The Trauma of Graduate Education

Such trauma impacts graduate students as they produce CVs, cover letters and other job search materials, writes Beth Godbee, and we should acknowledge and address it.

July 9, 2018
 
 
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Stories of trauma inevitably come up in conversations about graduate school. So how can career seekers acknowledge and address such trauma?

I have Eric Anthony Grollman to thank for giving me language to name my experience of graduate education as “trauma.” Here in the pages of Inside Higher Ed and in his blog Write Where It Hurts, Grollman describes how repeated microaggressions, discrimination and devaluating of research, commitments and experiences cumulate and live in the body as trauma.

I found Grollman’s public writing when trying to explain a phenomenon that arose in my own dissertation research. Without exception, graduate writers participating in my study characterized their one-with-one writing conferences with other graduate writers (tutors who were also colleagues and sometimes friends) as therapy, counseling or self-help. Graduate students used words like “academic therapy” and “grad school recovery” to talk about the importance of having another person involved in witnessing and processing wrongdoing toward them and their research and writing. I realized through those interviews that I wasn’t alone in experiencing graduate school as a space that constantly tore into me, lowered my self-confidence and left me oscillating between wanting to flee and fight. I heard story after story of negative experiences -- including advisers being absent or providing only criticism, journal reviewers blocking research and faculty committees actively obstructing graduate writers, to name just a few examples.

While I certainly experienced trauma (much of it around sexism, epistemic injustice and presumed incompetence), I am also a white, cisgender, able-bodied woman whose trauma is mitigated by relative power and privilege within higher education. As Grollman and other contributors to "Conditionally Accepted" have explained, marginalized peoples experience layer upon layer of trauma: “Scholars who are women, of color, lesbian, trans, bisexual, gay, queer, disabled, working-class or poor, immigrants, fat, religious and nonreligious minorities, and/or single parents are faced daily with the difficult tension between academe’s narrow definition of success and their own politics, identities, needs, happiness and health.” The layers of trauma are too often unacknowledged and rarely considered when thinking about career advising for graduate students.

Yet such trauma impacts graduate writers as they produce particularly complex and high-stakes writing from first publications and original research to CVs, cover letters and other job search materials. Graduate writers must navigate complex asymmetrical power relations through this writing and when working with faculty advisers, committee members, disciplinary colleagues and current and potential employers. Such asymmetrical power relations may trigger or exacerbate previous traumas as well as allow in new trauma.

Often conversations with career advisers are similar to those among graduate writers: it is common to share, receive and even exchange stories of trauma while often not naming it as such. An important part of career conversations, therefore, may be recognizing trauma as trauma. There is power in naming experiences: acknowledging and giving language to describe trauma can lead to other actions, such as seeking trauma-informed care or, in Grollman’s words, “rewriting the trauma narrative.” Similarly, it’s important to name microaggressions as microaggressions, epistemic injustice as epistemic injustice and violence as violence. Doing so validates the reality of the experience (essentially saying, yes, this experience really did happen and really is wrong), countering the many invalidations that cumulate into trauma. Further, giving language to experience helps with developing the linguistic resources to understand, process and describe trauma and other injustice.

In light of widespread trauma in graduate education, career advisers, writing tutors and others who mentor graduate students can play important roles not only in naming trauma but also in shifting power relations through feminist co-mentoring. Often graduate writers are advised to seek feedback from multiple readers (those who are in their field and outside it, expert and nonexpert), especially for high-stakes writing like application materials. The idea is to benefit from multiple readers’ questions, insights and suggestions. As an extension of that advice, graduate students can benefit from dispersed and networked mentorship relationships, especially with mentors who don’t hold asymmetrical power over them (i.e., mentors who aren’t the dissertation director, principal investigator or committee chair). Career advisers, graduate student colleagues and others can participate in co-mentoring, building solidarity and relational investment in each other’s success via power with.

As the scholarly literature on mentoring shows, multiple mentoring relationships can assist in building confidence after it’s been lowered -- helping one seeing that one’s not alone and navigating further traumas arising not only in graduate school but also through job searches and academic careers. Multiple mentoring relationships can disperse the concentrated power associated with a single supervisor. Further, multiple mentoring relationships can help with reclaiming personal power and becoming empowered to stand tall in one’s research and professional identity.

Simply put, those of us who mentor graduate students through career discernment are particularly well positioned to acknowledge the trauma of graduate education and to talk explicitly about its implications. The following are some questions to ask while doing this work:

  • How is trauma impacting graduate students as people, scholars and job applicants?
  • How is it disproportionately impacting graduate students of color, LGBTQ+ folks and other marginalized scholars?
  • Do we recognize trauma when we encounter it, and if so, do we name it as such?
  • What more can we learn about resources on and off campus to access trauma-informed care, counseling, somatics, Reiki or other embodied healing?
  • How might our career conversations include talk about self-care, community care and strategies for acknowledging and addressing trauma?
  • How might these tough conversations shape subsequent interactions and advocacy with faculty members, administrators, search committees and others involved in graduate education?

Certainly, there’s much more to ask and to learn. My hope is that these questions direct our attention to acknowledging and, therefore, naming trauma in graduate education. Once we acknowledge and name it, then we can direct more attention toward countering it and intervening into the systems and conditions that allow it to continue occurring. We can bring more attention to its impact on career exploration, job searches and the high-stakes writing associated with job applications.

Although I’m seven years out of graduate school, I still get nervous when visiting my former university town, and I find myself avoiding the campus. In this and other ways, I feel how trauma continues to influence my physical movements and my emotional, intellectual and embodied life. I am reminded, therefore, that trauma lives in the body in sometimes subtle, though no less impactful, ways. Effectively acknowledging and addressing the trauma of graduate education will take all our efforts. What better time to do this work than now?

Bio

Having recently earned tenure, Beth Godbee announced the decision to leave academe to pursue public writing and community education -- saying no in a way that hopefully will lead to more yeses. You can find her online at Heart-Head-Hands.com-- a blog about feeling, thinking and doing (everyday living) for justice. She is also a member of the Graduate Career Consortium -- an organization providing a national voice for graduate-level career and professional development leaders.

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