Katie Rose Guest Pryal

Novelist and Essayist at Chronicle Vitae

The Secret Life of the Doctoral Student

Full full pryal disclosure

When I was in graduate school in English, my fellow students and I worked hard on our studies. We worked hard to earn our graduate stipends, teaching three or more courses a year. Many of us also worked extra jobs to make ends meet — at Starbucks, law firms, used book stores, and more. Many of us partied like it was 1999. (It was not, in fact, 1999. It was the early aughts.)

Now and then, some of us struggled personally — with addiction, mental illness, cognitive issues, major health crises and tragedies, and domestic violence.

We kept these struggles among ourselves. We didn’t want our professors and advisers to know about our less-than-perfect private lives. We didn’t want them to know if a fellow student was drinking too much or struggling with a bad relationship. Instead, we graduate students huddled together and helped each other privately. We didn’t want to risk hurting a fellow graduate student’s reputation in the department.

Because that’s what was at stake: our reputations. We put on our professional masks for seminars, teaching, and meetings with advisers. And we kept up a barrier, for as long as we could, between what we knew was going on among “us” and what “they” would know about it. We believed “they,” for the most part, didn’t want to know.

We were living a secret life about which our professors knew very little.

Why a Secret Life?

Most professors have a vision of how an ideal graduate student performs. When I was in graduate school, some professors even told us, in great detail, descriptions of their ideal. Some of us believed that if we deviated from that ideal, we would have trouble getting funding or finding jobs. We were often proven right: With few exceptions, the closer we tracked the ideal, the more we were rewarded.

Likewise, we believed that if a friend deviated from the ideal, it was our duty to help that friend get back on track. We circled the proverbial wagons and helped each other as best we could. Help included giving a woman who’d lost her home to an unstable partner a place to sleep — and keeping her secret from faculty who might see her as an unstable victim if they found out. It included helping a friend with his seminar papers when he was having cognitive difficulties. In retrospect — knowing what I know now about disability — his cognitive difficulties would likely have been aided by disability services had he sought those accommodations. But seeking accommodations when you aren’t an undergraduate can be rough, indeed.

After teaching at the graduate level for many years, I realize that faculty, for the most part, aren’t equipped to know about graduate students’ struggles. Put simply, most professors are not prepared to aid students in distress. If indeed it’s true that graduate students in the United States (and elsewhere) are struggling with mental health and addiction issues at high rates — and it appears that it is — then we need to rethink whether graduate schools have a duty to accept the full person (the nonideal) and whether departments are inadvertently creating disabling environments in which graduate students feel forced to hide their struggles to everyone’s detriment.

A Professor’s Point of View

I interviewed a fellow professor to seek another viewpoint on this issue. Maggie (a pseudonym), a humanities professor at a large, research university, works in a department with many graduate students. She directs dissertations and sits on dissertation committees — the total number of graduate students whose work she closely advises hovers in the double-digits. Indeed, I selected her as an interview subject because of her close involvement with a large number of graduate students.

I asked her first about whether she received training — either in graduate school or on the job— in how to help graduate students struggling with personal crises. “There is little to no training that focuses on graduate students in particular, either in graduate school or as part of professional development for faculty,” she noted. “Most faculty, I'd say, don't really know what to do or how to handle students in distress.”

Furthermore, in her department, graduate students tend to keep their struggles secret from faculty until the secrets can’t be kept any more: “In my department, we often only find out about these kinds of issues when it reaches a crisis point.” She described one incident in which a faculty member “found out that a graduate student hadn't been attending any classes for … weeks,” and “didn't respond to phone calls or emails.” Only after someone actually went to the student’s apartment did the professor realize that the student was dealing with severe depression and had dropped out of the program. The department “could have maybe helped the student and the student might still be enrolled,” she said, had they known of the problem earlier.

What Maggie describes is similar to my own memories from graduate school. We all tried to handle problems privately until they were too big for us to handle any more. Sometimes — similar to the situation in Maggie’s department — our fear of reprisals had terrible consequences.

Maggie gave another example: Upon finding “out that a student had been staying in his office … instead of going back to his apartment because he was afraid of harming himself,” faculty took him to the local hospital and perhaps saved his life. “This was another case where faculty only found out when it had reached a crisis point.” Basically, Maggie said, “I don't think faculty have a good sense of what their graduate students are going through unless it reaches one of these boiling points.”

Break the Silence

How can faculty help break down barriers of communication to encourage students to come forward? How can we encourage communication before a crisis becomes a crisis? After all, as Maggie pointed out, “At least in my experience, the majority of faculty would want to know about issues affecting their students' lives and would be willing to help. They just don't always find out about what is going on until things have gotten very serious.”

So what can faculty do to help students understand it’s OK to come forward?

First, show students that you're willing to help. At a basic level, for example, put a sign on your office door — “I’m a friend of neurodiversity”— that indicates your openness to discussing unconventional struggles. Then see what happens. Students with depression, bipolar disorder, anxiety disorder, and more might, with luck, decide that they can trust you with their secrets. You don’t have to be an expert to help students in distress. You just have to be willing to listen and know whom to call for help.

Second, during orientation, have faculty and senior graduate students talk openly about collaboration in personal — not just professional — challenges. From Day 1, establish, a culture in which these struggles are shared among faculty, staff, and students. Build trust by promising students that they won’t be penalized for failing to meet some fictional “ideal” model of graduate student. And then, keep that promise.

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