Peridoctoral Stress Syndrome

The shift from a subordinate learner as a grad student to a would-be peer on the job market is one of the most predictable traumas in an academic's life, inducing professional and emotional distress in almost everyone who encounters it, writes Tim Cassedy.

February 24, 2016

A requirement for any doctoral degree is that the graduate student candidate establish one of the world’s highest-stakes teacher-student relationships and excel at being that relationship’s subordinate member. This power asymmetry, although susceptible to well-known abuses, exists to facilitate growth: the adviser is the protector-guide, the student his or her ward. The adviser’s role is to nurture and supervise the student’s progress toward intellectual maturity.

Structurally speaking, that is also the role of kindergarten teachers, psychotherapists and parents -- which is why in German your dissertation director is called your Doktorvater or Doktormutter: doctoral father or mother. Graduate students are the children in the academic family, and your dissertation director is probably the last person who will ever be quite so intensely in loco parentis.

In fact, being a graduate student entails learning how to inhabit a necessarily dependent role -- one that varies somewhat by discipline and institution but that typically involves being deferential, humble, tractable, eager for criticism and ready and willing to take direction. If your dissertation director tells you to read Foucault, you read Foucault; if a faculty member wants to give you advice, you listen -- even if that so-called advice turns out to be thinly veiled bragging.

This arrangement is fundamentally infantilizing, which is not to say that it is evil. However, it collides very awkwardly with the demands of the academic job market. In many disciplines, including my own, English literature, advanced graduate students who apply for tenure-track jobs must quickly unlearn their hitherto-appropriate deference and acquire a far more confident, autonomous voice in order to be credible job applicants.

I’ve come to think that this mandated shift from subordinate learner to junior peer constitutes one of the more predictable traumas in the life of an academic, inducing both professional and emotional distress in almost everyone who encounters it. I study literature, not psychology, so it is with my tongue duly in cheek that I suggest that we call that distress Peridoctoral Stress Syndrome.

I recently spent three years supervising my department’s Ph.D. job placement apparatus, increasingly aware that I was asking first-time job candidates to undertake not only a difficult professional task but also a disorienting rearrangement of their identities. I felt like I was telling a group of airplane passengers to start thinking of themselves as pilots. Hurtling through the air in a tube is only tolerable because you’re in the hands of a trained professional. Now I was telling them not only to fly the plane but also to project a pilot’s expert confidence and, indeed, actually to feel that confidence. This is more or less impossible.

Like the passengers on the plane, graduate students are in the hands of trained professionals. Prior to the job market, a graduate student’s primary audience is her dissertation committee, whose members are personally invested in her work and have a professional obligation to read it. They bear some responsibility for her scholarly welfare, but they also hold significant power over her. For the student, this is an inherently stressful arrangement, and the most common coping strategy is to idealize the adviser. It’s easy to appreciate this strategy’s appeal; idealizing our nurturer-protector is one of our most primal strategies for coping with uncertainty when we are relatively powerless. (We fetishize airplane pilots for the same reason.)

But while idealizing the powerful other is reassuring, it is not conducive to self-confidence. It’s easy to lose yourself in your adviser’s satisfaction and forget how to tell the difference between her opinion and yours: if she is delighted with your chapter, you are delighted; if she is distressed, you are distressed. The ego suppression that requires is not trivial and cannot simply be switched off when the time comes to prepare job applications.

If the dissertation director is the idealized, nurturing parent, the job market is the evil stepparent. The process entails explaining the most ambitious project of your professional (and maybe entire) life to perhaps 50 search committees, and being turned down or ignored by 47 to 50 of them for opaque reasons that involve a significant degree of randomness. That is horrifying under any circumstances, but it is especially wrenching for graduate students, because they have been training for six years to suppress their egos and trust authority figures to evaluate them. That trust is one of the many useful grad school strategies that abruptly become maladaptive when a student makes contact with the academic job market. Others include:

  • describing your work in terms of how it fills a gap (postdoctoral scholarship needs to matter for a better reason than that no one has done it before)
  • demonstrating mastery of a body of existing scholarship instead of foregrounding your original ideas
  • idealizing your adviser
  • writing with your dissertation committee in mind
  • justifying your project’s significance by citing authorities
  • prefacing faculty names with honorifics
  • downplaying your own authority
  • speaking in your head voice instead of your chest voice
  • seasoning all faculty interactions with conspicuous gratitude and/or apologies

Peridoctoral Stress Syndrome is what happens to a graduate student’s prose voice and personal confidence when he is told to abandon those strategies. Some students overcorrect, writing inappropriately grandiose cover letters that exaggerate their dissertation’s significance because they’re afraid that its real significance isn’t enough.

Most students, however, follow their training and draft deferential documents that read as inappropriately submissive in this context. Given an opportunity to describe their own scholarship, they often begin by invoking somebody else’s:

  • “Helena Michie has described the 19th century as a time ‘characterized by an overdetermined interest in place.’ In my dissertation, I…”
  • “My dissertation uses the theories of Michel Foucault and Alain Badiou to explore how…”
  • “In my dissertation, written under the direction of Dr. Nicole Wallace, I argue that…”

Those sentences reach outside the application for some authority who can certify the importance of what the applicant has to say --a well-known scholar, a French theorist or a dissertation director -- because graduate students are inexperienced at being the authority who certifies their own work. The impulse to be vouched for by someone else also leads to teaching statements that present the applicant as a subordinate, assistant or student instead of as a practiced and independent teacher:

  • “Based on my strong performance in the Ph.D. program, I was given the opportunity to teach a course of my own design.”
  • “Like many undergraduates, I found my college literature classes both exciting and bewildering.”
  • “As a teaching assistant, I…”

The placement director’s job is to tear off those protective layers and push the candidate into his own spotlight. That is inherently traumatic, like an anxiety dream where everybody’s looking at you and you realize that you’re naked.

I once worked with a first-time applicant who drafted a CV listing his expected Ph.D. completion date as “TBD.” I explained why he should change it to May of the coming academic year. On his next draft, he had written August. I encouraged him again to change it to May. He changed it to June. Almost no one feels ready to be what the academic job market requires you to be.

There’s no shortcut around the difficult personal work that the job market requires, any more than there’s a shortcut around the professional work of writing job letters. All there is to do is respect the work.

The Chain Reaction of Mental Anguish

Faculty members can do little to make Peridoctoral Stress Syndrome better, but we can do a lot to make it worse. The job market is overdetermined; it stirs things up in us. Unknowingly and unintentionally, but far too often, we pile our own baggage atop the emotional burden our advisees are already carrying. This is what psychologists call countertransference and what Tina Fey calls “a chain reaction of mental anguish.”

For better or worse, our graduate students are part of our psychic lives; their fortunes matter to us not only because we wish them the best but also because of how their fortunes feel to us. Like anyone else, I feel elated if my advisee lands a great job or places an article in a top journal. If she is rejected, I feel a twinge of guilt and worry about my own competence. If she chooses not to apply to jobs like mine, I can’t help but feel a little rejected, as if I had been showing her around my very exclusive club that she decided not to join after all. Feeling rejected in that scenario is neither avoidable nor inherently problematic.

My anxiety may be unavoidable, but burdening my advisee with that anxiety is avoidable, and it’s my duty to avoid it. Perhaps it would flatter my ego if my advisee got an R1 job, but if she takes a teaching position instead, I should not make a face, tell her that it sounds awful, promise to help her apply for better jobs next year or insist that she deserves better, unless she invites me to do those things. It is not her role to soothe my insecurities by agreeing that my advisee’s rightful place is in a research job. Her role is to pursue a career that will make her happy; my role is to say congratulations and try to help her if she asks me to.

Later, it would be a good idea to talk to a friend, partner, colleague or therapist about how that outcome made me feel sort of insecure. Clinical psychologists face a similar situation and consider themselves ethically bound to address it proactively. They expect to feel disappointed or angry with their patients at times, to get vicariously traumatized by their patients’ traumas and to have feelings about their patients that they aren’t fully aware of. They create regular, deliberate occasions -- supervision and consultation -- to talk about their patients so that they can take note of what their patients are stirring up in them before it starts to interfere with the therapy.

The stakes are lower for graduate advisers than they are for psychotherapists; a dissertation director making an advisee feel ashamed is not as destructive as a therapist making a patient feel that way. Still, we can do a much better job of directing the feelings that our advisees stir up anywhere other than toward our students. We should take each other out to lunch to talk about the students who are on our minds -- the ones we’re proud of as well as the ones who are driving us crazy. Teaching is an extremely personal and intimate activity. We’ll be better teachers and mentors if we make a deliberate habit of reflecting on its emotional byproducts.

Bio

Tim Cassedy is an assistant professor of English at Southern Methodist University. No graduate students were harmed in the making of this essay, as far as he knows.

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