Today’s post is about “process/es”, in the somewhat abstract sense that refers to the ways we organize ourselves when we need to make things happen, particularly things that are work-related.
I had to think a bit about this recently when I did an interview for Networked Researcher and was asked what my “workflow” looks like and how blogging fits into it. I had trouble explaining how I actually get things done, and I think that’s partly because the amount of work I do has been ramping up consistently for a few years now and I feel like I’ve been scrambling to keep up, rather than coming up with new and appropriate ways of dealing with it all. I have so much going on that I’m constantly “running behind”, so what could possibly be efficient about what I’m doing? What am I really “getting done”?
When I thought about it, I realized that of course I have found ways of juggling many things at once, but I don’t give myself any credit for it because there are usually so many unfinished projects pending. That’s why it feels like nothing is happening most of the time–so many things are “in progress”. It’s true that I’ve developed a bit of a system of dealing with all the projects and ideas that come up, so I neither have to dwell on them or forget about them. This involves a lot of little folders and documents, a means of channeling the urge to squirrel away every little thing in such a way that I can use it eventually; Liz Gloyn has written a post where she calls these tidbits “academic otters”. They usually need to be tucked away and kept for later, or tended over time rather than becoming the immediate focus.
All this relates to the process of becoming academic, or whatever it is that we want to be when the PhD is over. Though everyone is in a different situation in the latter part of candidacy, what I’ve noticed is the difficulty with trying to balance the necessary academic work (i.e. the dissertation) with other work and opportunities that come along, which can in turn lead to jobs in the future. This is a dilemma that many PhD candidates face, since it involves a difficult transition into largely unknown territory. We’re aware that the job market isn’t a friendly place these days, but the idea is to advance towards it as quickly as possible, whilst somehow simultaneously gaining enough experience to make ourselves employable when we’re done. We have to figure out how to split up our time between the all-important dissertation, and the publications, teaching, and other pieces that are needed to prepare for the post-doc and faculty job applications that many of us will be submitting later. Of course we’re also working to pay tuition and costs of living while we take care of everything else.
My biggest problem with “process” at the moment is that I’ve ended up having less and less time for necessary deep reflection on the things that are coming up both academically and in other areas of life. There is always a lot going on, but I don’t have much space to think about it. On the one hand it’s fantastic to have so many things on the go–I’m blessed–and each time something comes up I want to jump on board because of the benefit of the experience; it’s also an honour to be invited to participate in other people’s events and projects. But I’ve finally reached a point where, for the first time, I’ve had to start saying “no” (even when I feel guilty doing it). This is something Jo Van Every wrote about in her blog this week.
There are so many possibilities for distraction when focus is required. Though I need to concentrate on the parameters and completion of current projects, obsessing over (often) longer-term goals doesn’t seem to be productive; it interferes with work “in the moment”. It’s also harder to think about the ideas you’re trying to articulate in some particular paragraph or chapter, when you’re thinking about the hydro bill, the talk you’re giving in three days, and the grading that needs to be finished. Most academics are juggling in this way, and I think there’s a need to carve out a specific space for reflection without pressure because if we can’t find that, we simply can’t think and reflect the way we need to.
That part of the process is perhaps the most important one, yet it’s the easiest one to lose when we’re overwhelmed since we can always “get to it later”. I’m reminded of what some academics have said anecdotally about being overwhelmed by changes in the workplace, such as downloading of certain types of administrative work to faculty, that decrease the amount of time available to think about what’s going on. In the end, we can’t just quickly digest ideas and regurgitate them if we’re going to do our best work–as much as it feels like a luxury to take time out and reflect (or to “just read” as some academics say), to process what we’ve seen and heard and read, how else can we participate in the “life of the mind”?
Much attention has been paid to student mental health issues over the past year, and recently the level of coverage peaked with a new report from Queen’s University at the end of November (PDF here). The report came from an initiative prompted by a number of student deaths by suicide at Queen’s in 2010 and 2011. On a related note, some of you may recall a post I wrote a year ago (and a follow-up), regarding Ph.D. attrition and mental health issues such as stress and depression.
Last week, a blog post from HESA’s Alex Usher invoked both the more recent media attention to undergraduate stress, and my own (aforementioned) post, expressing skepticism about the reality of an “epidemic” of mental health troubles. The post is written as a kind of “Mythbusters 101” about student mental health, and the topic is unfortunately treated as if it is merely the fad of the month (or year) in Canadian postsecondary education (PSE). While it’s always a compliment when someone engages with something I’ve written, I believe the compliment is a backhanded one in this case, since the arguments I made about graduate education are quickly dismissed as a smokescreen for Ph.D. student “angst” and fear of (real or imagined) failure.
This choice of term is revealing; “angst” is a significant word because through connotation, it both individualizes and trivializes the problem. Here, it is part of an argument about “the tendency to over-medicalize daily life”, a comment that assumes there’s nothing going on in daily life that should be considered “stressful”. The very point I was trying to make in my post, a year ago, was that the problems of stress and anxiety are not just attributable to individual weaknesses or quirks of circumstance–not when we can identify certain patterns unfolding across systems over long periods. Suggesting that the problem lies with individuals’ interpretations of their circumstances, rather than being (also) a structural and cultural one, is dismissive of the elements in an equation that may be beyond the individual’s control. We need more understanding about what those might be, rather than an assumption that they aren’t part of the equation.
As others have already pointed out, there are a number of causes for increased visibility of mental health issues among students (not just in Canada), but that doesn’t mean the issues weren’t there before or that they haven’t been building over time; they’re long-term and influenced by systemic factors. For example, the massification of PSE, and related increases to costs, have changed the kinds of students who attend university and the circumstances from which they have to work on their education. This means more students who have fewer (academic, financial, and cultural) resources to draw on, and are more likely to be struggling to keep up for various reasons. So perhaps students are “a lot more fragile, and less prepared” than in the past — but not necessarily for the reasons provided by Usher.
It’s also a problem to assess students’ financial straits primarily by looking at tuition numbers. This is a very superficial way to examine finances, no matter what other argument is being made (in this case, Usher also argues tuition has not really increased–and neither has student debt). It’s particularly problematic when we know there has been a serious economic recession that has affected finances in many ways that go far beyond tuition and other fees. Stress from financial difficulty is a serious problem to which some people have much more immunity than others. To be financially vulnerable is to be exposed, perpetually, to the possibility of loss and disruption. It often signals, or in fact creates, a parallel social isolation; this is why it’s impossible to deny the reflexive link between mental health and poverty.
There’s also a recurring gripe, raised again by Usher and of course taken up with much enthusiasm by Margaret Wente in her latest column (the argument has been “answered” eloquently by Gary Mason here), that accuses young students of having (ironically?) “too much self esteem”. I’m not sure where this assumption could be coming from — perhaps the focus on “high achieving” students? — but it certainly doesn’t match the experiences I’ve had working with undergraduate students in universities over the past eight years or so. Perhaps this is all part of the new “young people don’t have it as bad as they think” discourse that seems to be emerging, though much of that commentary is coming from those who benefited most from what young people are now losing, i.e. the welfare state systems of education, health, and pensions.
Sure, the “kids” have expectations–which were happily passed along to them from their parents’ generation. They were told that if they worked hard and went to university, there would be a job at the end of it. They were told that standards of living could keep rising, and that they could do what their parents did, but somehow do better. Yet the real bubble–that 30-year blimp of post-war prosperity–has long since gone down in flames, and we’re finally seeing the long-term effects. This is about more than changes to the job market or periodic recessions; it’s about risk, speculation on long-term “outcomes” of larger “investments” being made by people when they’re at a young age, when they cannot expect the kind of socioeconomic mobility that their parents could. Yet commentators continue to assume that all this must be the responsibility of the individual, the family, perhaps even the school system (since education is supposed to prepare us for life — and it perpetually “fails” at this).
Wente’s comment that “stress is a fact of life at university” disturbingly echoes the “everyone has a breakdown!” mentality that I described in my initial post about PhDs and depression. While she describes herself as “extremely sympathetic to the issue of students’ mental health”, the actual argument is, “if I could take it–they should be able to take it too.” But if we take a step back, the larger context might start to look like a recipe for stress; and if you think undergrad students are worried about jobs, you should see Ph.D. students who want university faculty careers. So I must disagree that structural issues in the university, and in the larger society and economy, can be written off so easily as “angst”.
I would argue that comparisons to the 1990s are not really useful, because the problems of disappointed expectations and increasing stress (over outcomes), both at the graduate and undergraduate levels, are not just blips on the historical-economic radar. They signal the end of a way of life, or rather, a life trajectory, and at a deeper level, a kind of betrayal of trust that further dents our faith in social progress. Whatever we may think about “kids these days”, one thing’s for sure: unless you start out in a nice solid position on the socioeconomic class ladder, sustainable ascension is more and more of a challenge. That means it’s harder to have the things in life we’ve been told we should want — a home, a family, some security for the times when we can no longer work to sustain ourselves.
From what I can tell, the majority of young people entering university want to be able to do something reasonably meaningful, and sustainable, with their lives–without having to be perpetually concerned about whether finances and lack of social capital will trump opportunity at every turn. If those expectations are too high, then I would ask, what exactly is “reasonable”?
Recently I presented on PhD education at HEQCO’s Learning to Earning conference in Toronto. In my contribution to the panel, I focused on disconnects or “mismatches” in PhD education and how these highlight issues that need to be resolved if doctoral programs are to be improved. The other contributors were Andrew Potter (Managing Editor of the Ottawa Citizen), who spoke about his past experience as a PhD candidate in Philosophy, and Marilyn Rose, former Dean of Graduate Studies at Brock University. Dr. Rose presented research on the professional development options available for graduate students at Canadian universities.
One of the things I discussed in my contribution was the strange disjuncture in government rhetoric and policy, when contrasted with how education happens in PhD programs. Too often, when explaining why PhD numbers (for example) should be boosted, the government’s answer is that Canada simply has a lower proportion of PhD graduates than other OECD nations, therefore, the proportion should be increased. The underlying assumption is that increasing numbers of PhD grads will translate into benefits for the economy. Where does this assumption come from? Perhaps it’s just the inevitable outcome of focusing on numbers, without sufficiently investigating process.
This reflects deep differences of opinion about the purpose of graduate education. While governments want more HQP (“highly qualified personnel”), that isn’t the same thing as “more professors”. Technically the term just describes those with a Bachelor’s degree or higher credential; often it’s used to refer to those with graduate-level training, as on the various Tri-Council websites where the term appears.
Is the government’s approach shared by universities–by graduate programs, and by the faculty providing graduate supervision? If not, do these differences in opinion translate into practice in doctoral programs? What does that look like? I think to answer that question, we need to look at the details of doctoral education, paying attention to how PhD students are “socialized” in particular ways (often solely to become academic professionals, and to seek tenure-track positions). This is why the question of whether it’s “worth it” to do a PhD is so frequently wrapped up with the discussion about dwindling numbers of tenure-track positions. It’s assumed that if there are no faculty jobs, then clearly we have an over-supply of PhDs.
Between students’ needs and desires and the academic logic, and the government’s assumptions about economics and HQP, something’s getting lost in translation. Who and what is supposed to make this translation actually happen for PhD students? Should it be faculty supervisors? Non-academic mentors? University career centres? Organizations like MITACS? Academic mentoring is still a part of many supervisory relationships, and academic development activities and services are usually available on campus. But whose responsibility is it if a student doesn’t know exactly how competitive the academic job market is at the moment, and thus doesn’t realize the level of accomplishment required to be able to “compete”? Or if students simply don’t know what their options are? The current culture in many graduate programs promotes an ideal of success that is relatively limited. We need to look at how that affects students’ choices and the kind of professional and social support they receive from peers and mentors.
What can we do to ensure that students have adequate support to develop academic careers, but also to work in other areas if they choose? In other words, how can we make sure PhD students really know what they’re in for, and can plan accordingly? That isn’t going to happen if we focus primarily on the numbers telling us how many PhD graduates we have in comparison to other countries, or if we continue to assume that more education must lead to economic innovation–without asking “how?”
It’s much more likely to happen when policy is informed by the kind of research that tells us what actually happens in the doctoral process. That’s going to mean finding out more than whether grad students are “satisfied” according to a tightly constructed survey, as the CGPSS does. It’s going to mean going beyond numbers when even quantitative research on education is being cut. We need the stories behind the numbers; we need to show how different aspects of a situation come together and influence outcomes, how various factors involved actually play a part (e.g., why students’ experiences are so different between and even within programs and institutions). Good policy can’t be created in a vacuum, so why do we keep wasting our time trying?
Recently, Colorado State University and Harvard University each posted job advertisements that included specific time limits on when the candidate’s PhD had been earned. Colorado’s ad requested PhDs only from 2010 or later; and Harvard’s ad read: “Applicants must have received the PhD or equivalent degree in the past three years (2009 or later), or show clear evidence of planned receipt of the degree by the beginning of employment”.
Both Colorado State and Harvard ended up re-writing these descriptions, but not before the ads set off a good deal of discussion online. UK scholar Dr. Ernesto Priego has already pointed out the incredibly time-consuming and expensive process of applying for academic positions, and I’ve written in the past about the large amount of unpaid work that all candidates much put in to stand a chance at a long-term academic position. Jo VanEvery cast a new light on this by raising the issue of Harvard’s recruitment of younger tenure-track academics:
In her blog, Lee Bessette articulately described the frustrations of an academic now “out of the pool” as an “old PhD”. At Escape the Ivory Tower blog, Julie Clarenbach argued that perhaps this kind of restriction isn’t actually a bad thing, because it provides an explicit signal about when we should get out of the academic job market, move on, and do something else.
I’m not convinced by this latter argument, because while it’s practical in the moment–for those “caught in the middle” between being a “recent” PhD, and being an established superstar–I don’t think it helps us to address the real issue, which is that the job market operates implicitly in ways that are discriminatory, since right now it’s most definitely a buyer’s market.
I think this relates to something I wrote recently for University of Venus blog, wherein I took a brief look at the potential effects of increased competition on young and early-career academics, and on the culture of academe in general. The dynamics change when a larger group of people are “competing” for a smaller pool of resources. In the meantime, academic socialization often demands that we continue the search (even if in vain) lest we be considered traitorous to the profession. As we know, for many PhDs this has meant taking a low-paying postdoctoral position and/or teaching part-time and/or on contract for long periods while continuing the search for a tenure-track position. Those people will of course be written out of the equation officially if job advertisements can explicitly call for recent PhDs only.
As a bit of a side note, it’s interesting that one of the follow-up articles quotes my tweet about feeling like an over-ripe piece of fruit being cast into the cider bucket (of course in the tweet that followed it, I augmented my comment). I think the metaphor is an apt one: “over-ripe” for one, (narrow) purpose may mean “just right” for something else, ie for the making of some other, potentially very different “outcome”.
I think the really egregious thing here is the idea that after anywhere from 7 to 12 years of higher education in preparation for such a job, there is only a 3-year window in which you’re considered eligible to apply. The idea that this is “just what’s happening anyway”–even if not so much in Canadian universities–should make us all furious, considering the waste of time, talent and funding involved. So in a way, I’m disappointed that the job ads have been removed. Perhaps a solid, visible barrier, rather than nebulous claims about “meritocracy”, would finally provoke a real fight about what’s happening in the academic profession, given that the trends have already been so bad, for so long.
Yesterday, as I was taking a short break between grading assignments and exams and working on my dissertation, I found myself amazed to be reading an article from the Guardian UK wherein the author argued that in spite of what others might say, academe is not a stressful place — in fact it’s the best possible place to work.
This article, which is obnoxiously entitled “Academia, stressful? Not for me!”, is by graduate student (postgraduate, in the UK) Katie Beswick. Ms. Beswick writes, after a cursory nod to the legitimacy of other people’s stress, “I’m familiar with the problem. But, personally speaking, I still don’t get it.” She then proceeds to list the reasons why academe — or rather, a very idealized version of it — is the ideal work environment.
I want to make it clear that I do not see the university in a wholly negative light — of course not. There’s a reason I’m there. Indeed, I want to understand the way the university itself functions, and why, and how we can make it better. But I know the research and reading I’ve done about higher education suggests that this post’s author has been shielded from some harsh realities. This is why, when I read about her “instinctive inner eyeroll” at the “complaints” of others, I’m afraid my own physical reaction was something more akin to gagging.
Yes, everyone experiences something different in graduate school and in the academic job market and workplace. But what’s deeply offensive here is the imperious tone expressed, the personalization of the problem and the suggestion (assumption?) that those who criticize are merely whiners. All these are familiar means of dismissing the legitimacy of (well-documented) experiences of others. It’s impossible to take seriously an argument that describes “an onslaught of moans” from fellow students and professors and wishes they would “stop bloody whinging!”, given the context of the comments and the vast body of research literature that contradicts these superficial statements.
So if you’re a graduate student and you’re enjoying life, then let’s talk about some of the conditions of that enjoyment. Firstly, you made it in. That means you’re less likely to be from a low-income background, or to have suffered discrimination as part of a racialized group. You’re less likely to have been persecuted for being gay, lesbian, trans, or otherwise queer-identified. You probably don’t come from a “second-class” nation in the global hierarchy, one without the research infrastructure to support your endeavours, or lacking the kind of education system required to propel you into university in the first place.
It’s less likely that you’ve had family troubles that distract you from getting work done. In fact, your family probably provides you support — moral and emotional, financial, and perhaps even academic (you might also have a partner who now supports you in similar ways — particularly if you’re male). Partly because of this, you don’t work more hours at your outside job than you do on your studies — and your job is more likely to be related to your career goals.
You’re likely to be free from health problems that could prevent you from getting academic work done and from earning a living. You’re free of significant debts, or perhaps you don’t have to worry about tuition payments, rent, or costs of upkeep for any dependents. You’re not a single parent. You don’t suffer from anxiety or from any mental heath issues that might impede your academic performance or social integration in the academic environment. You probably don’t have a disability; you’ve probably never lived on food stamps or other forms of social assistance.
In a Master’s or PhD program, to do well you need a good relationship with your supervisor, as well as appropriate mentorship and an academic environment that’s supportive and integrative, and some degree of financial stability. These supports help students finish their studies within appropriate time limits.
And if you’re not at all worried about finding an academic job, is there something you know that the rest of us don’t? It seems more appropriate to consider what information one would have to lack, in these times, to pose the question: “what’s everyone so stressed about [in academe]?” As one commenter responded, “I think once you finish your PhD and start looking for an actual job, you’ll be able to answer your own question quite easily.” Or perhaps a quick read-through of the comments on my article about PhDs and mental health.
Do the contextual factors described above necessarily prevent us from achieving our goals in academic careers — or from being happy? No, definitely not. But we must acknowledge that these factors contribute to people’s experiences, and that they make academe harder for some than for others. While universities are indeed admitting more students who don’t fit the “ideal” model, there’s an underlying model that persists. The university is a changing environment, and the demands of an academic career are changing too. This has increased the pressure on early-career academics, not the least in the UK, and it must be taken seriously as a cause of re-stratification and increased gatekeeping.
Is there a productive way to make the point Ms. Beswick is getting at? Of course there is. How about “I’ve had a great experience in academe, and I’m thankful for that because I know it’s not that way for everyone. These are the things that made it good.” That would be a better way of “framing” the truth, and it might even lead to consideration of what makes life “better” for some of us and less enjoyable for others.
As my first post for 2012, I want to provide a bit of a follow-up to my previous piece about PhD students and mental health issues.
Though I always had the sense there was a problem with mental health in grad school and especially during the PhD, I was still surprised by the intense reaction to my post. As I write this, there are 38 comments (not counting the one I left myself). Some of these comments are very moving and all of them are refreshingly honest, and I’m extremely thankful that so many of you shared your experiences and insights. Throughout this post I will link to your comments directly.
Through Twitter, Facebook, and the comments on my post, many relevant points were raised. Some people discussed an assumed “ideal” for PhD students, and a sense of guilt and self-doubt they felt when they “failed” to live up to this, which in turn can be exacerbated by the isolation of the process and by the apparent lack of structure in advanced academic work. Others mentioned the persistently gendered (masculine) nature of the scholarly ideal, with women being affected by systemic biases that implicate them differently in academic work as well as in parenthood and family life. Bumblebee wrote that the effect of PhD problems on intimate relationships could be disastrous, particularly without institutional support.
I focused on some of the structural issues in PhD education because I think they contribute to a “pluralistic ignorance” — the fact that a student may believe that she is the only one with a problem, and blame herself for it as well, even while others are experiencing the same thing. Several people commented that compounded by insecurity and isolation, the lack of acknowledgment of and open discussion about depression and mental health issues — the “silence” associated with stigma — is actually the most significant problem because it prevents students from seeking help either from the university or from their peers.
Another effect of silence is that prospective students cannot necessarily make an informed decision about whether to enter a PhD program at the outset (and which program and supervisor to choose). Marketization of higher education is problematic because it encourages institutions to persuade students to enroll rather than informing them about their “best fit” for the program or department. A PhD program tends to be a “black box” in terms of information about problematic aspects of the course and/or the negative experiences of students. This is only compounded by not asking students who leave about the reasons for their departure (reasons that are not always negative—as noted by Alex O).
In another comment, Lil makes the crucial point that accessing support services on campuses can be a trial in itself. Students need somewhere else to turn for support and perspective when significant academic relationships begin to turn sour. But it can take time — sometimes weeks — to land an appointment with a counsellor, and in some cases students will be speaking with a trainee rather than an experienced professional. Usually they will be speaking with someone who is not familiar with the PhD process and the kinds of issues that can arise during it. Often there are a limited number of appointments available to each student in a given period, and since these services tend not to be covered by available health benefits, the student may not be able to afford to go anywhere else for help. Some students may feel too uncomfortable even to seek out professional assistance, which requires a kind of self-exposure that can be off-putting.
Of course not everyone who enters a PhD program will suffer from mental health problems. Students with a lack of social and academic support and/or past histories of depression are more likely to be vulnerable (and this applies to other high-level forms of education as well). But it’s important to consider carefully the nature of academic environment and the ways in which it can affect students’ experiences, both the good and the bad. Graduate students, like all students, are not only learning but also becoming different people; they are “changed” by their experience, and this includes the psychological and the emotional as well as the academic and professional.
Many of the comments I received thanked me for being brave enough to write publicly about this issue. On the one hand it’s disturbing to me that there is such a lack of public discussion in spite of the apparent pervasiveness of the problem. Then again, if my posts can be used as a way to open the door to that discussion, then I’m happy about it indeed.
From November to March is prime time for academic burn-out in graduate programs — I’m convinced of that. Perhaps it’s a seasonal thing; it can be easy to sink into a trough of exhaustion and stress, and not climb out of it for months. But rather than just the seasonal doldrums, my sense is that clinical depression, extreme anxiety and other mental health issues are becoming more common in graduate programs as well as in undergraduate education.
I asked one fellow student her opinion of this, and she replied, “it seems like everyone I know in academia is depressed.” On another occasion when I was very unwell, I was told that “everyone” has some kind of breakdown during the PhD; my troubles were nothing to worry about!
Is this a serious structural (and normalized) issue rather than an anecdotal one, and if so, why is no one discussing it? When I sampled the Twitterverse, I received many replies reinforcing and elaborating the impression that yes, this is a problem — perhaps now more than ever — and that it can’t be reduced to students’ individual propensities and “weaknesses.”
In the current context, there are plenty of structural issues that contribute to the PhD as a time when students are vulnerable to stress.
Within their programs, students face a more intense workload than in their undergraduate degrees, and they may for the first time be around students with as much academic aptitude as themselves. These factors can contribute to “imposter syndrome,” the sense that one is about to be “found out” for not really being smart enough. As adults being placed in a subordinate position, some PhD students experience a sense of infantilization alongside the conflicting expectation that they develop a professional identity.
In terms of the student’s academic experience, the PhD emphasizes a transition to autonomous work that is often a new challenge. The lack of structure, and unclear boundaries about responsibilities, mean that some students are unsure what help they “can” ask for from supervisors. This is compounded by the lengthy isolation from peers that often occurs in the later stages of research (in the humanities and social sciences at least).
Career-related pressures in academe have intensified in the face of recession and long-term political economic changes that have affected the university and its governance. Graduate programs in Canada and elsewhere have increased enrollments often without proportional increases to the tenured faculty who provide supervision, or to non-repayable funding. The shortage of funding can lead to student debt and other financial difficulties as well as more intense competition for grants and teaching positions, and pressure to “complete” sooner. Fewer tenured faculty means that students may need to compete for academic mentorship and support as well. And all these changes have helped to feed further competition in the form of a tightened market for academic (i.e. tenure-track faculty) jobs; this kind of competition can be depressing and stressful.
While only a relatively small proportion of PhD graduates obtain permanent faculty positions, in many PhD programs there is still a deeply-held assumption that students can or should strive to engage in research-oriented academic careers. Thus the definition of success tends to be rather narrow, making it easier to feel like a “failure.”
The culture of academic replication — the inculcation of certain academic goals above all others, in spite the “reality” of the larger job market for PhDs — has been roundly criticized, even compared to a cult. Taking on an awkward double stance, many students are engaging in a process of translation and re-valuation of themselves and their work that continues until long after the degree is over; some must overcome a long-held sense of exceptionalism with regards to their academic chances.
And of course, alongside the professional pressures there are also the so-called “personal” issues and events that affect everyone, and which can throw one’s entire degree (and life) off-track if they occur — a break up or divorce, for example, which can itself result from relationship problems triggered by the academic lifestyle.
A larger problem is not only the context described above (and its effects), but also the thickly oppressive silence that surrounds it. Not coincidentally, I think, there is a parallel silence around the issue of attrition. Considering the high rate of attrition from PhD programs and the cost of graduate education, you’d assume there would be a plenty of research on the reasons why students “drop out.” But according to Chris Golde (2000) we still don’t have much information on why students leave PhD programs, partly because PhD attrition “looks bad” for everyone involved (responsibility for this “failure” is usually transferred to the student). I wonder how many students simply leave due to mental health and related issues brought on or exacerbated by the psychological minefield of the PhD process — and how much of this is preventable.
For academically ambitious Canadian university students, including those finishing their undergraduate degrees this year and those already in graduate school, September is grant application season.
Grant-writing is like the unpleasant medicine of graduate school. While the outcomes are beneficial in terms of professional development (and sometimes, funding), the process of application is painfully difficult and nerve-wracking for many students.
Though we’re fortunate that the funding is available at all, the competition for federal Tri-Council scholarships — those from SSHRC, NSERC and CIHR — is intense, and with increasing numbers of graduate students applying that situation is only likely to worsen. Particularly after a recession and a significant increase to enrolments, funding is tight. Financial pressures on grad students intensify the competitive nature of funding, as well as the need for students to distinguish themselves from their peers in the ever more difficult academic market.
If financial pressure and academic competition alone aren’t enough, the process of application can also feel like a course of bureaucratic hoop-jumping. I suffer from “bureaucratophobia”, and I always felt anxious having to order transcripts (from four different universities), getting the “ranking” forms and letters from referees, and making sure to correctly fill out every esoteric section of the actual applications, as well as sticking to the technical directions for producing the proposal. I remember being told at one point that I’d used the wrong colour pen.
Graduate students get stressed about grants in part because they tend to feel as if they have no control over the outcome of their application; most of the selection process is hidden from view. Our lack of insight into the process can make the outcome look like “luck”. But is that an accurate assessment?
For SSHRC grants, with which I have direct experience, the application is often worked on by students with their supervisors for more than a month before it’s due. But building a successful application is a process that actually starts much earlier, since the first “screening” mechanism is your GPA. Undergraduate grades, built up over years, are an important factor especially when applying for a Master’s grant.
You also need time to build relationships with the professors who’ll end up supporting your application by writing letters of reference. Some students now find it difficult to find referees from their undergraduate years, having had little or no contact with permanent faculty members.
The last thing to develop is your project proposal, in which you’re required to imagine and articulate a feasible piece of research that can be completed in the allowed period. Often there are no examples provided of successful grant proposals. Even when examples are available, you can’t see what the rest of that person’s application looked like, so you don’t have a clear sense of why they may have won.
After the application leaves your hands it’s passed to an internal audit committee at the program level, then to a faculty committee (often a faculty of graduate studies). The desired result is that it’s sent on from the university to the Tri-Council in Ottawa, where there’s a chance that funding will follow.
At the student’s end of things, much of this process is about waiting, in a great tense silence filled by the effort to “just forget about it” between submission in October and announcement of results sometime late in the second semester.
Graduate students fear that the grant assessment process is not meritocratic. When all applicants have A-averages, when every proposal is of high quality, how are decisions made? Of course politics — of individuals, departments, and universities — can make its way into decision-making that is supposed to be about “merit”. Perhaps your topic isn’t currently a major issue in the field, or you lose out because of the internal dynamics of a department or academic discipline. As an applicant, you have no way of knowing because no feedback is returned, only a result.
There may well be an element of sheer luck; certainly there’s a hefty helping of serendipity, which isn’t the same thing. More often there’s just a long-term plan, a lot of good mentoring, hard work, and the right topic or project at the right time.
I’m lucky in that my own tribulations with grant applications have come to an end. And I’m even more fortunate in that I won grants for my Master’s degree and for my PhD. I got to see the most positive result, though certainly the process was extremely stressful even with strong support I had from faculty mentors. Perhaps the experiences of many graduate students — anxiety and frustration with the process — point to the need for more specific explanations from the Tri-Council and more advice and support during grant applications.