So, read this charming piece in the Chronicle today. It fairly well confirms one of my favorite descriptions of graduate school–that it isn’t for the sane. Yes, indeed, studies indicate that graduate students are a mentally unhealthy bunch:
Social isolation, financial burdens, lack of structure, and the pressure to produce groundbreaking work can wear heavily on graduate students, especially those already vulnerable to mental-health disorders.
Studies have found that graduate school is not a particularly healthy place.
Before I left for graduate school, one of my profs sat gave me a piece of sage advice that I fear I took far too well. “Choose an addiction now,” he said, “because every English professor has one, and usually at least three, of the following addictions: sugar, sex, alcohol, or narcotics. Pick your favorite and focus on it.”
Now, I admit that I belonged to a fairly…um…unhealthy discipline. Comparatists are not known for their sanity, patience, nor humility. Generally, when I introduce myself as a comparatists, I get some form of the following reaction: Slow eye blink. “Oh. Wow.” The remark is inevitably followed, depending on the relative experience of the speaker with either “That’s a really demanding program,” or “I’m sorry.” The sorry, not incidentally, regards the atmosphere associated with most comp lit programs–we are often not exactly the most well-regarded department on campus. Troublemakers, every single one.
My fellow grad students and I observed (as grad students are wont to do) that most of us were given to depression, anxiety, and other forms of mental distress. In fact, academics in general seem to be drawn to academia precisely because it is one of the few places that tolerates our more unfortunate behavioral patterns. Take the classic “absent-minded professor” type; I’ve met several, and I can say with absolute seriousness that academia is the only place for them. I cannot imagine what happens to those who don’t end up teaching. In any event, many of us are somewhat less than socially graceful, and as the article notes, a whole vat of us belong in therapy (as to whether we seek it or not…another story entirely). My dear former therapist, himself a retired prof, remarked once that he thought that a year of therapy should come with every PhD granting, seeing as how most of us are in dire mental straights by the time we finish.
Which suggests perhaps that the sane folks get the hell out of the program, right?
So, I’m wondering (thinking about Sixx’ remark that I blogged on earlier this week), are we born academics? I don’t mean anything regarding intelligence here (indeed, one might make an argument against the wisdom of those of us who choose, perfectly willingly, to submit to the whims and demands of other people who survived the whims and demands of their own professors and have chosen to take it out on students for the next 40 or so years); rather, I wonder about the type of personality that is driven into grad school…
What comes first: grad school or insanity?
Perhaps my prof was on to something about the nature of the addict, or, at least, of certain addictive personalities. Few career paths really celebrate the ability to obsess in great detail on a single subject that, quite potentially, no one else in the world really gives a damn about. Well…except at comp lit conferences, when minutiae become the stuff of the finest of cat fights. Seriously, though…could I function in an environment that wasn’t friendly to odd behaviors and habits? An environment that was comfortable with the socially inept and the compulsive?
A for instance: one of the great complaints among faculty is that students don’t read the course catalog and prepare themselves for advising. Leaving aside the fact that we no longer print catalogs, one of the images often used in such discussion is the “dog-eared” catalog that so many of us faculty carried around and read, highlighted, and memorized during our undergraduate years. It turns out, though, that the then proto-faculty were the weird ones, and we have a tough time seeing why normal folk don’t obsess over which English track to follow or whether to take Milton or Advanced Grammar this semester, while we are taking that freaking Literary Criticism course. Our students aren’t defective. Our students are normal.
We are obsessives.
So, are we born academics? Do we attract and protect the unstable…providing a sense of place for some and a sense of incredible stress and displacement for others? Other than the stresses of graduate programs, why is there a high incidence of mental illness in academia (because it doesn’t magically disappear after grad school)?
You can tell I’m having one of those weekends, yes?