Expert comment on mental health in HE for PhD students
This month I was interviewed for a piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education about the "summer slump." The piece "More Than a ‘Summer Slump’: How the Loss of Structure Affects Academics" published on the 15th and highlighted my interview. The piece draws on a conversation started on Twitter by queer, feminist, academic Stephanie McKellop (@McKellogs) who regularly engages in conversations about the academic environment. I replied to the tweet with thoughts from my experience as a doctoral candidate and was contacted for an interview.
I wasn't sure how much I'd have to say but had no problem talking for almost 40 minutes about the mental health challenges that come with academia and the difficulty in knowing what is reasonable to expect for yourself in terms of self-care. This is something I've talked with many women about during my time as a doctoral student (see footnote) and is cetainly something that is magnified during the time as an unfunded doctoral candidate and during the summer months.
I'm incredibly grateful to see people participate in this frustrating and difficult conversation. As I said in my interview, the system doesn't incentivize people to speak-up about these challenges. And as is clear from the comments on The Chronicle FB page, as well as the Twitter harassment Stephanie McKellop faced, those who decide to talk about it often face a negative backlash including being told things like: "What a bunch of whiners! They have three months of completely free time to pursue their research programs, acquire new skills, study and learn anything they want. Isn't this what you go into academia *for*? It's a bit like a partner at a big mergers and acquisitions law firm complaining they don't quite know what to spend all that money on..." or "Oh shut up. It was a rare summer when I didn't write an article or most of a book." or "Made-up problem," as exemplified by the aforementioned FB page. Where to begin with the privilege and assumptions tied up in some of those comments!
By the way, my PhD program funds the first three years for most students in the program during which we have classes as well as teaching assistant or research assistant placements. Most students finish their dissertation proposal by the beginning of their fourth year, and then begin/continue their research and writing of the dissertation until completion which hopefully is sooner rather than later but varies greatly as you can imagine! I plan to finish the program in five years, dedicating two years to the research and writing of the the dissertation. This means I'll be unfunded for two years of the program.
As the article notes, I've been planning for this time of my career since before I started the doctoral program. I also have the financial support from my family, a loving parter and the ability to move to a more affordable city while I'm finishing my dissertation. Some folks in my cohort have children. Not everyone is white. Some people are living with disabilities. Given that I have so many privileges working in my favor and still can recognize the gaps and challenges that students and professors face when it comes to mental health care, I'm aware it hits many marginalized folks even more severely. This is not a made-up problem, it's an ignored or minimized problem.
After the article published I had many folks contact me on social media and over text to say that this story hit home for them, that they'd thought they were the only ones who faced this isolation and "slump". Importantly the article explains, "Many professors who spoke to The Chronicle learned to cope on their own, but are sharing ways young academics can create and attain their own social structure." Praise the digital age and social media!This article and responses to the article makes it clear why finding ways to communicate about mental health as a larger part of the experience of working in academia continues to be a risky but valuable endeavor.