Things that are wrong with gradschool – or – how academia breaks people

Well this post here is the best thing I have read about the PhD ever. It completely sums up the issues I have been having with academia but as the author says, if I’d read it going in, I don’t think I would have believed it.

So one of the ways that a PhD breaks people is that it’s a huge task, where the final aim is extremely vague and there are often few meaningful intermediate goals. Brilliant student, you’re probably self-motivated and hard-working. Still, it’s pretty hard to stay motivated when you’re not getting any kind of feedback or sense of achievement, when you have no real deadlines on a timescale you can usefully think about. It’s research, so at some point it will get bogged down and you’ll spend many months or even years pursuing a dead end. Short-term student projects are carefully designed to give at least some kind of results in the few weeks available; actual research isn’t that predictable, which is good because the whole point of research is to investigate an unexplored area, but also pretty gruelling if you’re used to getting good results when you put in hard work. It’s not like working hard to complete an essay or project and being rewarded with good marks. You work hard, really really hard, and you often get no reward at all, you just realize you’ve been wasting your time.


This is what I couldn’t get my counsellor to understand the other day. Nevermind that my supervisor is often awful and that I’ve had a lot of personal and family stuff to deal with over these last four years*, this is the thing that has caused me problems over and over again. This, and chronic perfectionism.

Also this:

The combination of doing research, which is almost by definition mostly unproductive, and writing up is really soul-destroying. It’s isolating, it’s unrewarding, it basically makes people depressed and exhausted even if they started out with excellent health and confidence and so on. If you’re at all prone to depressive illness or low self-esteem in the first place, it’s hard to imagine anything more calculated to exacerbate those symptoms.

Given that I did not have the best mental health to start with (a couple of periods of situational depression as a teen/young adult), academia did in fact make me worse. I now have an intimate understanding of chronic stress and what it can do to a person’s physical health. I will do everything I can to avoid a repeat of that experience, even if it means writing up takes longer than my supervisors think it should. I will also never stay in a job that bad for me ever again, nor will I put up with managers that awful. If I encounter it, I will leave rather than let myself be talked into staying “because it will look good on your CV!”

I was a brilliant student. I got 13 GCSEs at A* and A. I got three A-grade A-levels, in Biology, Chemistry and Maths, and an A grade AS in Ethics and Philosophy – you know, that subject where you have to write an essay or two a week. I got a First Class BSc honours degree, and won two prizes for the outstanding quality of my three month lab project. I was motivated and hard working and never missed a deadline, except for that one time when my grandfather died. I was good at studying and yet these days it’s a struggle to start work each day. In fact it is midday and I still haven’t started writing. I wanted to be an academic and have a rewarding career. These days, I would just like a job, any job, that doesn’t require me to work more than 40 h per week and doesn’t expect me to take thinking work home with me. If it paid well enough that I could save for a house and enjoy my hobbies at the weekends, that would also be nice. As it would be if I could afford to stay in the same property for more than a year at a time. So when Liv says academia is designed to break you, I agree, it is. I am not quite the person I was before. If I could have my time over? I would not do a PhD. The prospect of being able to call myself “Doctor” does not make up for the hardship and trauma I have endured; anyone who thinks it does needs a good slap upside the head.

So yes, when my counsellor said I seemed to be carrying a lot of rage around with me and a sense of injustice? And implied that wasn’t a particularly positive thing? And that maybe I am in the rebellious adapted child state of the Transactional Analysis Model of relationships? I say, so what?! I have legitimate reasons to be angry and upset, and given that I’ve spent all my life believing it was wrong and immoral and selfish to be angry and stand up for myself, being angry and letting myself experience it and validating it as a legitimate response to a deeply unjust and traumatic experience is in fact a positive step forwards. It is me affirming that I don’t deserve to be treated the way I have been and that in fact there were things going on in academia that absolutely wouldn’t fly in a professional, corporate industry. Just because everyone else is suffering from Stokholm Syndrome in an enviroment that takes the worst parts of you and exaggerates them and gives you new issues, doesn’t mean I don’t get to call it as I see it.

I’ll admit that my anger and sense of injustice aren’t being channelled in ways that would make the environment better for everyone, but without wholesale cultural readjustment, led from the top and supported by collective bargaining and healing, academia’s not going to change anyway. I am in fact powerless in the face of most of these issues because if I don’t play along, or at least keep my head below the parapet, I won’t be able to leave with something concrete to show for the last four years of my life! I can choose not to engage to some degree but it is such an immersive environment that it is genuninely tough to do so, even with an excellent support network of non-academic people. My priority is to get done and get out, without injuring myself more in the process, and if clinging on to my righteous wrath will help me do that, then I am going to cling to it.

I will figure out assertiveness and constructive ways to deal with anger and injustice later, thanks.


*I cannot quite believe I’ve somehow survived nearly four years of the PhD. I’ve wanted to quit so many times, and nearly got thrown off entirely, but somehow I am still here.

3 thoughts on “Things that are wrong with gradschool – or – how academia breaks people

  1. Ugh. I kind of want to shake your counselor, and also go back and hug the one I had when I was working on leaving grad school. He was fantastic, a constant voice of reason and sanity while I trudged through grad school, the first to say “do you really think that’s true/a reasonable request/etc” in response to bullshit from my adviser. When I finally started getting pissed off at other people for the faults of the system and how I had been treated instead of blaming myself for not being good enough, he saw that for what it was–progress–and told me as much.

    So because your counselor doesn’t get it, I’ll say it–I am so happy for you that you are able to see the dysfunctional aspects of academia as they are instead of blaming yourself for the misery of the PhD. Anger is an adaptive response here, because it will fuel your determination to not accept bullshit like this in the future.

    On a separate note, I totally get you on the “now all I want is a stable income and a 40hr workweek” feeling. When I left grad school, that is all I wanted. Now that I’ve recovered somewhat and have been employed for a few months, a little bit of ambition has returned–I now want to be paid better and be doing something somewhat engaging –but I still have way less than I used to.

    • Your counsellor sounds great!
      Thanks for saying so. The two things that have been helpful are 1) Elodie’s guest post at CA about the Rageasaurus and 2) feminist knowledge about oppression as a systemic problem, and the myriad ways people are complicit in it as part of the “Missing Stair Effect” (courtesy of Cliff Pervocracy).

      Realising that anger can be constructive and help you stand up for yourself if you pay attention to it before it gets out of hand and turns on you was one of the best things. I have a sneaking suspicion that the times I’ve been depressed were strongly linked to times when I wasn’t letting myself feel anger at all. Because of course, shutting down anger often leads to squashing every other feeling too, just because anger is so physically powerful a response.

      Realising also that the problems you are experiencing are part of a wide-reaching pattern of cultural behaviours that are not your fault because essentially they are like the Matrix, has been a sanity-saver. It gives you something to focus on outside of yourself when you see that the problems are part of a system. It leads to the interesting questions along the lines of – where on earth do you start to change a dysfunctional culture like that, especially when most people don’t even see that they’re in the Matrix to begin with? It also lets you take a step back and work out which compromises you can and absolutely cannot make with the oppresive system, in order to make sure that you manage to take care of yourself when the whole system is trying its damnedest to crush the life and individuality out of you (Thanks Audre Lourde).

      Seeing my supervisor as a Missing Stair has also helped a lot. It fascinates me that my fellow PhD researchers are all doing the same things to work around him and minimise his adverse effects on themselves but it’s also heartbreaking. People know he’s a problem but no-one is willing to band together to stand up and change things collectively because the individual risks are too great. Mainly what happens is that we comfort each other, grumble about it and then carry on as “normal”. What also happens is that people excuse his behaviour but “He’s a nice guy – he’ll help if you’re having personal/family issues” doesn’t really cut the mustard with all the other ways he really truly sucks as a supervisor.

      On a slightly more positive note, the counsellor was good at providing jumping off points for talking about with my friends. Having my head full of things I disagreed with, saying so and then getting a response from someone who’s known me far longer and better was way more helpful, and I wouldn’t have had those phone calls if I hadn’t been pissed off with the counsellor in the first place!

      I’m glad to hear your ambition’s returning. I’m fairly hopeful mine will too once I’ve begun to recover somewhat. It seems like a logical response to getting burned out on the thing that was supposed to be your crowning glory. At that stage, anything that’s not the hell you were just in will seem like pure bliss, even more so, if it includes all the things you were denied, like stability and real mental downtime.

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