This week I wanted to get a perspective from a man I admire. Bennie is a is a third-year PhD student at Northwestern University, where he is studying African American Studies. He created Just Tryna' Graduate to help Black students get to & through graduate school. You can find him on Linkedin and Twitter. Many times students whether in graduate school, high school, or even just students of life find themselves battling anxiety to be twice as good and have to work twice as hard -- especially if you are Black. His story and his desire to help the community cannot go unnoticed.
In my experience, stress and grad school go hand in hand. There's always something new to read or write. There's always a conference to apply to, or a grant to apply for. And that's not even accounting for the stress that comes with having to navigate academia's bureaucracy and/or different relationships with professors.
A few months ago, I was pretty stressed about an impending deadline. But for some reason (read: my anxiety), I couldn't even bring myself to start the assignment. And even though I still had time before it was due, days even, I just knew that my professor had sent me an email asking for the assignment (again, anxiety). I started getting pains in my chest, and I began to feel overwhelmed. So much so that I had to take a nap.
When I woke up, I was a lil groggy, but I felt better. I actually forgot all about the deadline...until I didn't. Because, you see, that's how this anxiety thing works. You're good...until you're not. Suddenly, the sharp pains returned, and I found myself grabbing at my chest all over again. I figured that in order to feel better I just needed to check my email and deal with the consequences, whatever they may be. But no email. Was I stressing for nothing? I needed affirmation, someone to let me know that I wasn't crazy. So I tweeted about the experience.
These two tweets ended up getting over 600 likes. But what struck me most about these tweets was the widespread response. Grad students (mostly Black) from all over commented "Same." or "This is me!" Hell, even a few professors joined the conversation and said that they were dealing with similar issues. On one hand, I felt supported. I mean, it's always nice to know that you're not alone, especially when it's an issue like anxiety. But on the other hand, I was pissed off because why is it that so many Black grad students feel this way?
After pondering this question, and responding to others' reflections about my tweet, I actually remembered that this wasn't the first time that I dealt with anxiety. In fact, I've been grappling with it since I began my Ph.D. program. But it was during my second year, when I was working my Master's thesis, that I really learned what anxiety is, and how it felt in my body. Here's a snapshot:
Anxiety is...already knowing that you have to finish your Master's thesis by the end of your second year of grad school. So after your first year, you print out twelve different articles about your topic to read over the summer. But you never really read them because the mere idea of writing a Master's thesis is daunting. So you just carry the articles in your backpack all summer because you know that you're gonna read them...eventually.
Anxiety is...starting to write your Master's thesis but then stopping repeatedly because you think that this one research paper is your entry into "the field." And you're stressed because: one, you still don't know what that "field" even looks like as a second year grad student; and two, the more you read, the more you realize that you still don't know enough about the topic to write the paper. But you keep attempting to write because you know that you have to write something before the year is over, so that you won't get kicked out of your doctoral program. But you're stressed because you keep reading and stopping, and writing and stopping because the idea of YOU writing a Master's thesis is daunting.
Anxiety is...stressing because, even though your deadline is slowly getting closer, you still don't have anything substantial written aside from your name, title, and that four-sentence epigraph that you typed up to help you meet the page count. Anxiety is...still working on the paper but purposely missing that deadline because, now, you no longer have to deal with the pressure of writing with a deadline hanging over your head. Anxiety is...eventually turning in the paper and (somehow) winning the "Best Paper Award," but feeling stressed because people are telling you to submit it for publication in an academic journal...which means that this was your entry into "the field," after all.
Anxiety is...feeling your voice quiver as you present your work to an academic audience, because you just know that, at some point, maybe when you're mid-sentence, someone is going to come and tell you that they made a mistake, that the award actually belonged to someone else, which would be embarrassing as hell but also soothing because you already knew that you really weren't supposed to win the award in the first place because: one, you still don't know what the "field" looks like; and two, you still don't believe you know enough about your topic. But with the award still in hand, you eventually finish your presentation, promptly return your seat, and subtly try to massage away those sharp pains in your chest. (Anxiety is...painful.)
It's unfortunate but, in my experience, grad students often discuss issues of mental health in hushed tones. There's a reason for that, though. As grad students, we already know that, some days, getting out of the bed and doing this "work" is tough. So we try to offer each other support as best as we can. But we also know that, sometimes, there's a cost to not looking like you're able to handle your workload (i.e., condescension, stigma, pushback, and diminished opportunities). And for these reasons, many of us attempt to be productive even in the midst of our suffering.
Even as I write this, I can already hear some of my professors in my ear. And yeah, I get it. The job market. Publications. Tenure-track. I get it. But professors/advisors/mentors, what kind of scholars are you producing when you demand that your grad students "do the work" at all costs? That they learn to choose between their self-care and their academic obligations? Before we can even think about professionalization and the road ahead, we need to have a very long and very candid conversation about what the academy does to graduate students! Because if this is any sign of what lies ahead, I'll be damned if I stay in academia after I get this degree.
For I am so much more than what I produce in a seminar or academic journal.