The consequences of being “A blemish on my career”

The Guardian writes at length over the culture of acceptance around PhD studies and mental health issues:

“Many PhD students take the view that if you’re not doing overnight experiments, missing meals, or binge drinking, you’re not doing it right.

“Some people choose to have a social life while they’re doing their PhD. And that’s OK. But I’m not,” one of my fellow PhD students tells me.

Who else is supposed to help you? Your supervisor? “A blemish on my career,” is how one academic referred to their experience of supervising a student who developed mental health difficulties during their studies.”

Now I can’t really speak to issue of messed up supervising, since I’ve been blessed with three fantastically human committee members – but it does strike me that one of the issues that should be addressed in this discussion is the bizarre disconnect between the rhetoric of disinterested intellectual engagement – “it’s not personal”, “the marketplace of ideas”, “critique instead of criticize” – and the reality of a lot of academic interactions, where the intellectual is profoundly personal. I’ve seen people who are extremely good at making their ideas supportive rather than pointed and genuinely helped people along in their thinking, but there are equally many people out there who do say things like “this student is a blemish on my career”, or are out to get people at workshops and seminars.

The thing is, as long as we buy into the fiction that academic research can somehow be as “professional” (read: impersonal) as, say, mass-producing rubber ducks for a living, we’re enabling this behavior.

For one, not even mass-producing rubber ducks is an impersonal affair – even though we’re dealing with a collaboratively made product that is tangibly other than the person making it, people still take pride in their job and feel bad when criticized.

There’s no way around the fact that we live in a world where authorship matters, and having your ideas dissected is going to have an emotional resonance – even if it’s done in the most courteous, constructive way possible.

Combine that with the uncertain job market and it’s no wonder then that so many of my friends feel consistent anxiety over whether their advisor likes them, what they should say at the next departmental workshop or whether their ideas are ready for the public.

I wonder if one of the solutions would be for departments to push graduate professionalization further than simply telling people how to frame their paper comments, but to openly deal with the fact that the boundaries between academic lives and personal lives are blurry, and that academic commitments can have broader, personal consequences. What would such professionalization look like?


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