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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.
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 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.
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.
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 o
ut. There is more than one way to be a successful academic, and one of them should never be “just be stressed 24/7.”
I am worried about my fellow academics (broadly defined). Many of us suffer from what I wish to call the “one-body problem.” I am borrowing here from the term, “two-body problem,” which refers to the challenge of navigating the academic job market along with your (also) academic partner or spouse. But, I mean “body” in a more literal, physical sense — the responsibility of taking care of one’s body. It seems that some of us become so overworked and overwhelmed, either trying to meet high (and growing) demands and/or pushing ourselves to meet unrealistic standards. Consequently, our health and well-being take a toll.
Speaking From Experience
I still steam a bit today when I recall being told by a professor that the mental health of graduate students is not a major departmental concern. The
excuse rationale was that (presumably) many of students come to graduate school with preexisting mental health problems. If you were depressed when you entered the program, that is on you! Now, good luck finishing your PhD in a timely manner… The dismissal was disappointing, but the assertion was personally insulting.
Yes, I experienced teenage angst. And, I was depressed at times, a reasonable state for pretending to be heterosexual through my childhood and adolescence. Just like the depression I experienced at the start of college, I was depressed through my first two years of graduate school. Sure, that all seems like reasonable, and predictable distress through an adjustment period. But, when I hit the lowest point, letting graduate school push me to contemplating suicide, I knew it was time to make a radical change or get the hell out. Fortunately, my university’s counseling services offered to put me in time-management group therapy… you know, to make time for suicide between classes. (The lack of mental health services for graduate students warrants its own blog post…). I decided to make graduate school work for me, as there was nothing else that I envisioned myself doing at that point in my life.
By my third year of grad school — a generally content period because I began teaching — I was experiencing chest pains. Eventually, I saw a doctor because I worried it might be heart problems or hypertension. But, also suspected it might be the symptom of some mental health problem. Fortunately, the first physician I saw had the great recommendation to have sex to alleviate stress — an outlet with little worry about sexually transmitted infections because I was having sex with middle-class white women (or so he assumed). I decided to see another physician thereafter, a doctor with a D.O. degree (and the promise of holistic care). She immediately suggested it might be anxiety, but had me rule out all physical causes first — heartburn medication, stress test, cardiologist visits — oh, thank goodness for health insurance! Once those were ruled out, I searched for a therapist.
“Generalized Anxiety Disorder.” My new therapist said it so casually. Over the year or so that I saw her, much of our conversation focused on the stress of graduate school — both real, external demands, and those that I hyperinternalized. In my mind, research was the main source of the anxiety I experienced, so I decided to take a year-long break from my research fellowship to teach — nope. I was told that it would be foolish to “give up” a break from teaching. And, even in disclosing “but, I have anxiety,” I was told a little bit of anxiety is good fuel for your productivity. So, I pushed on, anxiety and all. Certainly, I feel I was successful on the research front, and graduated early by my department’s standards. But, not without some daily manifestation of anxiety: chest pains, lightheadedness, numbness in limbs, sore throats, eye-twitching, insomnia, nausea, shooting pain in my hip, etc. I suspect the anxiety also made me vulnerable to other health problems I faced, like pneumonia, an allergic reaction to allergy medicine in my eyes, and multiple instances of strep throat.
Today, I have the anxiety under better control. But, when I fail to take care of myself efficiently, and I let “should” pile up the many self-imposed demands, it can easily rear its ugly head. Yes, if it were not for my body’s resistance, I probably would have given in to the pressure to take a job at a research-intensive university.
Make Self-Care Mandatory
Unfortunately, it took the sudden death of my 19-year-old cousin in 2011, followed by three more relatives’ deaths, and the recent passing of a friend and colleague, to force me to recognize my mortality and fragility. It has been driven into my head and my heart that tomorrow is not promised to me. If I die today, I should be able to do so proud of what I have made of my life and what I have done for others. Around my office, I have little phrases, poems, and lists that emphasize living well, including the tenure-track as a “7-year postdoc.” I do not resent that my body’s negative response to the stressful demands of graduate school altered my career path. After all, my brain would be out of a job if the rest of my body dies.
Yes, we know well that we must be amazing teachers, prolific scholars, and serving on every committee possible in order to get a job, get tenure, get promoted, and any other academic milestone. But, many of us fail to prioritize self-care as a part of our career. What are you doing to ensure that you will even be alive long enough to get tenure, become full professor, or leave/retire from academia to start a second career? What are you doing to ensure that you can achieve these career goals and be happy, and have a life, and feel healthy rather than depleted and frazzled?
I will say that one important starting point is to address the root of any mental health problems (or threats to your mental health):
- The first is to take a hard look at your career, specifically the demands placed upon you and the obstacles you face. How much are they affecting your health? Is that compromise to your health worth the professional gains (in the long run)? Is there something you can do differently, or do less of, or even just change how you think about it?
- Second, catch yourself when you start to think of your brain and your body as separate entities. I have too often found myself cursing my body for needing something that interrupted or limited my work. I find myself negotiating with my bladder to let me finish writing that one last paragraph; instead, I should be seeing bathroom breaks as necessary mental breaks (which help productivity). The mind-body connection is way outside of my expertise, so I appreciate the blogging of Dr. Crystal Fleming at Aware of Awareness on this topic.
- Third, acknowledge that self-care is a political act 1) in pushing back against the institutional and cultural norms that increasingly demand unhealthy working conditions and 2) in daring to survive as a marginalized person in an oppressive society or institution. You cannot wait for an institution that would rather you devote your life exclusively to your job to take care of you and provide necessary breaks. You cannot expect the very institution that exposes you to discrimination, harassment, and undermining as a marginalized scholar to provide the resources to survive, let alone thrive. Each semester, we are asked to make proper accommodations for our students’ abilities and health status, but the question of our own needs is never raised.
Beyond that, I do not have great advice for taking care of yourself. Here are a few places to look for advice on self-care:
- See Dr. Dawne Mouzon’s guest blog post on wellness. Also see this post on dealing with imposter syndrome.
- Check out the Crunk Feminist Collective great advice on self-care for marginalized scholars, including “Back-to-school Beatitudes: 10 Academic Survival Tips.”
- Dr. Karen Kelsy’s list of mental health resources at TheProfessorIsIn.com. She also has blog posts, including guest blog posts by other scholars, on mental illness in academia — check them out.
- See resources and advice offered by the American Psychological Association for academics.
- Jessica Redacted often writes about her struggles with depression as a graduate student on her blog, Academic Follower of Fashion.
- “5 Tips for Coping with Grad School Stress” by Dr. Tara Kuther.
- GradHacker.org has several posts on health and well-being, particularly for graduate students. See a great recent post, “Remembering Your Humanity as a Graduate Student; Or, ‘Hey, I’m Still a Person!’“
- “Coping with Academic Pressure” from GradResources.org.
- And, please consider writing a guest blog post on health, wellness, and staying well-rounded!
This post is not to be confused with anything related to Steve Harvey’s book, Act Like a Lady, Think Like a Man (or the movie, Think Like A Man). I know nothing about it, but a quick internet search confirms my suspicion that I am saving myself from a waste of time and anger by avoiding it.
Rather, this is a post about embracing one’s inner confidence in academia. From reading The Ultimate Guide to Grad School Survival by Lesli Mitchell years ago, the one suggestion that sticks out in my memory is to pretend you are a drag queen at academic conferences:
Pretend you’re someone else who has more confidence. I pretend I’m a drag queen when I do a reading (p. 160).
Mitchell offers this advice to overcome the nervousness and doubt we experience as we prepare for public speaking, particularly presenting at a conference. Many people experience anxiety about public speaking — not just academics. In part, this is because we want to do a great job. But an internal voice (really, a critic) raises concerns that we are not strong enough, prepared enough, or qualified enough. And, this is compounded by the fear of being negatively evaluated by our audience, and/or that something will go wrong during the talk.
But, because academia is hierarchical and status-obsessed, academics are constantly evaluated. So, some have an internal critic that is constantly talking, casting doubt on small (e.g., my lecture won’t cover enough material) to big (e.g., I won’t get tenure!) matters. This is further compounded by prejudice and discrimination in academia, leaving scholars on the margins at risk for a lifelong case of “imposter syndrome,” distress, and even the resultant health problems.
There is some great advice out there on overcoming “imposter syndrome,” which I share at the end of the article. One tip that I like is to “fake it ’til you make it”:
Acting as if I belong will eventually lead to belonging. Imagining how I would behave if I were not feeling so insecure was useful. I just acted that way until I owned it (I even named my unflappable alter-ego and acted as if I were her. Also, I have a theme song. I don’t know: it just works!) (from gradhacker).
As Megan Fork, a very bright graduate student, pointed out, we can change how we feel internally by making external changes — at least to some extent. The research of psychologist Dr. Amy Cudy demonstrates that how we hold our body — i.e., postures that signal greater (or lesser) power — alters our internal state (i.e., mood). Of course, that has external meaning as body language, which signals to others how to perceive and interact with us.
If only it were that simple. Adding insights from the sociological side of social psychology, we must acknowledge that others may sanction (or reward) our behavior. Our behaviors, cognitions, and emotions do not exist in a vacuum; they are influenced by various social interactions and processes. For example, a man standing in a “high-power” pose is accepted without question, yet a woman in the same pose may be dismissed as aggressive, bitchy, or a lesbian (as if these are bad things…). So, to get ahead, we must think and behave in ways that indicate confidence and authority, but within the allowable limits for our gender, sexual orientation, race, ethnicity, weight, social class, etc.
Think Like A Drag Queen
I really like Lesli Mitchell’s suggestion to pretend one is a drag queen. And, I would extend this advice beyond conference presentations. Drag queens are known to be confident, flashy, and provocative. In a way, they embody stereotypically masculine behaviors — aggression, competition, and sexual prowess — but through feminine expression and attire. There is an art to the drag queen’s ability to flip the audience’s power via evaluation (e.g., applause, or lack thereof) to her own control over the audience. Audience members squirm in fear yet desire that drag queens will make jokes at their expense, or pull them into embarrassing interactions during performances.
This may be a useful mentality for academics to embody. Students are taking your class; they work to make good grades by your standards. You are offered a job because a university wants you; and, they hope you will do the work necessary to earn tenure and stay for life. You have been invited to submit an article, present a paper, review others’ work, participate on a panel. We must resist the easy temptation to live in constant fear of negative evaluations. Even in the face of negative evaluations, we must recognize our strengths and accomplishments, and contexualize what the “haters” think appropriately (e.g., prejudice, standards that are not transparent, conflicting standards). Or, take (drag queen superstar) RuPaul‘s perspective — “what other people think of me is none of my business” — at least to the point that you are actually formally evaluated and held accountable.
Make Them Eat It And Gag!
How my advice, to think like a drag queen, differs from the mantra of “fake it til you make it” is the recognition that traditional, mainstream academia does not want us (scholars on the margins), and will employ various strategies to keep us from “making it.” It has been a long fight to even get through the doors of colleges and universities for women, immigrants, people of color, disabled people/people with disabilities, and people of poor and working-class backgrounds. The fight to be treated as equals, taken seriously, and be rewarded continues for these groups, as well as people who are trans*, lesbian, bisexual, gay, and fat.
I see the world of drag as communities that have carved out their own spaces, but not with the intention of being accepted into the mainstream. Drag, by its very nature, is subversive to the values of the heterosexist patriarchal dominant society. Drag queens, in particular, differ from “female impersonators” because they do not aim to mimic the heterosexist society’s obsession with the gender binary, rather to mock and subvert it. More specifically, for some queer people of color, there is a recognition that one will never be accepted into the mainstream. Through the process of disidentification, the queer individual of color resists dominant ideology and embraces a “disempowered politics or positionality that has been rendered unthinkable by the dominant culture” (p. 31, Muñoz).
The gift that marginalized individuals have is the DuBoisian notion of a double consciousness. By being kept outside of the dominant mainstream, we are in a unique position to better understand it. Because behaviors and values celebrated by whites are taken for granted, they are unable to grasp a full consciousness of how these acts are socially constructed, reinforced, and performed. As a person of color, I sometimes feel I understand whiteness and white culture better than white people themselves. I feel I can effectively convince whites that I am just like them, albeit with brown skin. But, it takes an additional oppressed status — for example, queer people of color and women of color — to see the trap of tolerance that some singly disadvantaged people fall into. As white lesbian, gay, and bisexual people celebrate the recent victory in the movement for marriage equality, queer people of color watch with a suspicious eye as the tide reverses on racial justice.
The parallel for scholars on the margins is the ability to clearly observe the values, practices, and structures of academia. We are the outsiders within. To be so far removed from it — both by others’ force, and the disjuncture between academic values and those of our communities of origin — allows us to convincingly perform the normative role of “academic.” We can show them that we came to work, that we are professionals.
But, we also have the alternative path of subverting it. We can resist the messages that critical methodologies and marginal communities are inferior by recognizing the inherently hierarchical and oppressive natures and histories of those methods and fields that are considered acceptable. Or, like myself, you can work to build up credibility and resources (former path) that allow you to more freely make changes (latter path). For, “the haters will read, even if you peed. You still the ‘T’ — just pose, turn, and flaunt.” So, “make them eat it and gag.”
Do It For The Children, Hunty!
Another bit of advice that others have offered is to find support and serve as a mentor. During my first official week as a professor, I experienced great anxiety about how I presented myself, being taken seriously by my students and colleagues, and that stupid fear of being “found out.” But, after a great first day in my Gender and Sexuality course, and then seeing two students (from that class) on campus, I was reminded that my agenda as an academic is to create change for and inspire the next generation — particularly those of marginalized backgrounds. By focusing on myself, my own internal demons, I am taking attention away from offering support to others going through the same thing, and from being a role model. I do not want to send the message to my students that they, too, can earn a PhD and land a job at a top university… if only they censor themselves and dress just like their privileged peers. I want them to see a great scholar who is brown, queer, and fabulous.
By prioritizing improving academia, specifically to become a more welcoming, diverse, and socially just place, getting a job, earning tenure, getting published, etc. become means to that end. I need not stew in my stress and worry about tenure because devoting all available energy just to winning tenure means I am doing nothing to better others’ lives, only serving my own (professional) needs. And, I am better able to flip the question “do I belong here?” to “does this career/field/university work for my goals and values?” (Fortunately, the answer is a clear “yes!”)
Seek Professional Help, If Needed
I do not mean to make light of the anxiety and self-doubt that underlies imposter syndrome — I know them all too well to think it a laughing matter. But, RuPaul’s Drag Race, including RuPaul herself and her queens, have given me life. After a tough day at work during my grad school days, my escape was the fantasy world of reality show drag realness. Blogging was a useful escape during the dissertation phase. Find something that works for you!
And, sometimes the weight of this form of distress is simply too much, too disruptive to our lives. That is the point at which one should seek professional help. This is just a job. There is no reason why we should be suffering with mental health problems. Frankly, I do not think it is worth it!
Actually, I would say to seek the help of a mental health provider even if the symptoms are mild, or just for regular checkups (the way we do for physical health). Considering the persistence of the interpersonal and institutional factors that bring this on, there is no reason to feel ashamed or weak that you need to ask for help. Consider it a long-term investment, so that you do not shorten your lifespan, have to take time off for health reasons, or retire early, or leave academia all together feeling bitter and stressed-out. As it turns out, we are responsible for our own health and well-being — it is not our jobs’ responsibility (or concern, even).
- “6 Strategies to Kick Imposter Syndrome to the Curb” via U.S. News and World Report – Money, Careers
- “Essay How New Faculty Members Can Deal Impostor Syndrome” via Inside Higher Ed
- “9 Tips for Dealing With Imposter Syndrome” via A Year of Living Academically
- “Banishing Impostor Syndrome” via gradhacker
“The Impostor Syndrome: Exposing and Overcoming It” (Standford)
- “Imposter Syndrome and Feeling Stupid” by Megan Fork
- “How I cured my imposter syndrome” via The Contemplative Mammoth
- “Back-to-School Beatitudes: 10 Academic Survival Tips” via Crunk Feminist Collective
- “Too Much Self-Doubt? Try Thinking Like a Creator” via profhacker
- “No, You’re Not an Impostor” via Science magazine
- “Do you dismiss your accomplishments as ‘no big deal’?” via Dr. Valarie Young
- “Getting over imposter syndrome” via Escape the Ivory Tower
- Survival tips for women academics via Inside Higher Ed