How to Make Graduate School More HumaneRoundup
tags: mental health, historians, academia, graduate school
David M. Perry is a former professor of history and a contributing writer at Pacific Standard's Ideas section on the topic of health-care access. He's currently senior academic adviser to the Department of History at the University of Minnesota.
Rebecca (all names have been changed) had just started her graduate program studying planetary science, or "rocks in space" as she calls it, at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Within two minutes on the phone with her it's obvious that she is, as they say in Cambridge, wicked smart. Being smart wasn't enough, though, to convince her doctors or professors to take her needs seriously when she started getting sick. She says that her symptoms began with abdominal pains that gradually got worse, followed by rectal bleeding. "Who teaches you how to talk about that?"
MIT is "a rough, unpleasant place on a good day," Rebecca says, and as her symptoms worsened, she says she didn't get much help. She went to a campus doctor who kept insisting that she was bleeding from supposed anal sex, even after he found inflammation over 40 centimeters into her intestine. She felt like she couldn't talk to anyone.
Rebecca was concerned. "My adviser was watching me" struggle in class, she says. She was worried they thought she was "just lazy.'" Finally, she went on medical leave, left town, found a new doctor, got the correct diagnosis (colitis), and got treatment. As she improved, she flew back to MIT to meet with her adviser and plot a course back to the program. "I [had] short hair and was very skinny," she says, "and my adviser looks at me and says, 'Oh, you really were sick.'"
Graduate school can be brutal place, even when advisers listen to and support their students in times of need. A single professor can potentially end a graduate student's career, or make a situation so miserable that to remain causes trauma. But graduate students are vulnerable in multiple senses of the word, not just when victimized by predators and other bad actors. They are expected at once to act as pre-professional apprentices while still needing to write papers and get good grades. In many fields, including history, pressures have intensified as funding opportunities diminish and tenure-track jobs are increasingly rare. In 2014, Jill Yesko, then a graduate student in geography, described graduate school as "a broken system that disenfranchises half of all doctoral students and endorses a corrosive academic ecosystem that dishonors scholarship at the expense of what is essentially academic hazing." She's right. Graduate students are asked to work faster, teach more, publish immediately, and somehow keep reading and learning while wrestling with the knowledge that they can do everything right and still end up having to choose between poorly paid adjunct work or leaving the profession that they worked so hard to join.
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