First published November 21 2017 in Anthropology News.
Academia’s Elephant in the Room
A study conducted by the University of California Berkeley in 2014 found that 47 percent of graduate students showed signs of depression. Around the same time, a study published in Academic Psychiatry found this to be the case for up to one-third of graduate students at Emory and that 7.3 percent of those surveyed had contemplated—and 2.3 percent actually had plans of—committing suicide. Both of these studies found that these students had perpetual anxiety, loneliness, and hopelessness. Although mental health challenges are commonly known, they continue to be stigmatized and dismissed as part of the disciplinary process of becoming an academic. Insofar mental health needs not medical, but social and structural interventions, academic departments need to adapt to their student needs, including creating professional competencies for scarce and highly competitive academic and non-academic job markets.
A large majority of students who enter a doctoral program have the potential to complete the degree, making institutional challenges the key reason why attrition rate is nationally over 50 percent. The Council of Graduate Schools has suggested six departmental areas that could be contributing to PhD program attrition, including mentorship, financial support, and the program’s environment. I highlight these three, in particular, as concerns that have also been emphasized by mental health studies, including those conducted by UC Berkeley and Emory. UC Berkeley’s study, for instance, cited “concern with finances, social support, advising and career prospects” as the most frequently identified topics that contribute to low life satisfaction and depression.
Too often faculty members see graduate school as a necessary challenge to prepare students for “more of the same” stress as an assistant professor seeking tenure. However, this perspective glosses over two important caveats: First, the academic job market is unfavorable to most; certainly, it is now common knowledge that institutions are producing PhDs at a much greater rate than there could ever be jobs to match. It is likely true that only a fraction of PhD graduates have ever obtained a tenure-track job, even among the most prestigious of universities, but multiple studies continue to show that this fraction has only gotten slimmer with time. Second, these institutions often do little to develop their students for a professional world both within and outside of the department.
In the Chronicle of Higher Education, Vilma Patel writes that graduate schools have a “culture problem” of anxiety and isolation, and that “psychiatrists…can’t do much about poor adviser relationships, social isolation, precarious finances—or career prospects.” In my columns, I have rarely provided personal examples to make a point, but here it seems apt. Since I began receiving financial aid in college, I have been responsible for a significant portion of my mother’s and sister’s financial responsibilities. I recall my former advisor’s look of concern when I confided in him that I had two panic attacks while preparing for my candidacy exams. He said in response, “You need to get that under control—it’s just going to get worse as an assistant professor.” I nodded, keeping to myself that I had been working an additional two jobs to make financial ends meet. It is no surprise to many who know me that I chose to study diversity management (in the United States) against all traditional anthropology advising, largely because of my socioeconomic need to maximize my training both within and outside of tenure-track faculty positions.
Academic departments can certainly do much to address graduate student hopelessness, something that would have the double benefit of clarifying the boundary between the kind of mental health that necessitates a medical versus a structural and social intervention. To begin, we must dispel the myth that one can receive a job in industry without preparation, and more critically, without any professional experience. Often, academic culture discusses industry jobs as “back up plans” or “second choices.” These are not strategies for obtaining a professional job, as is echoed year after year at the EPIC Conferences, a convergence of ethnographers in industry. Rather, those who are competitive PhD professionals are familiar with the language of business, how to tailor their projects in pragmatic and resource-driven ways, and, not least importantly, how to work in teams. Insofar as academic departments continue to accept graduate students at similar or higher rates and not prepare them for non-academic tenure track jobs, they are complicit in perpetuating graduate student hopelessness and, yes, a culture of graduate student depression.
While some aspects of graduate school entail a process of maturing and learning how to become a colleague, actual professional development courses and trainings are missing from these expectations. During my time conducting fieldwork between 2014 and 2016, I studied dozens of events aimed at sharing institutional knowledge with (mostly) women and people of color. As one of the youngest in the audience, I learned how to speak to and demand things from people in authority, how to provide and receive mentorship, the differences between mentorship, sponsorship, and coaching, and how to strategize career advancement in institutions that have historically operated with only white men in mind. These challenges require certain finesse and delicate maneuvering that, to be frank, nobody has a natural aptitude for. Certainly, even those who prevail, often do at a great cost, including but not limited to severing relationships with potential colleagues and allies, and for women in particular, gaining the reputation of the department’s “witch.”
I confess that I sometimes find myself at fault, jumping to the conclusion that sounds like “suck it up” when I hear someone complain about unfair department practices or an absent advisor. Then, my more reasonable self recognizes that this position is harmful and that mental health at times is a disability that requires certain kinds of institutional interventions to ensure equitable access. In most other instances, we need to take more responsibility by addressing our own complicity in perpetuating toxic graduate school cultures. It is in these times that I turn to diversity management for guidance and inspiration, and I suggest we all should too.