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How I Became An Intellectual Activist

Ford panel

I was awarded a Ford Predoctoral Fellowship at the beginning of my fourth year in graduate school.  This three-year fellowship freed me from teaching, allowed me to focus on publishing my research, and ultimately became my ticket to graduating early.  Ford, in many ways, is the supportive community of scholars of color that is typically lacking in my department, university, and discipline.  The annual conference, either in Washington, DC or Irvine, CA in alternating years, is always a rejuvenating treat for me.

At this year’s Conference of Ford Fellows (see the storified version of the conference, #Ford2015), I had the honor of participating on the closing panel alongside Dr. Brittney Cooper and Dr. Fox Harrell: “Thinking Forward: Empowerment Through Intellectual Activism and Social Justice.”  My talk, which I share below, details my journey to becoming an intellectual activist — including the intentional, coordinated efforts of my graduate training to “beat the activist out” of me.  I conclude by “thinking forward” about this line of work in light of the attacks on public scholars in recent months.  (Can you imagine it?  I stood on the stage of the National Academies of Sciences in DC, speaking to an audience of brilliant scholars of color about intellectual activism!)

“Conditionally Accepted” In Academia

Activism In Childhood And College

My journey to becoming an intellectual activist, and the raising of my consciousness as a scholar-activist, reflect a great deal of my personal biography. I came to academia by way of activism – an “activist gone academic,” I often say. Growing up, I wanted to be the Rosa Parks, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Bayard Rustin, or Thurgood Marshall of my generation. In fact, I had my first taste of Civil Rights activism at the age of 8. My mother and I marched in the 30th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington. My grandmother, who had passed just 3 years earlier, marched in 1963 along side MLK.  My mother and I were interviewed by a local CBS news reporter about the legacy of Civil Rights activism in our family; you can see that interview online [4:48].

I continued with activism in college at the University of Maryland Baltimore County (UMBC). There, I devoted most of my advocacy to demanding that the college create more campus resources and services for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) students. I co-led a team of students, staff, faculty, and administrators who pressured the university to create a campus resource center for LGBTQ students – what we would call the “Rainbow Center”. Our efforts eventually caught the attention of the university president, Dr. Freeman Hrabowski, who tasked his Vice President of Student Affairs to work with our team. This led to the creation of a needs assessment team – which, I learned, is higher education-speak for creating a committee to talk about a problem, but probably not do anything about it.  Below are some of the headlines of the UMBC student newspaper, the Retriever Weekly, which highlight the buzz – and sadly, the backlash – created by our efforts:

(Source: The Retriever Weekly, UMBC)

(Source: The Retriever Weekly, UMBC)

As a student activist, I was deterred by the slow, bureaucratic response, especially after receiving support from so many people on campus – including a petition to start the Rainbow Center that was signed by over 400 people. So, I turned my attention to applying for graduate schools, including taking on an honors thesis to make me a stronger candidate in the eyes of admissions committees. My honors thesis advisors, Dr. Ilsa Lottes and Dr. Fred Pincus, encouraged me to use my research to advance my LGBTQ activism. I decided to study attitudes toward lesbians and gay men on campus, offering further evidence of the need for the campus resource center. Ideally, this would contribute to the needs assessment that was being carried out. And, I would later be able to publish from the survey data, including a co-authored peer-reviewed article, to advance LGBTQ research. This was my first exposure to intellectual activism, though I didn’t yet know the name for what I was doing. At the time, it seemed quite natural to me that research would speak to activism, and vice versa.

Graduate School As Trauma

Unfortunately, graduate school showed me that my safe bubble of undergrad was a fantasy – perhaps an anomaly. In fact, grad school was traumatizing for me. Let me say that again: graduate school was traumatizing for me. I entered grad school at Indiana University as a Black queer activist with plans to study, and ultimately end, racism in queer communities. I wanted to use qualitative methods to make visible the invisible, and give voice to the voiceless. I wanted only to teach and do research, leaving me time for advocacy and community service. As such, I was content with working at a liberal arts college. I wanted to be a big fish in a small pond – an experience that I passed up for college because liberal arts schools were too expensive and offered too little in scholarships and financial aid.

Instead, I left grad school with a PhD, a job at a small liberal arts college not far from home, and enough emotional baggage to land me in therapy. I am now a quantitative medical sociologist who is desperately trying to get back to my research interests of the naïve age of 22. I simply did not get the qualitative and critical training that I wanted because I bought into the ideology that those interests and methods would never land me a job.

When my therapist first told me I had experienced a trauma – a six-year-long traumatic episode – I scoffed. Sexual violence, armed robbery, hate crimes, child abuse – those are traumas. Who gets traumatized by furthering their education? Apparently, I did. I have wondered, “why me? What’s wrong with me?” How did others enjoy an experience that left me traumatized? As the recovery process has begun, I have been able to think like a critical sociologist to identify the structural and cultural factors of graduate education and academia in general that contributed to the trauma:

  • First, there was the regular experience and witnessing of racist, sexist, classist, and heterosexist microaggressions: warnings to not “talk Black” during interviews; praise from a fellow student for having ghetto booties; seeing Black women students hair petted by white faculty like zoo animals; the annual ethnic-themed department holiday party; etc. These conditions create a hostile environment for marginalized students.
  • Second, scholarship on my own communities – Black and LGBTQ – was explicitly devalued. The message was that we are not important to mainstream sociology. Apparently, most white sociologists, like George W. Bush, don’t care about Black people; and, everyone knows studying queer people won’t land you a decent job in sociology.
  • The third factor was the undermining of my career choices, including the intense pressure to take a job at a research I university – even if it meant living in the most racist and homophobic parts of the country. Now that I’m at a liberal arts college of which few have heard, it seems as though I’m no longer on my grad department’s radar – and the feeling is mutual.
  • The final factor was the effort to “beat the activist out” of me – a direct quote from one of my professors in grad school. I had already developed a triple consciousness as a Black queer man in America. The message that “activism and academia don’t mix” demanded that I develop a fourth consciousness. Apparently, at four, one is ripped apart. You can no longer be a whole person.

Conditionally Accepted in Academia

I share this very personal narrative as a lead up to the start of my recent work as an intellectual activist – or, really, the reemergence of my intellectual activism. After grad school, I created Conditionally Accepted – an online space for scholars on the margins of academia. The name came from my coming out experience, particularly with my parents’ newfound acceptance of my queer sexuality because I was doing well in school. An HIV-positive, drug-abusing, suicidal gay son wouldn’t get their acceptance (at least not right away). But, a healthy and academically successful gay son – a “normal” son – did. Similar conditions apply in the academy. One of these conditions is to be an objective, detached, apolitical scholar – not an activist. Academics will slowly allow Black people in as long as we don’t make too much noise about race or challenge the racist status quo. Pursue critical work and activism at your own risk.

Conditionally Accepted reflects the raising of my consciousness about injustice in academia. So much of what happened to me is the product of the structure and culture of grad school and academia. I struggled through without access to the stories and wisdom of others like me who had already been through it. Now, I share my story in hopes that current and future students of marginalized backgrounds will not feel alone, and not struggle as I did. Essentially, I’ve turned my critical lens on oppression back onto academia itself.

Admittedly, a part of me worries that this is a bit navel-gazey. I’m writing about academia to academics, rather than being an advocate for communities beyond the ivory tower. (But, I am doing that, too!) But, the ivory tower is not immune to the realities of oppression of our society. In her book, On Intellectual Activism, Dr. Patricia Hill Collins defines it as “the myriad of ways that people place the power of their ideas in the service to social justice.” Her conceptualization of intellectual activism includes speaking truth to power (in our case, the academy) and speaking truth to the people (or, the communities beyond the ivory tower. These efforts are interdependent and equally important. So, my form of intellectual activism is actually not navel-gazing at all. Though Conditionally Accepted is simply a blog (for now), I am working to make academia a more equitable and humane place. Specifically, I aim to support marginalized scholars so that we can better do our jobs and, ideally, give us more space to serve our communities and speak truth to the people.

Indeed, I believe blogging and social media in general can serve as tools for intellectual activism. Conditionally Accepted offers narratives about scholars’ challenges with oppression, wrestling with the incongruence between personal and professional values, and some advice for survival in academia. My broader goals are to foster community among marginalized scholars, and to advocate for change in academia. I write frequently for the blog, but it also features the voices of others from different social locations, disciplines, and career stages. There are many voices and many perspectives, which is likely why the blog gets a fair amount of readership.  Indeed, we are approaching half a million visits since I created the blog two years ago.

The Risks And Rewards of Intellectual Activism

I should note that there are negative sides of this work. Because of the trauma of grad school, I have lived in fear since I created Conditionally Accepted. I fear that some student, colleague, administrator, trustee, alum, or member of the community will take issue with something that I have written. That trauma has prevented me from seeing that my current institution actually hired me because of my critical perspective and advocacy, not despite them. You can’t have an active online presence in this era and expect no search committee to find it. Fortunately, the messages that I have gotten are that this work is an important service to the profession, and perhaps counts toward tenure. I have received positive feedback from senior colleagues, my dean, and recently found out that the new president of my university, Dr. Ronald Crutcher, actually reads my blog.

Unfortunately, some of my Black women colleagues in sociology (e.g., Dr. Zandria F. Robison, Dr. Saida Grundy) have found themselves under attack by the public, only to find that their institutions will not protect them. Scholars, particularly women of color who are race and/or gender scholars, who dare to challenge the status quo publicly, are seen as a threat that must be neutralized. And, institutions that value dollars more than Black women’s scholarship are quick to oblige. We wouldn’t be having this conversation today if it weren’t for these risks.

So, more recently, I have been thinking about how to best support intellectual activists since it seems we’re on our own. Given the support of my own institution, I feel as though I’m in a relatively privileged position, and can use that privilege to support the most vulnerable scholars in the academy. Specifically, I briefly advanced a #ThankAPublicScholar campaign in light of the risks of intellectual activism, on top of it being a thankless labor. And, later, I wrote a blog post advocating for a bystander intervention approach to supporting intellectual activists; we are all responsible for protecting them from public backlash and threats to academic freedom.

But, for now, we’re truly on our own to navigate this work. I hope this conversation, and future conversations, plants seeds for the necessary changes to support intellectual activism.

This Blog Is Trauma On Display

Eric - Red Scream

This is the most significant public essay that I have ever written. And, it is the most difficult for me write. I imagine by the essay’s end, some readers will feel a greater sense of sympathy for me – and, Goddess help you if you can empathize. Others may find confirmation in their assessment that I am crazy, never to return again to this site. Still others may be unmoved because what I share here is unsurprising based on my earlier writing. Let’s get on with it then.

I was traumatized by my graduate training. My six years in grad school – the journey to a PhD and the tenure-track position that I currently hold – also landed me in therapy two years after graduation. I began seeing a therapist over the summer because I have not been fully enjoying the job for which I fought so hard. For two years, I have lived in fear that I will be fired or denied tenure because of my politics, my activism, my identities, my research, my teaching – all of the very qualities that got me the job in the first place. I have experienced anxiety about how I dress, how I interact with students and colleagues, what I write on this blog, and what advocacy I pursue on and off campus. I haven’t enjoyed my job, and have rarely felt fully present at work; admittedly, I feel a creeping suspicion that I would quit before tenure if I were to continue this way.

I (re)created Conditionally Accepted right after I graduated from Indiana University in 2013. I was fed up with challenges that I had experienced, finding out later how common these barriers were. I had been through things I now know others had, as well, but without the benefit of access to others’ stories and wisdom. There is no reason why any grad student should feel as though they are alone in instances of patterned inequalities and problems in the academy.

On this blog, I have been quite vocal about these challenges. At one point, I even reflected on experiencing “grad school garbage,” alluding to trauma and PTSD. In private journaling, I noticed that I have casually used the term trauma. And, I mentioned the term in sessions with my therapist. But, it took hearing him say it for me to realize how fitting the term is for my experiences and their lasting impact.

“Eric, you experienced a trauma,” my therapist said. I rejected his preliminary diagnosis. I responded that trauma is rape, combat, or having your house burn down. Who gets traumatized in pursuit of an academic degree? Apparently, I did. Eventually, I accepted his assessment. I felt a sense of relief to have a label for my awful experiences, for an outsider to validate just how bad it was. But, it also felt (and still feels) embarrassing. Some peers loved grad school. I was traumatized by it. What’s different about me? What’s wrong with me? Why me? Was it really that bad?

In a later session, my therapist asked about the content of Conditionally Accepted, at least my blog posts. I already knew where the conversation was headed. This blog is trauma on display. Each post that I wrote, including some that never got published on the blog, risked becoming a rant about grad school. I have been stuck in the hurt for two years. My therapist suggested a trauma narrative – the telling of my traumatic experience, which I would work through with his help. This is much more productive than telling and retelling horror stories to anyone who will listen. And, it was. I filled a 70-page spiral notebook with the handwritten telling of every horrific experience, instance of discrimination, and microaggression. When I flipped through the 70 pages, I thought, “who wouldn’t be traumatized by all of this?”

What was so traumatic about my graduate training? I identified four factors that were beyond my control: repeated microaggressions; the devaluing of research on my communities (Black and queer people) as legitimate areas of study; the efforts to “beat the activist out” of me; and, the intense pressure to pursue a career that was not right for me. These factors reflect the structure and culture of graduate training. PhD or not, job or not, any time in that program would inevitably traumatize me. There is no use feeling sorry for myself and wondering what I could have done differently.

How do Black queer activists and other marginalized and radical students avoid such trauma? Maybe I will have an answer upon successfully recovering from my own trauma. I suspect having a community, supportive family and friends, and a strong sense of my values helped to prevent worse trauma. But, these clearly were not enough to prevent the trauma in the first place.

Ultimately, academia would have to change drastically. Diversity as a value would have to mean active recruitment and retention of significant numbers of people of color, LGBTQ people, women, working class people, people with disabilities, fat people, and religious and nonreligious minorities. That, and the valuing of research on and by these populations. And, doing away with the mythology of objectivity and its privileging of scholarship on and by white heterosexual middle-class cisgender men without disabilities. Activism, which has a long history in academia, can no longer be seen as antithetical to academic pursuits. In the 21st century, grad programs must prepare students for the realities of the profession and world. Too few PhDs land tenure-track jobs, and even fewer in reputable research I universities. We should be training the next generation of intellectuals for all possible academic and non-academic jobs, and to be able to respond to the problems of their day.

I am certain that I may continue to process the trauma out loud. But, as my therapist encouraged me, I no longer want to dwell on it. Rather, I want to continue to use this blog as a space to offer resources for current and future scholars of marginalized backgrounds. Maybe, just maybe, I will help one person avoid the traumatic experiences that I endured. At least let me dream of an academia that is safe, equitable, diverse, accessible, and active in the promotion of social justice.

Life’s Turning Points And My Academic Career

"Crossroads - Cruïlla" by MorBCN

“Crossroads – Cruïlla” by MorBCN

My career path thus far has been bumpy and unpredictable.  In this essay, I reflect on major turning points in my life — positive and negative — that have steered my academic career.

College

My loose plans to become a mathematician as a rising high school senior have led me to a career in sociology, working as a professor just one state south of home (Maryland). My goal to attend a liberal arts college for my undergraduate studies did not lead me to become “a big fish in a small pond.”  Yet, today, I am a professor at a liberal arts college. The big price tag and small scholarship offered from those liberal arts colleges were discouraging to my parents. That led me to a state school of medium size, a growing reputation, and that offered a full scholarship for STEM majors. But, within a year, math no longer held my interest, and no other STEM major could.  So, I left the Meyerhoff Scholars Program on blind faith that I would find alternative funding. I did, without constraints on my major.  I ended up double-majoring in sociology and psychology, with a certificate in women’s studies.

Early in college at the University of Maryland Baltimore County (UMBC), I took a leadership role in the school’s LGBTQ student group. Though I moved on to the student events planning group – a much bigger budget, more clout – I began advocating for the creation of a campus resource center for LGBTQ students, as well as other LGBTQ initiatives. At the peak of our group’s efforts, we caught the attention and commitment of the university’s president. But, our efforts were stalled by the bureaucratic response of creating a university task force to conduct a needs assessment.

I turned my attention to graduating and applying to graduate schools.  I was encouraged by two advisors in sociology to devote my honors thesis to a topic that would help to advance my advocacy, and help me to look good to grad school admissions committees. I decided to study anti-LGBTQ attitudes among students at UMBC. With my advisors’ support and encouragement, as well as that from other faculty, staff, administrators, and fellow students, I felt validated in pursuing a career as an activist-scholar. I had finally seen that one could forge a career that brought together teaching, research, and advocacy.

Then, There Was Grad School…

I looked to continue on the path of becoming an activist-scholar beyond graduation.  As with many (naive) student-activist, I assumed graduate school would help me to become a better activist.  But, I prioritized finding a program that would help me excel academically.  Weighing possibilities of student affairs, gender studies, and sociology, I decided on PhD programs in the latter field because I assumed it may afford access to the other two fields, but not vice versa. I applied to programs with strengths in sexualities, including those that might allow training in gender studies (e.g., joint PhD, MA, or graduate minor). Half of the six schools rejected me, half accepted me. The collegiality and resources at Indiana University made the decision even easier.

I entered grad school with the goal of studying queer people of color and racism in LGBTQ communities using qualitative methods. But, I soon learned every detail of that plan was not considered “mainstream” sociology. Those interests — a joint PhD in gender studies, for example — were not encouraged, for they would not lead to (R1) jobs. And, it was made clear that grad school is designed to “beat the activist” out of students. Those marginal interests to which I clang became private matters – secrets, even. The rest were lost in pursuit of a mainstream career.

I was not certain that I would even get past the master’s degree. I was miserable during my first year, and then depressed in my second. During winter break of Year 2, a major car accident that coincided with (or was caused by) a bad stomach virus rendered me unable to care for myself. I couldn’t even open a bottle of pain reliever because of my badly injured hand. My mother, though angry that I totaled her car, looked after me for a few days.  I felt helpless, yet extremely grateful for my mother’s care.

Something about the experience forced me to make a tough decision: leave grad school already or make it work!  I was wasting my time being miserable. So, I decided to stay and threw myself into my work. Teaching for the first time during my third year was a saving grace. So, the unforeseen curse of the blessing of a fellowship was being unable to teach; I was “freed” from teaching to focus on research. The severity of my Generalized Anxiety Disorder became worse late in Year 4.  I asked my advisors whether I could defer my fellowship for one year to teach during Year 5, citing concerns about my mental health.  My request was mocked as foolish, and my mental health problems were dismissed.  One professor theorized the mental illness stemmed from “too much service”; another told me “a little bit of anxiety is good” to fuel productivity.  I decided to make my fifth year the last before going on the job market.

Three Funerals And A Wedding

While focusing exclusively on research, I stumbled into research on discrimination and health, which later became the topic of my dissertation.  I presented my first paper on discrimination and health at the 2011 annual meeting of the American Sociological Association in Las Vegas.  I felt the presentation went well.  But, during the Q&A, two senior scholars argued back and forth about the measures I used.  The paper seemed hopelessly doomed.  But, after the session ended, another senior scholar said to me, “great paper!”  I felt reassured.  When he leaned a little more, his tame tag fell, displaying one of the biggest names in medical sociology!

That evening, my parents and I had dinner. When my mother left the table, my dad looked at me seriously and said, “don’t forget what is most important to you – to make a difference.” His words surprised me. I began to tear up, trying to hide it by looking away.  But, I should not have been surprised, as my parents know that I am an activist, and are aware I pursued graduate training to better equip me to make a difference.  I suspect he saw how excited I was following the successful presentation, and worried I might get caught up in academic fame or prestige, thus losing sight of the world outside of the ivory tower.

Before we left Las Vegas, there was an earthquake in the DC area – very unusual for home. And, on their flight home, my parents received word that my 19-year-old cousin, Danny, had passed away from a grand mal seizure. I had to stay in Indiana for a week before going to Maryland for his funeral. I cried sometimes, but the weight of this tragedy did not fully hit me until I was with other grieving family.  At Danny’s funeral, grief seemed to strike me hard.  At one point, I cried heavily into my hands for five minutes, which felt like forever. My parents took turns holding me, attempting to console me. I hadn’t been held by them like that since I was a child. I guess I have not needed it since then. I was also sick at the time – pneumonia (something I had never had before then).  I was out from work for another week after the funeral to recover.

The very unexpected silver lining from this tragedy was meeting my partner, Eric, on my way back from the airport.  I initially told him that I was not interested in a relationship because I was grieving.  I did not want to burden someone whom I was just beginning to date by relying on him emotionally so heavily.  But, I slowly opened to the idea over time, though making very clear that I was planning to graduate and leave Indiana within two years; I was not looking for anything casual.  So, we became official.

Danny’s death, and all of these other events, changed something in me. After thirteen years of atheism, I found myself questioning things. Out of such a tragedy that I thought would confirm my atheism, I ended up believing again. Maybe there was something meaningful to come from his death. The not-so-coincidental illness that followed forced me to take my own health seriously. Life could end at any moment. Do I want to waste it selling out, attempting to appease others, or chasing status?  No!

In summer 2012, I published my first solo-authored paper in the Journal of Health and Social Behavior, the top journal in medical sociology in the US.  So, I felt confident to go on the job market in my sixth year. I faced resistance in going so early (by the department’s standards), but I was not convinced it would benefit me to stay longer.  “But, you’ll have more time to think,” was not selling me on the idea of another year on grad student wages.  Department funding was not guaranteed.  And, I could barely muster the patience to even finish my sixth year, let alone one or two more years thereafter.

Shortly after my successful proposal defense, I attended my sister and her partner’s wedding.  Caught up in the sentiment of the day, I felt I knew, then, that I wanted to get married, and that I wanted it to be with my partner, Eric. But, the happy day was eclipsed by news that my uncle was in the hospital. He had stomach cancer. He died within a month – pneumonia. He was HIV-positive – a consequence (I was told) of being in the closet all of his life, having secretive and possibly condomless sex with other men. If he could have been out, would he still be alive today? The contrast of my sister’s wedding (she’s white and middle-class) to my uncle’s death (he was a Black, poor, frequencly-homeless veteran) was striking. Inequality aside, I found yet another sign from the universe: be authentic.

At the start of my final semester, my grandfather fell and hit his head. He had an aneurism. There was hope of recovery; at 97 years, what could stop him now? But, he later had a stroke and ultimately passed. I flew to Pittsburgh from Indiana along with my cousin, who had already been attending IU for a year, though we had never connected until then.  Just as we made it to the hospice, our grandfather passed. It was as though he heard our call from downstairs and decided to pass on rather than let us see him suffering. My sister and I weren’t out to him, but apparently he already knew. I felt I had missed my chance to be totally open with him; our father didn’t think grandpa would understand because of his age. But, I was more disappointed that he wouldn’t make it to my graduation in just four months. I knew ailing health or not, he would be there – he promised me that. Almost 100 years on earth! What was his secret? The four Hs, of course: “health, hope, happiness, and home.” The man danced when and where he pleased – literally. What’s the point of embarrassment?

A New Perspective

I may be weird, maybe too reflective for looking for signs and meaning. But, it seemed the universe started to scream at me to get me to listen: life is short. Why not live authentically? Why not live it up without shame and embarrassment?  Why let a career control my life?

In the past few years, I have worked to live in the moment, to assume today could be my last. I have begun prioritizing self-care and authenticity in my life, and my career.  I chose a job that celebrates a commitment to teaching, community service, and even advocacy (even my advocacy). Today, I am working on becoming healthier and more authentic en route to tenure. I refuse to keep putting my life, my family, and my values on hold until I … get a job … get tenure … get a promotion … die?  I need job security, but I don’t need an institution to define my worth. (I did my time in grad school. Enough already!)

I hope what others take from this is encouragement to let life offer new directions. Check yourself – how often do you let your job’s demands dictate your life? Do you only consider your health, family, personal life, etc., after the fact, if ever? Do you fill up your schedule only to get angry when life pushes back on work-life imbalances? Do you work until you are exhausted or sick?  Do you put off X until you… get a job/tenure/full professor/retire/die?

I have learned from having a form of mental illness, now for four years, that our bodies tell us when they need something – rest, food, sleep, water, activity. When you chronically ignore it, you set yourself up for health problems. Now, I have to check my body for physical manifestations of anxiety and stress: chest pains, numbness, tightened muscles, shortness of breath, eye-twitching, digestive problems, insomnia, teeth-grinding, headaches, nausea, bad dreams, etc. I am still working to change my perspective, work habits, and lifestyle to effectively manage and hopefully eliminate the anxiety. Allowing those turning points in life has been a matter of health.

It is not too late for me to make changes, though I wish I didn’t need three deaths in the family and anxiety to push me to change. It is my hope that future generations of scholars learn to prioritize self-care from the start of their careers – and that their advisors equip them with the tools and resources to do so.  It would make academia a healthier and happier place.

I Suffer From Tenure-Track Stress

I have heard the term before — tenure-track stress.  I have decided to recognize it as a real condition, one that encompasses a set of stressors associated with the tenure-track for junior faculty.  As a critical medical sociologist, I am hesitant to medicalize yet another social experience, recognizing that the illness and appropriate cure lie within the individual sufferer rather than society — or, in this case, academia.  But, like minority stress (i.e., prejudice, discrimination, and stigmatization that threaten the well-being of minority groups), the qualifier — tenure-track  — explicitly denotes the external source of such stress.

As I understand the tenure-track, it represents a probationary period in which one is expected to establish themselves as a scholar (i.e., research, teaching, service — in that order…).  The carrot that dangles at the end of the stick is lifetime job security (or “lifetime” “job security,” with scare quotes, depending on your perspective).  Cut-throat, status-obsessed colleges and universities tend to take a “sink or swim” approach, others attempt to offer transparency and support to facilitate success on the tenure track, and, still others defy classification because they don’t have a clear approach to the tenure-track process.  Ironically, the demands to achieve tenure have steadily risen over time as such positions have become more rare (i.e., 75 percent of PhDs do not secure a tenure-track position after they graduate).

Origins Of Tenure-Track Stress

Recently, I discovered that the path to earning tenure (for me, as with most, a 6 year period [2013-2019]) has brought on a high level of stress that I have never experienced before.  In my six years of graduate school, I felt stressed about the dreaded academic job market and publishing to improve my odds on it; but, I never doubted that I would graduate.  Despite my success as a PhD student, even defying expectations, I regularly carry doubt and anxiety about earning tenure.  Though too infrequently, I sometimes stood up to professors, I let my voice be heard, but I never feared that I would be dismissed from the program.  Now, as a professor, I am relieved each day that I have not been fired.  Grad schools have a 50 percent completion rate, but around 80 percent of assistant professors earn tenure.  It is literally irrational, as indicated by these numbers, for me to fret about tenure while I assumed success in grad school.

What is unique about the tenure-track, then?  The two most obvious differences for me are the loss of readily accessible mentorship and peer support.  The training wheels have come off.  I am certainly welcome to email or call my dissertation committee members and friends from graduate school — but, only once in a while.  Even if they didn’t take issue with more frequent contact, my own self-doubt would gnaw at me if I felt that I needed help often.  My grad program did its job in getting me into a faculty position to carry on with the same success, but also continue to grow professionally.  Senior colleagues at my current institution are available for advice, but I cannot expect them to mentor me intensely; I would do myself a disservice to let those who will evaluate me for tenure suspect that I cannot handle the job on my own.

I also want to suggest that the expectations for tenure are growing and, yet, still ambiguous.  But, I would never conclude that the expectations to graduate (and subsequently get a job) were easy and transparent.  My grad department had few explicit milestones, wherein success in a broad sense was to be learned through independent research (i.e., dissertation, thesis, other projects).  In either context, when I ask 10 people what it takes to be successful, I receive 10 different answers (if not more).  So, I cannot say confidently that the tenure-track is more stressful because of unclear standards.

Of course, there are a great deal more expectations.  My advisors were not lying when they joked that graduate students have a lot of free time relative to faculty (at least in terms of work).  The teaching load increases (for many, if not most, of us), the service requests pile up, all while we must publish more and become more visible in our discipline and subfields.  Each day, I feel pulled between self-care (so that I do not burn myself out before I even file for tenure) and getting everything done (so that I won’t be asked to leave before tenure).  Oh, and sprinkle in trying to find ways to make a difference in the world!

There is also another, somewhat perverse source of tenure-track stress: you are expected to be stressed.  I don’t mean the process is so stressful that we have come to expect it; this is a given.  I mean that some colleagues have indicated that it is a part of my job to be stressed.  I have noticed that some tend to evaluate the worth of junior faculty, in part, based on how stressed they are.  Being “cool, calm, and collected” is seen as suspicious; such lucky bastards people must not be doing enough (including just worrying).  I have acknowledged that I sometimes play into this because a self-doubting, validation-needing junior professor (male privilege acknowledged, here) can win the sympathy and support of senior colleagues that a confident, self-assured (read: smug, arrogant, uppity) junior professor would not.  I am guilty of playing the role expected of me as a tenure-track professor.

Symptoms Of Tenure-Track Stress

Having experienced Generalized Anxiety Disorder for almost 5 years now, I recognize that tenure-track stress shares symptoms with other forms of distress and mental illness.  (And, I recognize that my own case of tenure-track stress is exacerbated by my preexisting, actually-in-the-DSM mental illness.)  There’s constant worry, insomnia, neglecting self-care, and various physical symptoms (e.g., headache, depressed immune function, body aches).  But, I have found there are unusual symptoms that suggest tenure-track stress is its own beast.  I will sprink in some treatments and “cures” along the way, as well.

Constant Comparisons With Others

I began 2015 doing one thing that I said I would stop doing in 2014: comparing myself to others.  My laptop was already on since my partner and I watched the ball drop online on new year’s eve in New York city; otherwise, I try to stay off of the computer when I am at home as a drastic means of leaving work at work.  I stumbled across a fellow academic’s blog, seeing just how much money they had received through grants.  “What am I doing with my life?” I wondered.  Frustrated, I went to bed, only to spiral from envy about grants to anxiety about my slow-moving projects.  This was not the way I wanted to start the new year.

I have sometimes wondered, “we can do that?” — especially when I hear about friends’ and colleagues’ novel and unusual accomplishments.  Soon-to-be-Dr. Tressie McMillan Cottom compiled some of her blog posts into a book.  We can do that?  Dr. Manya Whitaker started her own business.  We can do that — and before tenure?  A few friends have broken the “lavender ceiling” in sociology by publishing on sexualities in the discipline’s top journals.  We’re doing that now?  I am incredibly happy that my talented friends are beginning to share their smarts with the world in incredible ways.  But, I would be lying if I said that I wasn’t a little green with envy.

Besides these comparisons to junior faculty and advanced grad students, I sometimes look at the CVs of established senior colleagues as though they were baseball trading cards.  And, while I admire their work for a nanosecond, I reliably fall into the trap of feeling inadequate.  “There’s no way I can accomplish all of that!” I say discouragingly to myself.  “There’s no way I can publish all of that,” I think as I look at the CVs of peers and senior colleagues at research-intensive universities.  It is illogical — yes, it simply defies logic — for me to compare myself at a liberal arts college, only 1.75 years into the tenure-track, to scholars nearing retirement, as well as those of any seniority at other institutions.  I have found some solace in remembering to use senior colleagues at my own institution as indicators of successful tenure cases.  But, even then, the comparisons elicit some anxiety.

I suspect the cure, at least for this symptom, is to recognize that I will never find a fair comparison, and to appreciate that there are many ways to be an academic.  It is unfair to compare my record to those of others because I do not know every detail of their personal and professional lives.  Some people are wildly successful in terms of publishing because they are supported by research assistants who are paid but not given authorship credit.  Some publish more slowly because their method requires a long, painstaking process of data coding and analysis.  Some people are “rockstars” but are miserable, some people have a few pubs but are content.  More importantly, I must remind myself that publishing is only one task; I also deeply value teaching, academic service, community service, and activism.

Self-Doubt And Selling Myself Short

I have come to recognize that these comparisons are a consequence of the desire to become an academic rockstar.  But, it has taken me a little while longer to recognize that I tend to unknowingly discount my own accomplishments, talents, and strengths in comparing myself to others.  On the tenure-track front, I’m not doing so bad for myself — two publications in print with another on the way, a dissertation award, one paper currently under review with a few more in the works for this year.  I am competent enough in my classes to receive generally positive course evaluations, with numerous students taking subsequent courses with me.  I served on my department’s job search last semester, and am becoming more involved with the university’s LGBTQ office.  And, despite warnings of my impending irrelevance by taking a liberal arts job, I have been invited to run or be appointed for various positions in my discipline.  I think it is safe to say I am doing alright for a 30-year-old.

Sure, I will toot my own horn once more.  This blog’s visibility has spread farther and more quickly than I could have ever imagined.  I was recently surprised to begin seeing other people share our posts in Facebook groups before I did.  A few people have referred to Conditionally Accepted as a resource.  Sure, the blog is not a book (yet?), or an organization/business (yet???), or a publication in some top journal (but, I’ve got other projects in mind).  But, not many people can say they have a platform outside of the classroom, outside of university meetings, and outside of academic journals to speak publicly about inequality in academia.  I deserve to give myself a little more credit for creating such a space, while still being successful at things that “count” for tenure and maintaining some semblance of work-life balance.

And, in general, I do not have a record of major failures in my professional life.  Sure, I stumbled at the beginning of college, and then again in graduate school.  I started college in a scholarship program that was not a good fit academically (and socially and politically); but, I was able to switch to an open scholarship and then thrived as a sociology major.  I started graduate school miserable, totally unprepared for the professional socialization process and naive about inequality in the academy.  But, I eventually secured a fellowship, which allowed me to graduate early with a great job lined up.  The tenure-track has not started with a stumble (knock on wood), which may mean that I’ll be even more successful without time lost on regrouping, reevaluating, naivete, etc.  I would say that I am pretty resilient, especially with the support of family, friends, and colleagues.  Doubting my success as a professor just doesn’t make sense, but I still struggle with self-doubt.

Impatience

A symptom related to discounting my success thus far is a self-imposed demand for immediate success.  I have been provided six years to establish myself before filing for tenure.  Yet, I have repeatedly told myself “if only I can get that ASR, then I can relax!”  That is, once I have achieved the gold standard of scholarship — in this case, publishing in the top journal in sociology, American Sociological Review — then there is little doubt that I have proven myself as a scholar.  Of course, I feel behind because I know of a few PhDs who already had ASRs before graduation, and have come across junior scholars with that gold star on their CVs.

What I tend to forget, besides the foolishness of comparing myself, is that scholars grow and progress at different speeds, along different paths.  I am keenly aware that those with ASRs before tenure, or even before graduation, are generally white, cis men, straight, and/or from middle-class families, and did not struggle during the first two years of graduate school.  They didn’t waste time and energy trying to navigate (and, sometimes, fight against) the professional socialization of graduate school.  And, most who I know aren’t attempting to publish on marginal scholarship (e.g., sexualities, trans studies, intersectionality).  An ASR for my relatively privileged colleagues is a professional success; for me, it will feel like a damn victory for every underdog in academia.

I have been reminded by other underdog colleagues that achieving that gold star is not only rare, but extremely rare early in one’s career.  For most who achieve an ASR or their own field’s equivalent, it took the culmination of year’s of work, building up to some discipline-moving idea.  It takes time to build up one’s reputation and for the resistance against one’s ideas to lessen.  It is silly to think that I would reach such great heights so early in my career.  I am confident that I will publish in ASR in the years to come, and the reward will be that much sweeter for having to work for it rather than getting it right away.

I should note that this symptom is almost exclusive to the domain of research.  I don’t find myself racing to start a new class, or to prepare lectures weeks in advance, or to get to a department meeting, and so forth.  I feel much more calm and content when I think of research, along with everything else, as just a part of my 8am-6pm job.  Slow and steady wins the race!

Self-Restraint And Waiting For Permission

While a pat on the head, and being told “easy tiger,” would assuage some of my impatience, I still acknowledge that I hold back on doing certain things that I would like to do.  As I said earlier, some neat things are simply outside of my purview — “wow, we can do that?”  It is as though I am waiting for permission (i.e., tenure) to begin living, to begin taking chances as a scholar, to begin being myself.  Frankly, I am too scared to do certain things that I worry will lead to a tenure denial or a tarnished/non-existent academic reputation in general.  I obsess daily about what to wear to work, fearing that anything short of a suit and tie is too casual but also hating the discomfort of professional attire designed for skinny white bodies.  I often feel on edge in my interactions with colleagues, administration, and students, worrying I might slip and reveal my true self.  Despite being vocal (but still restrained) online, I bite my tongue and downplay my radical activist self at work.  Who am I fooling?  (Myself.)

This self-restraint is fueled by fear, as well as relying on models of success who don’t look like me and don’t share my values and goals.  I do myself a huge disservice by thinking inside the box — what does it mean to be successful by mainstream academic standards?  Sure, I pushed back against the pressure to “go R1,” and I publicly declared my efforts to do tenure my way.  But, I would be lying if I said I didn’t cling to normative academic standards as markers for success.  I know, in being “conditionally accepted” in academia, I can be all of these identities or I can do radical work (including activism) — but, not both if I expect to be taken seriously in the mainstream of sociology.  I don’t see many outspoken fat multiracial queer feminist men in academia… or any, really, besides me.  So, why risk my position?  Would I rather keep my job or empower my communities?  Would I rather wear a noose tie or demand that my medical sociology class focus on transgender health?

Maybe there aren’t others who identically mirror my social location, values, and goals.  But, there are others who have been thinking outside of the box for years.  They haven’t been waiting for permission to speak, to critique, to exist.  I am embarrassed to admit that I have only recently really paid attention to Sociologists for Women in Society — a professional organization that explicitly notes that it helps to “nurture feminist scholarship and make both the academy and the broader society a more just and feminist place.”  I’ve known of SWS all along, but never got more involved than paying membership dues.  Unfortunately, I couldn’t attend this year’s winter meeting, and my summer plans remain up in the air; but, I seriously considered attending once I saw that the organization genuinely lives up to this mission.  For years, I have only seriously been involved in the discipline’s major organization, American Sociological Association, because I have clung to the “mainstream.”  I have missed out on involvement in the Association for Black Sociologists, Society for the Study of Social Problems, among other critical and activist oriented organizations.

This symptom of tenure-track stress, the denial of my own authenticity, will slowly eat me alive if I leave it unchecked.  I risk finding myself either completely “souled out” (albeit tenured) or bitter and exhausted, perhaps having left academia all together.  I learned early in graduate school that feeding my soul was just as crucial to my survival as feeding my body.  I seem to have forgotten that lesson — or, the intense effort to de-radicalize my image while on the job market caused this amnesia.  I recognize now that my ticket to gracefully crossing the finish line to tenure is to be successful while being myself.  I made sure to accept a job offer at a place that promised to support me as me, so it’s about time I took the school up on it.

Closing Thoughts

I did my time in graduate school.  I emerged that traumatic chapter of my life alive, albeit bruised and battered from efforts to “beat the activist” out of me.  I am slow to trust others’ assessments of my success because I have been doubted and dismissed in the past.  But, I must overcome tenure-track stress once and for all.  To the extent that I can, I aim to enjoy the ride, appreciating the feedback and support I receive along the way.  I aim to do tenure my way so that I can mentor future junior colleagues with confidence, rather than advise them to to sell out, shut up, and stress out.  There is more than one way to be a successful academic, and one of them should never be “just be stressed 24/7.”

Graduate School, I Forgive You

Graduation, May 2013

Graduation, May 2013

Over the summer, I received a notification that my online university accounts at my graduate institution were terminated.  It had been a year since I officially graduated and began working at another school.  I knew that this moment would come eventually, but I was surprised that I felt the slightest bit of sadness about it.  This was it.  That chapter of my life was officially over, and my ties to the institution no longer existed (excluding friendships and professional relationships, of course).

I could not wait to get out of graduate school, but I have continued to struggle to recover from it over the past year and a half.  I had hoped that I would write a few posts to work through what I called “graduate school garbage,” and make available the experiences and resources that were not available to me as I attempted to forge my own career path.  Shortly after, I would shift to providing advice for graduate students and fellow junior scholars.  But, that has not happened yet.  Over a year after I made the public declaration to pursue tenure my way, I continue to struggle with fear, self-doubt, and the emotional baggage of graduate school.

Time To Move On

Although the elimination of my online accounts made the chapter’s end officially official, I already suspected that I was overdue for beginning to move on with my life.  On occasion, I have successfully churned out an essay of advice.  But, I sometimes have to write out the awful experiences that led to suggestions for better ways of doing things; I simply delete that part of the narrative, or use it sparingly to contextualize my advice.  During my last attempt to write a post on advice, I had a page-long rant about graduate school with no advice, which I ultimately deleted.

It seems as though I am not yet at the point where my writing on and conversations about graduate school are exclusively or at least mostly advice-giving.  And, I worry that I am developing a reputation for simply complaining or “trashing” my graduate program (see the comments section of this post).  Even outside of blogging, I find myself blaming the challenges of grad school for ongoing anxiety, self-doubt, awkwardness in interactions with students and colleagues, and uncertainty about navigating academic spaces.  I fear I have become a wounded, broken record.  “Okay, we get it,” I imagine people saying, “graduate school sucked.  Move on already!”

I feel stuck.  Why am I still working through the trauma of grad school?  Am I forever changed, or will the disappointment and resentment dissipate over time?

Forgiveness

Moving on will not be enough.  Or, as we mean “move on” in a casual sense — just stop thinking about the past and focus on the present — will not be effective, at least not as quickly as I would like.  It recently dawned on me that the key to successfully moving on is probably to make peace with the previous chapter of my life.  That is, it is time to forgive everything and everyone related to my graduate training.

What would it mean to forgive graduate school?  I realize that it sounds odd, that I am implying that I have been wronged in some way and have decided to forgive.  I was not intentionally harmed or deceived or excluded by someone or something (well, rarely, if ever).  But, I suspect thinking only of intentional wrong-doing as acts that are forgivable is what makes this seem odd.

I see offering forgiveness, in part, as finding good or positive intentions within a limited, complex, or even oppressive context.  I can use my parents’ journey to accepting me as their unapologetically queer son as an example.  If I refused to understand their initial disappointment and fear from any perspective other than my own, I likely would have stood my ground in cutting ties with them at age 19.  They wanted to protect me from homophobia and the consequences it has in queer people’s lives; but, they failed to see how their own intolerance contributed to those hardships in my life.  After some time, I realized how hard I was on them, demanding immediate and total acceptance (or else kicking them out of my life).  I ignored that they had been raised in a homophobic society, and did not have the knowledge and skills (and confidence) to support a queer child.

Graduate programs have a set of norms, values, and practices that, unfortunately, often do not reflect my own values, needs, and interests.  I came to graduate school as an activist, and wanted to leave graduate school as an even better activist.  Whether I agree with the sentiment that academic careers are not designed for scholars with activist leanings (I surely do not agree!), the heart of graduate training is research with a sprinkle of teaching (if you are lucky).  When put in those terms, it does not make sense to resent grad school for failing to train me as an activist; that is like damning an eye doctor for failing to address my anxiety.  But, to my credit, it was not made explicit until midway through my training that academia and activism do not mix (in some people’s minds).

There were mentors who did support me as an activist, though to the best of their abilities as academics and within the bounds of what graduate training is really about.  This recognition seems crucial to beginning the process of forgiving.  My mentors did the best that they could, and their intentions were to mold me into a strong scholar so that I would have as many professional opportunities as possible.  Since formal training for graduate education is uncommon (does it even exist?), it seems many professors simply mentor in ways that worked for them, or in ways they wish they were mentored as students.  In many ways, it seems like parenting; there are a plethora of books, but no real, universal guide to being a good mentor.  They make it up as they go.  And, as with my parents, my advisors probably struggled with knowing how to mentor a student like me.

Why Forgiveness Matters

I should be clear that, in forgiving graduate school, I am not excusing negative or hurtful things that happened to me.  I see many problems with graduate education that warrant improvement.  And, it seems silly to challenge myself to forget the foundational training of my academic career.  At this early stage — in which I acknowledge I am a novice at this notion of forgiveness — I see this journey primarily as understanding my graduate training from a broader perspective, and choosing to focus on and appreciate the positive aspects of that chapter of my life.

First and foremost, the need to forgive everything and everyone is urgent because I need to move on.  It does me no good to carry baggage from the previous chapter of my life.  I am getting in the way of fully appreciating the current chapter.  For example, as I continue to replay conversations about the kinds of jobs I should (and should not) apply to, I unintentionally force myself to second guess my decision to work at a liberal arts university.  Am I really happy here?   Well, yes, I am!  I am tired of frequently doing the math in my head to remind myself that I fought for this job, a job that is great for me in so many ways, and that I see no reasons to seriously consider leaving.  In other words, it seems as long as I ruminate over the past, I cannot fully appreciate the present.

Second, I tend to ignore the positive aspects of my graduate training by obsessing over the negatives.  I received training at one of the top sociology programs in the nation, which opened many doors for my career.  I became, in my humble opinion, a strong scholar and teacher.  In some ways, I was even supported in developing my own type of academic career.  Overall, I do not regret attending the program, or pursuing a PhD in general.  I made friendships that I suspect will last a lifetime.  As long as I cling to resentment, I hesitate to connect with my mentors, which I now realize is a foolish mistake because they can (and probably will) remain mentors for life.  I actually limit the good that came from my graduate training by maintaining my resentment-filled distance.

Finally, I need to relinquish the victim status I have unconsciously developed.  I tend to think of what I endured and the compromises I made in order to get my PhD; I tend to lose sight of what I gained.  It is too easy to focus on the ways in which I am wounded — fearful, uncertain, lacking confidence — rather than feeling empowered.  In a way, the path to forgiveness will probably entail forgiving myself.  What I endured was not so much loss or compromise as it was an investment for developing the kind of career I want.  I did the best that I could; and, even with a few bumps and bruises, I actually did pretty damn well.  Even just in writing this paragraph, I suddenly feel a sense of pride that is probably stuffed under the resentment, disappointment, and doubt.

Concluding Thoughts

Where this path goes is as much of a mystery to me as it is to you.  I will not be surprised by bumps and setbacks, tapping into pockets of my spirit that I did not know were still bound by anger and hurt.  I hope, once successful, that I can comfortably focus on the present and reflect on the past only to provide useful advice to others.  I will even challenge myself, starting now, to write about the previous chapter of my life only if to offer advice, or privately if it will help work toward forgiveness.

Academia is toxic enough.  I plan to become a voice of hope and kindness.