The Trauma of Post-Graduate Education. Or, micro-moments of negativity resonance

If you are hoping this will be a post on graduate school and trauma, it's not. But don't despair; I'll write on that subject soon. For this entry I'd like to write on the trauma of graduate school.

This subject was brought to my attention by several events this week. My roommate had a friend from out of town staying at our apartment and going to a wedding in the area. She asked me about my work. I told her that I was finishing up a PhD and she commented, "I wanted to do a PhD but I just couldn't handle it." She has a husband doing a PhD, so I know she knows the costs of doing such a degree.

I think I know exactly what she meant. She wasn't referring to the reading load or the public presentations. She wasn't referring to doctoral exams or writing one's first syllabus or all of the rejection of the publishing process. She was talking about something else, something that is not in most graduate school curricula, but that is in most graduate programs. Something I'd like to call "micro-moments of negativity resonance."

I borrowed the term from an article that defined love as "micro-moments of positivity resonance." The concept was named by Barbara Fredrickson. In an article about Fredrickson's research, the journalist Emily Esfahani Smith explains the concept like this: " love is a connection, characterized by a flood of positive emotions, which you share with another person—any other person—whom you happen to connect with in the course of your day."

What I'm talking about  in graduate school, the reason my roommate's friend said she couldn't handle graduate school, are the small, daily, sometimes trivial ways that graduate students are treated as if they are not adults, as if they are an inconvenience, as if they are a disappointment. In the same way that micro-moments of positivity resonance can be shared with anyone, so their negative variation need not come from someone in a significant position. They can come from your colleagues, or junior professors, or administrative personnel.

These moments might include unnecessarily harsh emails, condescending comments, the assumptions that folks make, the competition among colleagues, the refusal to give someone the benefit of the doubt. Or, as a wise friend of mine says, the systematic failure of folks in the academy to "imagine a charitable explanation."

I'm sure these things exist in a number of occupations. But when they are paired with very low compensation (we're talking beneath the poverty line), extremely high work loads, no job security (I've reapplied for funding every year and in some cases every semester) and no promise of future employment, they are the feather that is sure to break the camel's back.

After six years of these micro-moments, I see now that there are a number of structural issues which encourage these sorts of negative interactions. But I'm not talking about those right now. I want to just identify this as an issue and say that it is an unacceptable working environment, one which takes huge amounts of emotional energy to endure.

My advice to young graduate students (unfortunately) is that these events should be expected, and planned for. In coming posts I'll give you my opinion of how to do just that. But for now, let me just say, if you are a graduate student, I suggest you err on the side of being extremely kind FIRST TO YOURSELF and secondly, to others. I simply don't see any other way to make it through a program this rigorous with a shred of personal or intellectual integrity.