There’s a cancer among us. The only cure is for doctoral students to stop pretending they’re victims of circumstance.
Years ago, we all decided to commit ourselves to higher education by entering doctoral programs. Arriving from different walks of life, employment histories, beliefs, and ages, we were nevertheless seduced by a life of the mind. This cliché gave us scant warmth as we huddled in cold offices and tried our best to live up to the expectations of a previous generation of scholars.
As we moved ever closer to the end of our arduous graduate school process, we were discomfited by news of acquaintances dropping out of PhD programs, many of whom had developed serious bouts of depression. Worst of all, some completed their PhDs only to decide to go back to the farm (or wherever it is you go after a complete mental collapse) jobless, friendless, and alone.
Our crunchy friends blamed the “system,” explaining how corporatism, neo-liberalism, intolerance, and gluten diets had each contributed to their suffering: no degree, no job, and no hope for the future. Why, we ask, does this narrative lack any sense of individual responsibility? It’s almost as if the current breed of graduate student is born lame and helpless subjects to the whims of the more powerful.
There are two kinds of PhD students: the one who contributes to a culture of victimhood, but doesn’t actually do anything substantial. The second is the busybody who claims to want to change things for the better, but is really just there to make everyone else miserable. I am less concerned with the first type than the second type for obvious reasons.
The complainer is self-indulgent, slow, and uninteresting, but the busybody is a toxic presence in any work environment. They imagine themselves locked in combat with some unnamed social monster lurking behind every scholarship offer and hiring decision. The monster is given many different “isms” and “ologies” to excuse incompetence and failure. But, the real menace is a lack of individual responsibility and accountability. When you take a hard look at PhD students—a risky thing to do given their insecurities—what you find is that their failures are largely personal and controllable, rather than systemic.
Being a scholar is a career choice, and training should mirror the demands of the job. Academia is competitive and that competition begins in graduate school. If you don’t like competition, don’t let the door hit you on the way out. We don’t need you here. You are holding other people back, bringing them down to your level where mediocrity flourishes. A big reason you don’t like competition is because you have never matched up, and not because you are a member of a marginalized group or because your parents did not read to you enough as a child. You’ve never matched up because you don’t like taking risks, you can’t take criticism, and you hold others responsible for your missteps.
Few students, in our experience, are willing to admit that their failures may, in fact, be theirs alone. Since any outside encouragement of self-awareness and self-critique is considered offensive in the academy, the mere suggestion that individual choice has any impact on outcomes risks total censure via accusations of privilege and false-consciousness.
Doctoral students believe that they are the victims of outside forces, or that society is “out to get them.” They give each of their discomforts a name and a complex history, if only to shame those who do not struggle as much them. But, retreating into “isms” and “ologies” isn’t fooling anyone, and it’s preventing you from producing better work.
Get over yourself.