember, ask you what you need, and be particularly considerate and kind. The small number of people you already knew were psychos will patronise you and be colder towards you, but they will still do the minimum of what you ask. So overall you’re better off, right?

  50. I rarely comment here but I have to chime it because this is one situations where I’ve been there. I was diagnosed with PCOS mid-college and went off the rails during an 18 credit semester of difficult biology classes, job, etc.

    In the end I did have to let people in on what was going on. Not gory details, but “I’m having a health issue and I need some slack.” It was very difficult for me to ask for that – I prided myself on not being one of THOSE students, the ones who make excuses for everything and were always getting deadline extensions. You can pick and choose who you let in on things though, and I ended up with a triage system that worked really well.

    I have to disagree with SM though, it doesn’t sound like your PCOS is well managed. Its a tricky bugger AND not every doctor has the same ideas on how to manage it. Some don’t really have any experience at it at all. Some will hand you hormonal birth control and shove you out the door, some insist on getting an endocrinologist involved, etc. So advising as a person who has had a lot of doctors: if you haven’t talked to your doctor changing how you manage your PCOS, please do. If you have and haven’t gotten anywhere, I strongly suggest a second opinion.

  51. Thank you Sweet Machine and commenters, this has been a very timely post for me. I don’t have too much to add for the LW except send a friendly wave of solidarity. I am half way through a PhD and also suffering from a variety of medical conditions. The big difference for me is that I’m not enjoying the PhD, even though I have nothing like the workload others are describing – my problem is very much my inability to cope with the lack of structure provided in my programme. I am also fairly sure that I don’t want to carry on working in my subject area, and I’m not even sure anymore that I want to work in academia at all. (I used to work in NHS admin and have found myself daydreaming about being a medical secretary again!) I’m currently on sick leave and am doing a lot of reviewing of options, but it’s so helpful to hear about other people’s experiences.

  52. Oh, LW, giant Jedi hugs from me as well!

    “Coming out” with a health issue is something every person has to decide for themselves – I for my part have decided to use my position as someone with definite privilege (when it comes to race, class, family support & education) to always be honest about having depression.

    It probably cost me a few jobs, but I feel it’s important for people to see that us “crazy folks” are normal, friendly, effective human beings just like them. Maybe next time they meet someone with a mental health problem they’ll remember my personality, my education and my list of other accomplishments and have an open mind.

    Talking grad school – wow, am I ever glad I graduated in Switzerland before they introduced the bachelor! I basically was an undergrad for 6 years until I graduated with the equivalent of an MA, there was no intermittent stage. I guess the US-ian (and most other countries, I assume) grad school is equvalent to our doctoral candidates. Those are well-known to work more than 100% on a 50% salary, one of the reasons I decided that academia wasn’t for me.

  53. I’m a PI/professor of a biological research lab and I’ve mentored PhD students, and I’m also very involved in student affairs for the graduate school. You are absolutely right–there is a strong “hazing” culture in grad school and it takes a terrible toll on many students. We have had to put together an early identification and intervention plan for troubled grad students, half of which end up needing medical therapy for depression.

    A few pieces of advice for biological sciences PhDs (I apologize for the length…)
    1) depression and panic are universal–do not assume it is only your own problem and do not try to solve it by isolating yourself and working on the problem on your own. Talk to your PI and also grad school student support personnel who can intervene with your PI, share and use the support of other students/your family and friends, and seek out medical care/therapy if you need it. You get no points for suffering and trying to work through depression on your own—be an adult and get treated if you need it.
    2) the culture of grad school is changing, but it is gradual. About half our faculty are “old school” and they are total jerks to their students.But the other half of the faculty are human and will treat you much better. Students should carefully pick their mentors–because the right advisor can make the difference between you becoming suicidal/divorced and dropping out, vs making it through the program with your mental health relatively intact. I am always amazed why some students will insist on picking as a mentor some of the jerkiest faculty, and they will stick with that mentor despite being terribly abused by them. They come to me for counseling and I tell them their mentor will never change so they should switch labs, but for some reason the student often feels that they have to stick it out with the jerk. It is true that being a jerk will often lead to more scientific “fame”, a famous scientist may not help your career or be a good mentor for you. Many jerky famous scientists help only that one student that they “like” while shafting the rest of their students. If you don’t get along with your mentor and they’re treating you badly, you should switch labs immediately so you don’t waste time and energy on a bad situation.
    3) we older faculty know very well that things were different when we went through training and got our jobs. However, we can’t change the job market or funding situation that you will be facing. You will need to be top of your game to stay in the field, and you will need to be smart about your choices of what you do postdoctoral. Students should be preparing themselves for what they want to do when they graduate. We have lots of counseling available, courses in grantwriting, even biobusiness internships. Unfortunately many students do not take advantage of these benefits and they end up disappointed in their options after they get their PhD.
    4) It is true that as a graduate student there are only a few things you absolutely HAVE to do–if you are stressed for time, you can indeed focus only on these few things and you will do fine. For example, you should NEVER take on a student leadership position because these are a massive time suck and do not count for anything later in your career. You can also skip most seminars and talks without anyone noticing.
    5) What you should focus on: your lab work and your publications. Nothing else is as important! make sure everything you do in the lab is very clearly part of a future publication. Work with your advisor to map out your projects to make sure this happens, and if your advisor doesn’t have a publication in mind for what you are doing, you should immediately look for another project or even another advisor. Do not allow them to let you just “try some stuff” in the lab because you will spend a lot of time and get nothing out of it. Another great thing is to offer to “help” other students in the lab with their projects–this will get your name on their papers too. Finally, be sure to quickly graph and format all of your results exactly in the format that they will be needed to submit as part of a paper. In addition, start putting your results together into a paper as soon as you can, and even start writing the paper. It’s not fair, but I often see students who “hate” writing and who just won’t do this. They end up losing their first authorship to the person who actually formats the results and writes up the paper.
    6) Putting in extra hours does help, but only if you are smart and focussed. Spending time attending seminars and chatting won’t help, however, planning your experiments carefully and occasionally working a bit later or a couple hours on the weekend in order to keep an experiment moving forward can really help you be productive. I require my students to work at least 40 hrs per week, but honestly if you can put in 12 hrs per day your project will move along much faster. But I don’t expect students to work nights or weekends, and they all get 2 weeks vacation each year.

    1. Seems to me that these are the points that Marie was trying to make above, only presented humanely, which ups the helpfulness factor by quite a lot. I would much rather have kowl as a boss or advisor.

    2. “you should NEVER take on a student leadership position because these are a massive time suck and do not count for anything later in your career. You can also skip most seminars and talks without anyone noticing.”

      Very, very, very true.

      I have two graduate degrees from two different large land grant institutions. I had a very different experience at both. At the first, I put all the pressure on myself and created my own nervous breakdown, despite kind professors, interesting classmates, and a supportive Team Me. It was there that I learned that I didn’t really want a graduate degree–I just wanted to be an undergraduate again and take all the classes I didn’t get to take the first time. I left after an M.A. (not a terminal degree), because I saw that none of the recent Ph.D.s were landing jobs.

      At the second, the department was deeply dysfunctional and none of the coursework was worthwhile. It was there I learned contempt for other people’s emergencies, especially when those crises involved me participating in a bake sale or recruiting undergraduates. All I did was the bare minimum, since I certainly wasn’t learning anything, and I left with a terminal degree and professional certification, both of which have been useful to me.

      I think my point is that the pressure can be internal or external and the end result can be the same…exhaustion, ill health, unfinished personal projects, sacrificed time…I suppose it was worth it for me, since I feel like I escaped both times with most of my sanity intact. And in my current job I do need at least one of those degrees.

      1. Yes, it is true that a little cynicism is very helpful when it comes to surviving grad school (and later academic life, if thats where you end up). Students tend to be very idealistic, which is great, but you can’t let it destroy you. There are times to volunteer and do the bake sale for the sake of karma and your personal satisfaction, but when you are hanging by a thread and super stressed is not one of them. Knowing your limits and setting up your boundaries accordingly is the way to go.

    3. It kind of depresses me that you’re trying to be one of the good guys, but you’re still like ‘twelve hour days!’ ‘two whole weeks off a year!’.

      We got six weeks off a year! Six! Reading this thread makes me feel like such a slacker ;).

      1. Oh, well, sorry…! I should have specified that this is for a biomedical science PhD in the U.S. In these PhD programs, you don’t have to pay tuition and each student is paid $28,000 to $31,000 per year with full medical and dental for the entire 5 years it will take to get their PhD. So it is a lot like a paid internship or entry level job…and if you don’t show up, they stop paying you and eventually kick you out of the program. The 2 weeks paid vacation per year is typical for entry level jobs on the U.S. I’m tenured faculty and I only get 5 weeks vacation per year. And putting in the time is worth it for this type of PhD….At my institution, 97% of our PhD graduates over the last 15 years are currently working at a high paid science job ($60,000-$300,000) in industry, government, or academia.

  54. Can you do all of these things, though? When do you hit the point where you can’t and it’s time to stop?

    This is not advice for the letter writer. This is my own issues raising their head. I have IBS (which causes chronic pain and sometimes fatigue), anxiety, depression, and ADHD. (The H does not apply.) I tried to go to grad school like five years ago. I made it through almost two years before I quit, only halfway through the program (which most people complete in a year and a half). I don’t do well with deadlines and assignments in the best circumstances, and these were not the best circumstances. I was having Darth Vader Boyfriend problems, but mostly, school just brings out my worst anxiety, and it always has, and with having a job, trying to wean myself off Xanax (long story), and trying to keep up with the pace of grad school in a subject I’m only sort of interested in, I couldn’t do it. I didn’t want to do it, because it was destroying my mental health. But ever since I dropped out, everyone from my parents to random acquaintances has acted like it’s such a horrible thing to drop out of school and I should have “stuck with it” and “toughed it out.” But I am not a tough person. I am a chronically ill person who likes to reduce stress as much as possible lest it lead to anxiety attacks and stomach issues.

    I don’t really have a question here. I just feel like grad school is not built to accommodate people like me, and that makes me angry, because I love learning. And I think there is a point where you have to admit you can’t do it all, no matter how much you might want to.

    1. And really, an equally truthful narrative is, “I was in grad school, but then I came to my senses and dropped out.” For many people, grad school is an expensive, punishing road to… debt and underemployment. If you can get a life you enjoy without it, why put yourself through that?

    2. “Tough it out?” “Tough it OUT”? Day-um.

      Madame, that you managed to get halfway through the DAY with all those dragons on your back makes you sound like a cross between Dame Maggie Smith and the Terminator. I wish I could be there when someone tries to look down a nose at you, so I can say, “Excuse me? Have we walked a mile in these stiletto heels? Then this noise you are making is meaningless except for any possible overtones of ‘I care about you and think you deserve the very best, so if you should find a way back there, I will be there supporting the FUCK out of you. Here is a coupon for one load of laundry each week, cleaned, folded, and pillowy-soft.'”

      Uh, maybe I’m overstepping, but I think you deserve some respect.

  55. Another overstressed grad student here to say: Oh god, this letter. *waves flag*

    LW: jedi hugs or whatever expression of support you prefer, because that’s some major OUCH to deal with even aside from grad school, which is its own bundle of OUCH. And Sweet Machine is right: you need self-time! You deserve self-time, by virtue of being human! Give yourself self-time.

    I am slowly learning that I need to follow my own advice there and trying to figure out how to do that. I’m in the fourth year of my humanities PhD, and fifth year of grad school, and this semester I just Hit the Wall. Right at the beginning of my dissertation. Though I’m someone who usually gets through the winter with just a couple of colds, I’ve probably spent a month in bed from all of the flu/viruses/etc. I’ve come down with since December. I spent this winter dealing with a flare-up of my depression that was worse than I realized for a month and a half, and am still in the midst of the worst chronic anxiety I’ve felt since my early years of college. The latter is preventing me from writing the dissertation chapter due next month according to the brand-new rules at MyUniversity. (Characteristically for my departments, there seems to have been no announcement of this: I found out accidentally from talking to other grad students. Even my advisors didn’t know.) Lately it’s been all I can do to teach my one class and work on my funding application for next year instead of spending all day in bed.

    So this really resonated: “the “gleeful masochism” of academia is in fact a profoundly ableist cultural norm.” Yes, yes it is. Especially perhaps for people with invisible conditions and conditions not taken seriously by the culture at large. For me, having intermittent depression and chronic anxiety have for so long seemed to just be part of being in academia that I’m still not always able to recognize them as genuine *conditions* that need accommodating. (Yes, a certain degree of situational anxiety may come with any big undertaking, but not like this.) If I freeze up every time I try to open my dissertation notes doc file, if I cannot function for half the week because trying to do anything brings on a panic attack – I just tell myself that I’m being lazy, that I brought this on myself by procrastinating and so on. Instead of going ‘hey, you couldn’t work and maybe this is really as overwhelming as it feels, step back.’ It just seems to be *expected* that you’ll feel burnt out and constantly overstressed, especially among the students, and any difficulty is 1) your fault and 2) conquerable through Better Time Management.

    Thankfully I’m fairly fortunate in my choice of advisors: I’ve been able to be relatively open with them regarding why I’m in such a state lately. I met with one of them today to get his signature on a document, and, as he does, he asked how I was doing and I said ‘so-so.’ And we talked for a few minutes, and he was very supportive – he’s one of the faculty who get that their students are human beings and is not in favor of them breaking themselves into pieces for the sake of appearing to be “the best.” One thing he said that I really needed to hear was this: “you’re fragile.” Which he says in a way that means “you’re human, you need to take care of yourself,” without any implication of “I don’t have confidence in you.” (I know from other conversations that he’s not a stranger to what issues like mine can do – he takes them seriously.) That’s…such a rare thing to encounter from anyone, it seems like, inside academia and outside it. To be allowed to be fragile sometimes. So often it seems like we are just expected to never need down time, to never feel weak or unable to cope. So to hear it from someone I respect was like being given permission to not be ok sometimes and to give space to something other than schoolwork. My sense is that this is so rare in academia because there you just get a peculiarly twisted form of the super-productivity, workers-are-just-cogs attitude of western culture as a whole, as if to defend against the accusation that academia is just a burden with no real ‘productive’ purpose anymore.

    That was long, but tl;dr: I hear you. Academia really sucks sometimes, even if you don’t have medical issues, but also oh god especially if you do.

  56. I forgot to say, if anyone has any input or wants to vent/ask something, please feel free. I’m one of the (biomedical research) faculty who are trying to make the system work better for grad students.

    1. Do you have any suggestions for dealing with being in a field hostile to women and to work-life balance? My area of study is known for both of these things, and the women in this field who are making it into academia these days seem to be very invested in the system as well. Change seems to be happening so slowly that it’s really tempting to go see what I can do with a couple of master’s degrees instead of sticking it out for the PhD. I had partly wanted to get a PhD to end up with enough clout to change the culture, but it also seems likely to land me jobs working with other people who came out of departments like these.

      1. What can I say? Although it is slowly changing, the field is currently still very hostile to women and also work-life balance. I wouldn’t urge anyone to get a PhD just to change the culture–you have to love the work or it probably won’t be worth it. Each person has to decide for themselves if the conditions are so bad that they are a dealbreaker for them. We do need more women and sensible voices though, in order to change the culture. My approach to dealing with it: 1) don’t expect to NOT encounter the hostility, or you will quickly burn out from outrage. Recognize that it’s not personal, it’s the culture and try not to let each incident derail you. I end up rolling my eyes a lot 🙂 , and I make snarky comments about it later to friendly colleagues as a way to blow off steam. 2) I’m passive aggressive about taking the time to have my work-family-life balance. Because I just don’t need to expend energy fighting the patriarchy all the time in an aggressive sense. For example, If I can’t do something because I have to pick up my kid from school every day at 2 pm, I just say “I can’t meet with you then-I have a conflict/appointment” without mentioning why, and suggest another time for the meeting. I don’t ask for time off–I just take it if I need it. If people ask where I was when I was home with a sick kid, tell them I was working on a grant at home in order to focus, and that’s all I say. 3) I try to stop myself from beating up on myself when I screw something up. I realized that I had internalized a lot of that patriarchial criticism and my self-talk was extremely hard on myself. Look around–a lot of the male faculty are taking time off for therapy (male faculty also have high rates of depression), medical appointments (many older male faculty have cardiovascular disease, alcoholism, or are otherwise a mess), or dealing with family problems (a lot of them have teenage kids who are in trouble, or else they are dealing with a divorce). literally no one is perfect, so give yourself a break. 4) Personally, I’m a very stubborn person and this is a big help. I decided long ago that they were going to have to kick me out–I wouldn’t quit no matter what, even if some people were jerks (sometimes) and even if I felt I wasn’t doing something as well as I thought I should have (very frequent). I’m not saying everyone should be like this, but it is one of my personality traits that has been very helpful to fall back on. 5) I also made a commitment to myself a long time ago–I refuse to be a jerk, no matter what, I’d rather be kicked out of my profession for being terrible at it. Many faculty feel like they “have” to mistreat their grad students, or they won’t get that grant or tenure–I refuse to play that game because it would “cost” me my integrity. Again, being stubborn is a big advantage! And it turns out that you can have a successful career as an academic scientist even if you don’t get all the grants and papers (just getting some of them is A-OK). I’m also (finally) in a position where I can speak up on behalf of students and carry some weight–so I do that and it’s great to finally feel like I’m able to make a difference. There’s a big difference between complaining how you personally were treated when you’re a powerless student/jr faculty (which is dismissed as whining), vs being a Dean and persuading the board that the school needs to change a policy and being able to actually make that happen. Anyway, just my personal perspective.

  57. Oh man… I really wish this column had been around two years ago when I was in my fifth year of teaching and burning out as a teacher. The advice in boundary setting would have been incredibly useful.

    Excellent work, Awkward Army!

  58. Oh god, this was timely. Like so many others in this thread, I’m in school (undergrad, not grad school) and struggling with health. It’s so, so hard to give yourself permission to take a break, and for the system to let you. I’m at Oxbridge and there’s this culture here of work hard, play hard, then go and work harder. One of the catch phrases of my fellow students is “sleep is for the weak”. People take over the counter caffeine pills to cope with the work load. It’s considered unthinkable to skip a few days of class when you’re sick. People go to parties and then go home and work some more on assignments.

    During my time at uni I’ve been diagnosed with chronic asthma. I keep getting chest infections every winter, and I get tired more easily than others. I am a naturally very driven person, and the culture that surrounds me doesn’t help. It’s still a struggle for me to make sure I don’t over do things. More than once I’ve called home in tears asking my mum’s permission to skip class that day, because I’ve gotten a cold and if I don’t take care of myself it’ll get worse. One of my friends has chronic fatigue and while she gets some support from the university, she’s struggling too. I have another friend who’s a student parent and Just. Doesn’t. Have. Time. for all the assignments and ‘optional’ reading, and more than once has considered dropping out.

    Some of my professors and friends have been really awesome and understanding. A lot of people’s first reaction when you say you’re sick and can’t make something is sympathy. (then when you continue to be sick, because you have a chronic illness, and they lose patience, that’s another thing…) My main problem has been guilt. It’s hard to overcome the guilt academia imposes. While it’s an awesome university to study at and I love my course, this place can break you. I’ve seen people broken.
    The thought that you should read another of the assigned books, that everyone else is staying up late to work and you need to just push yourself harder. But that way lies madness and it’s so good to hear other people speaking up about how hard it is, and how we’re struggling.

    It’s good to not feel alone.

  59. Hey LW! My sympathy to you. I’m well into my grad program now and know some of the pain of more demands than you can possibly meet. Take care of yourself and remember that you need to be healthy to keep going! For me this meant developing social contacts away from academia. I had been basing my entire self-worth around school and the people there. Having friends and activities that were not reliant on grades made a huge difference – everyone who knew me commented on it. For you it may be something else, but don’t let yourself get sucked in to the belief that school is life – you have a purpose and worth totally independent of it. Don’t let any teacher or jerkbrain tell you otherwise!

  60. SM, I hope it’s okay to put this query on this thread–do commenters have any other suggestions for online grad blogs and communities? I’m applying to schools (…again) this coming year, and I would love to have more of a community going. It seems like the best way to cope with a problem is to get your mind working on it calmly and early. Right now it’s basically Shitty First Drafts and occasional references on different blogs.

    (Although Shitty First Drafts is fantastic.)

  61. LW, in case you’d like a little levity, here is a quote from the forums of the Chicago Manual of Style: “[P]oets are pretty much allowed to do as they please.”

    Suck it, Universe! CMS has spoken.

  62. LW, I’ve got nothing for you but a bit of anecdata, but maybe it’s helpful. I’m not in “grad” school but I am in professional school–I’m in my second year as a law student.

    My first year was terrible. I was coming off some serious personal trauma the summer before I started, moved to a new city, didn’t have a lot of friends, was overwhelmed by school, etc. And my response to stress was to pour more of my time into working, working, ALWAYS working and doing nothing else. I was miserable and stressed, much like you. I cried a lot, wanted to give up. My social life/ability to make new friends at law school suffered because the stress made me awful to be around. I was a black cloud. And then despite pouring so much time into studying, my grades turned out abysmal.

    I had a friend encourage me to go to therapy. She was totally right. I went to therapy. It helped me work though some of the anxiety, and an actual diagnosis made me feel awesome. I worked hard to get better.

    Second year began. I set boundaries for myself. I worked hard in school, went to class when I could, but also made time for myself. I spent more time with friends. I set up an online dating profile and started dating someone (and somehow am still with the first guy I went on an okc date with 5 months later, lol). I took care of myself. And guess what? My grades SHOT up. This fall I had the highest GPA of my law school career and my class rank went up 40 places.

    Being in a good mental state, taking care of myself and being happy, helped me do better in school. I could focus better on work knowing I had good things coming around the corner. I had other things to look forward to in my life–I wasn’t JUST defined by school. It took the pressure off, and I wasn’t so afraid to fail. The anxiety became manageable.

    So please, please take care of yourself. Do what Sweet Machine suggests and see doctors, and see what assistance your school can give you. Make time to do low stress things for you that just make you happy and feel good. Get enough sleep! And I have a feeling it will turn out that doing these things to take care of you will help take care of your stress about school, too.

    Best of luck and many jedi hugs.

  63. As a fellow grad student and lover of academia, I so vibed with this post. I used to be one of those who did it all, and also found my health suffering because of it. My nervous system was so shot that when the unthinkable happened (my husband died a sudden traumatic death & I lost the baby I was carrying 2 weeks later), my whole nervous system shut down and I wound up even sicker. It took me twice as long to complete my degree. Having said that, let me say the lessons I’ve learned from it all:

    1. You cannot do everything, you have to choose what you participate in. Do this and accept you will always have critics for your choices, AND you will have to miss out on some really amazing stuff.

    2. Ignore all the “ney-sayers” and critics, they have no idea what it is like to be in your shoes and many prefer to use your situation to further their own agenda rather than show understanding, empathy or compassion.

    3. Take time every day to relax and take care of yourself. Go to bed before midnight, get up early, eat healthy food, ban coffee & junk food, go for walks, do yoga, knit, crochet, read something non-academic, go to concerts, play piano/guitar, go camping, take a dance class, walk on the beach, ride your bike – do stuff “normal people” do. 🙂 AND DON’T FEEL GUILTY ABOUT IT!

    4. Treat grad school like a job, spend time between 9-5 or 10-6 or 11-7, whatever schedule suits you, but no more! Let the rest go. Take at least ONE FULL DAY OFF EVERY WEEK – better if you can make it two – and don’t feel guilty!

    5. Make a schedule and stick to it. DO NOT PROCRASTINATE! My friend’s well balanced supervisor says this “GIOT – garbage in on time” meaning “yeah, you may think it is garbage, but it’s probably not,” us academics all seem to be perfectionists.

    6. Be honest when you are having a hard time but don’t get personal and don’t play the “victim card” or play the “I’m okay I can handle it card” we don’t need martyrs, we need balanced examples for the next generation (yes the undergrads are watching you!)

    7. Align yourself with other academics who have balanced lives. I know two types of academics: those who seem to be calm & serene and at peace and those who are still living like they did in the last semester of school, but now they have a spouse & children and they are just setting an example to everyone else (kids, students, etc) that you have to always push beyond your limits to your death. I stopped listening to the over achievers (this was hard, as one of them was my supervisor who told me when I was suffering a major illness to push through it, drink more coffee and stay up all night if I have to, just to finish what she wanted – I TOLD HER WHERE TO STICK HER ATTITUDE, ALBEIT NICELY & PROFESSIONALLY :D)

    8. SIMPLIFY EVERYTHING – For me this meant, using things like slow cookers, timed rice cookers, food/grocery delivery services, buying a washer & dryer (no laundromat!), staying in more than going out, getting rid of lots of stuff, scanning & skimming stuff I didn’t ‘have’ to read even if it was fascinating, digitalizing all the articles piling around, etc.

    9. Give yourself permission to say NO NO NO NO and NO again. I learned the first time I took a job teaching at a university overseas that it doesn’t matter which country, academics generally push too hard in every country! I wound up doing 70hr+/wk because I kept saying “YES” to projects, etc – albeit they were ALL cool & amazing projects (see #1!!) I learned to say NO, and say NO again and again, calmly and firmly until they heard me.

    10. ENJOY YOURSELF & ENJOY THE RIDE! Life is amazing, I love academia because I love how we can learn about all the amazing things, there is just so much it boggles the mind. I think sometimes we forget that part of the learning experience is just that, communicating our passion for the diversity of life & all there is to learn & discover.

  64. Thank you for this. Thank you. I am in my third year of my PhD and about to start law school in the fall (while finishing my dissertation — I’m a glutton for punishment and WANT TO DO IT ALL). I was also recently diagnosed with an lupus, an autoimmune disease that leaves me wanting to sleep for days. I’ve only recently started letting myself get accommodations for my healthy issue, but its just…its hard in grad school. While the disability and health center folk understand and have given me lost of accommodations, my professors still want the same 200% from me, and my fellow students in grad school just don’t get why I disappear for hours in the department and then randomly show up looking like I just woke up (well I did, because I have an office with a couch) instead of having been sitting in their presentation (which I heard a different version of two months ago). This resonates with me so much, and its so easy to fall into the trap of “must do everything” of grad school…and this is a great reminder that we have to take care of ourselves and our bodies, or we’ll never make it out (or sacrifice far too much in the process).

  65. LW- I just want to let you know I have so much sympathy for you and wish you the best of luck- grad school can be a Fun! Rewarding! Exciting! experience, but it’s also it’s own special little hell sometimes. You should never feel any compulsion to disclose anything that’s going on with you, but FWIW, from my personal experiences of Life Reasons getting in the way of grad school, I have found that partial or full disclosure helped me to get some of the support I needed at the time. Also, I have a feeling I’ll be bookmarking this page and coming back to read the comments when I’m feeling traumatized and needing to know that other people have gone through stuff that sucks and come out on the other side.

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