"You Say You Want a Revolution...": Reflections on the Small t-trauma of Grad School

[Content note: discussions of the dark places grad school can take a person, including depression and anxiety]

I hesitated in writing this post, and I hesitated to publish it. It was pointed out to me by an astute human who I respect and to whom I am grateful for a generous and thoughtful review who read it before I posted that my ambivalence about posting could have something to do with still being invested in the system of academia (paraphrased) and I think that is true. I also think it can be a harsh and punishing system, even when things “go right.” The other levels of my ambivalence relate to trying not to focus on the negative, my anxiety, and also a desire to not disillusion; to maintain some hope for those who are in this strange world of academia, just doing what they love. But I’ve chosen to publish it, because it feels important. And, in some ways, posting it reflects a moment of “letting go” and moving through, of “being a student,” after nearly 30 years of studenthood. So here it is.

This photo was taken right before I defended my PhD. I am standing with my hands on my hips in a red room; my computer is propped on a stack of books. I am smiling, and I am wearing a black shirt and blue and white striped skirt.

This photo was taken right before I defended my PhD. I am standing with my hands on my hips in a red room; my computer is propped on a stack of books. I am smiling, and I am wearing a black shirt and blue and white striped skirt.

This is a post about the inheritance of 11 years in university; even when privileged, even when “doing all the right things.” This is not a post intended to scare prospective students, to garner attention or pity, or to malign academia. This is a post that speaks to one person’s reality, linked to broader, collective and systemic realities, and to invite others’ reflection on their own journeys. It’s almost a letter to my past self to say, things will be bad sometimes. And at the same time, there will be little joys. This is the nature of “doing what you love,” especially in a system that hammers the productivity imperative into you at every turn. This post is a reminder to not take yourself too seriously, to not wrap your identity into any one thing… and forgiveness if you do, and you have. Because it all makes sense, in this time and place. This is a call for compassion, empathy, and understanding—and collective action toward creating academic spaces where we can genuinely support each other; where we breed not contempt, call-out culture, and isolation, but collaboration and welcoming of difference.

A few days ago, I wrote a Twitter thread about my interpretation of the small-t trauma of my PhD. Shortly thereafter, a cascade of hormones from a ruptured ovarian cyst combined with an uptick in anxiety to generate a very taxing evening. As I lay on the couch in a city that is not mine, in pain, I contemplated the irony of having everything I’ve ever wanted and yet constantly ricocheting between contentment and anxiety.

It’s interesting, isn’t it, how the collective interpretation of what academia “should be” invades and interacts with the personal experience of doing scholarship: corrupting it, souring it, challenging all that I know to be good about it. Doing academia in a world that sometimes feels like it is quite literally burning down around us—through climate change, increasingly restrictive laws that govern and control the bodies of people with uteri, overt racism, transphobia, ableism, and swaths of other “isms”—is an exercise in continually considering a) how I can leverage my scholarship to make change and b) recognizing that the things that I obsess over are, truly, unimportant in the grand scheme of life. The thing is, when you spend a fair chunk of your life investing your whole self into a project you care deeply about, it’s hard not to make it the centre of your world. It’s hard to remember that academia isn’t really… well, normal. It’s not even comprehensible most of the time.

By all accounts, my PhD experience was a huge success. I was supported through my studies by a fantastic advisor who invited me to join in on exciting research projects. Through her, and through social media, I connected with many amazing feminist scholars and activists who were in my corner the whole time. I had (have!) supportive parents. About half way through grad school, I met my soon-to-be husband, who could not only talk philosophical theory with me, but also remind me when it was time to not talk philosophical theory. I got high grades in my grad school coursework, I followed the expected timelines, I earned scholarships that funded both of my grad degrees, I published articles and book chapters, and I presented at many conferences. I was told my specialization paper for my qualifying exam was “too theoretical” (notwithstanding the fact that it is literally supposed to be a paper about theory) but passed with flying colours. I defended my PhD, I got a post doc for a year, and then I got a dream job. I list these things not to brag—I paused over listing them for 2 reasons: (1) there is nothing bad about you, your trajectory, or your scholarship if this is not the case for you; and (2) naming my accomplishments makes me deeply uncomfortable. I am constantly waiting for someone to pull the rug out from under me, to the extent that I’ve recently admitted to myself that I often try to get there first. I list them, though to name that even when everything goes “according to plan,” grad school can leave scars.

As I write, I am haunted by the thought that one day I will look back on this post and think: you knew one day they’d find out you were an imposter. 

And that is the problem.

Even in the most supportive immediate environment, grad school is a place that all but requires you to place your work at the centre of your world and your worth. Now, I have had colleagues who were very skilled at separating out grad school from the rest of their worlds, and who were much more able to withstand the battering winds of academia as a result. Not many of them have gone on to pursue academic careers; they probably know better. I’ve also met a handful of academics (my dad included, ironically—and we could get into the gender dynamics and generational shifts in the nature of academic work that enable that…) who balance work and life. I am not writing the collective history of academia; however, perhaps my experiences will make a difference to those who are struggling now.

I have to believe that it is possible to not let the world of academia consume you. Perhaps part of what makes the PhD so all-consuming is that it is the largest piece of work many people who pursue one have done at that time. Concordantly, it’s likely a time where most learning will happen—primarily through doing things wrong. It also lends itself to feeling like it is the collective of your work as an academic, because at that point, you don’t often have a huge body of other work behind you. In truth, no one really teaches you “how to academia.” You learn about things like authorship (which doesn’t look the same as authorship in “the real world” and involves an intricate dance of contributions and feelings), funding applications, peer review, qualifying exams, conferences, and more by doing them, and often by doing them wrong the first time you try. Or at least I did; maybe some people have a beautiful roadmap. I know that resources do exist online to guide the process, but sometimes these made me feel even worse. There are myriad guidelines for how much time to spend on X, Y, and Z—and none of them ever worked consistently for me.

I worked differently at different stages of my PhD. In the first and second year, I spent a lot of time in the office, reading theory and writing. Looking back, I wish I had enjoyed this time, instead of stewing about “whether I was getting it right.” I wish I’d listened less to the doom and gloom stories of people failing their qualifying exams and having to leave school forever. This is like when you say you’re getting your wisdom teeth out and Aunt Joan tells you about the time her second nephew five times removed lost feeling in his lip forever. People like to scare you. Do people fail? Absolutely they do. Do I want to hear about it when I’m working on keeping my head above water as I wade through Lacan and Merleau-Ponty? Absolutely not.

In my third year, I took on a practicum at an eating disorders unit about an hour and 45 minutes away from where I live. I drove there twice a week. I bought a car and paid $60 per trip to drive on the good highway for an unpaid practicum. I found this exhausting, mentally, physically, and emotionally. I simultaneously worked on collecting data for, analyzing, and writing my dissertation. I found this exhausting, mentally, physically, and emotionally. I was working on a major research project at the time, off the side of my desk, that involved interviewing people about their experiences of weight stigma in pregnancy and reproductive care. I found this exhausting, mentally, physically, and emotionally. In the winter term, I started teaching feminist psychologies at another university, about an hour and a half away from where I lived. I felt simultaneously exhausted and invigorated—which could really be the title of this whole experience. At any point during this year, I could have asked for help. At any point during this year, I could have taken a break, taken on fewer things, said no. I never did. By the spring, I was burnt out. I kept finding little mistakes I’d made that felt absolutely insurmountable, felt like they would ruin me. I went to very, very, dark places. I contemplated irreversible ways out for the first time in my life. And I told very few people how much I was struggling. I made morose posts with vagaries on Instagram, sure. But true, real connection was more rare.

Throughout it all, I appeared polished and happy to most people. They did not know that one day I walked for nearly four hours, sobbing, because I didn’t know what else to do with myself. In a particularly spectacular breakdown, I cried uncontrollably in public at a conference dinner in Prague—the poised exterior slipped and laid me bare.

Looking back, this time was clearly a turning point for me; I realized my approach was unsustainable. I started asking for help. I’d always cried in my advisor’s office (#FeministAdvisorThings), but now I did so and also asked for what I needed. I became clearer about what I needed. I tried to slow down. I tried to incorporate more “no”s into my vocabulary in an effort to make the “yes” mean more. I went on trips with my partner that had nothing to do with academia.

My fourth year was mostly a mental game of waiting; having finished a draft of my dissertation while in the throes of self-examination and spells of extreme, unstoppable productivity interspersed with lulls where writing a single word felt like a gargantuan task, I had a lot of waiting to do. I taught, I wrote articles unrelated to my dissertation, I worked for my advisor’s arts and social justice centre, and I waited. As I waited, I found myself continuously pulled back into anxiety. I sought therapy and found comfort mostly in the idea that I could always leave academia. Until I made that thought real for myself—for me, this involved creating a business plan to be a consultant—I felt immobilized by the crushing weight of needing to live up to the impossible perfectionist standards that had emerged out of the interplay between my own constitution and the perception of a punishing academic regime.

For me, success has always felt threatening. And, I’ve recently realized that this is related to my lack of trust and isn’t a grateful way to move through life. I’ve realized my default stance isn’t as generous as I’d like it to be. I assume that everyone is out to get me—which both doesn’t do justice to people’s generosity and also makes academia out to be a bigger part of the world than it really is.

The fact of the matter is, people have bigger things to worry about than the things that stress me out so much that I become literally incapacitated. The fact of the matter is, I have often ground myself down for no good reason. And I am fairly certain I am not alone. 

So, I can’t help but wonder: how much of this is internal, and how much of it is external? Is there some way that academia could be structured to provide a supportive and collaborative environment that does not make students feel like they need to be perfect in order to succeed in school and after school? Would I have felt less anxiety if I had not heard almost every day that there were no jobs in my field, or would that have led to disillusionment when it took a while to get a job?

If I were to go back and to give myself advice, I would tell myself a few things:

  1. Slow down.

  2. Reach out for help.

  3. Recognize that you will not do things perfectly, ever, and especially as a learner.

  4. There is more to life than your thesis or dissertation or Masters or PhD as a whole.

  5. Grad school is an itty-bitty part of the world. Your field is smaller than that. Your individual work is even smaller than that. This doesn’t mean it is not important; it DOES mean that it is not the entire world.

I see these lessons on the page, and I still struggle to hear them. I am riding the wave of imposter syndrome as I am about to embark on a full-time academic career. Even writing about this leaves me feeling raw, like I am inviting critique or questioning of my worth as an academic. Putting it all in perspective continues to be a challenge.

Throughout it all, I’ve cared passionately about the work that I do. This is the reason I push through the often-all-consuming fear, and why I am determined to continue to show up in a field that is not always kind. The moments that make me feel good are not those in which I receive academic accolades, which I recognize to be political and circumstantial affordances, in many ways. No, the moments I stay for are those where someone with lived experience tells me that getting involved in research has been meaningful. The moments when a research article or a blog post hits at the heart of the matter for someone who has been there. The triumph of seeing small changes in how people talk about eating disorders, weight stigma, and bodies. Seeing moments where students start to consider how power infuses everything and what they might do to address that in their work. I am committed to embodying my values in my research, my teaching, and my supervision. To at least trying to create collaborative and supportive environments where I can.

I would love to write a post that provides “top tips for supporting graduate students” but the truth of the matter is, I was shrouded about my struggles and pushed people away when I was struggling, so I am not sure any of those tips would have helped me, in the end. That said, I’ve heard it said to “check in with the strong ones,” before. Outward appearances of success can hide tumult inside. Of course, academia as a structure does not as a rule make space for those in advising capacities to check in with students. High supervisory and teaching demands collide with pressures to “publish or perish” –and increasingly, make impact or perish—may leave those with academic positions with little time to actualize their values. Calls for slow academia are far from new, and yet more positions are tenuous, short-term, and contractual than ever.

Despite it all, I still sometimes miss grad school. What I miss about grad school is probably the more Pollyanna-esque version of the state of affairs; the flexibility of hours worked, the freedom to explore a passion project, the ability to engage deeply with theory because I felt like it. The feeling of possibility and uncharted horizons.  

I am healing, slowly. I am learning and moving forward—more slowly than I used to. More purposefully than I used to. More collaboratively and intentionally than I used to. And the trauma still lingers, ever-present in the back of my brain, leaping out at me in moments of distress. Sometimes all there is to do is walk around for hours, reminding myself to breathe and thinking about the things that are good in my life that do not hinge on my success as an academic.

Why did I write this? It isn’t meant to dissuade anyone from pursuing grad school, or to continue on if they are already in, if that is something that they want to do. I suppose it’s more of a meditation on how success isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, and how if the conditions don’t change, we’ll likely leave some broken shells of humans feeling deep inside like they’ve failed if academia doesn’t work for them. The way forward may end up being smashing the whole system down; whatever “the solution” (or more likely, solutions) is(are), it is not going to stem from one individual—the revolution will be collective, or the revolution won’t be.