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There’s No Crying in Graduate School

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Image: La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc (1928)

Academic pockets of social media have been all atwitter lately over a pair of dainty and disturbing greeting cards. Both from an Etsy retailer, the first features a hand-painted squirrel doubled over, shamefully clutching its head with its tiny paws. “I’m sorry you cried in front of your advisor,” the card consoles its recipient. Two hedgehogs convene on the second card, one holding a bouquet of mostly popped balloons (hedgehogs, remember?). And what is the cause for this semi-perilous celebration? As it happens, these are also academically inclined woodland creatures. Above the hedgehog pals, the card reads: “Congratulations on not crying in front of your advisor!”

I came to these greeting cards through a friend who, upon seeing them on Facebook, correctly assumed that I would be needled (sorry, still thinking about hedgehogs) by their existence. But the cards themselves are not what irk me. I can hardly take issue with anthropomorphized critters in watercolor pastel. In fact, I can easily imagine myself sending one of these cards – and I can certainly imagine receiving one.

What distresses me — infuriates me, really — is the ubiquitous emotional policing in academia that inspires such missives in the first place. Because, however lighthearted or gentle their imprint, these academic critter cards are a reaction to the implicit demand that graduate students stifle any driblet of vulnerability in the name of professionalism.

To be clear, cultivating a professional demeanor is vital to graduate education. But perpetual unflappability is not, and we need to parse these nuances for the sake of students’ emotional and mental health. Like so many other fields, academia operates under the tacit and toxic misconception that to be “professional” means to suppress any spontaneous distress. That is easier for some than others. For especially sensitive people like myself, the urge to cry rears its soggy head in all manner of charged and inopportune contexts. I grapple with the impulse because I fear being diminished, and despite myself, I regard lapses as failures. Dear reader, I have been that humiliated squirrel so many wretched, shame-riddled times.

Navigating diverse emotional landscapes demands empathy under any circumstances. It’s especially critical in graduate programs, where the rigor of intellectual pursuit — however fulfilling — often depletes our every energy reserve. Graduate study requires confidence, and yet we are sure to experience emotional unmooring throughout its ebbs and flows. We bask in the heady euphoria of 4 a.m. breakthroughs; we shatter under the weight of devastating critiques delivered after months of solitary labor. And all the while, we grapple with our lives — the happy, the mucky — beyond the campus.

I prepared for my doctoral qualifying exams one year after a suicide attempt, six months after a divorce, and in the tentative pauses between anxiety attacks (ones that were not yet mitigated by the combined forces of medication and psychotherapy). When, in January 2012, I confronted my formidable reading list in earnest, I knew that I was fundamentally unprepared for the task ahead.

Yet I was unwilling to admit that to my adviser. Before each of our meetings I would assiduously summon a competent air; afterward, I would often return home to my now-husband and dissolve into wracked sobs. My concentration slipshod, I would stop reading midparagraph and hurl books across the room, overwhelmed by stress and my inability to be honest with my adviser.The pressure I felt to keep up appearances came from within; my adviser only ever treated me with compassion and devoted mentorship. It seemed to me, however, that I could not succeed in academia if I openly admitted that the line I drew between my studies and everything else was porous, more a fantasy of control than effective compartmentalization.

Eventually my professor and I did decide to postpone my exams by a few months, after both he and another member of my committee began to notice the anxiety I had so desperately hoped to conceal. But as I’ve mentioned, I’m comically incapable of masking distress; how I even managed it in the slightest during those months continues to baffle me. I wish, however, that I had been forthright from the beginning. I did not necessarily need to unpack the shoddy state of my mental health to my adviser, but I did need to somehow express, “I need to slow down. I’m not emotionally equipped to give my exam preparation all that it needs.” I was, after all, gathering up the jagged shards of my life and slowly affixing them into a different shape.

My circumstances are singular, but that is in some ways the point. We are all in possession of vibrant, contradictory inner lives that will never be fully evident to those we encounter. “Other people are as real as you,” Ian McEwan writes in Atonement, and so we must be gentle with one another. We must honor the truth McEwan articulates with exponentially more care than we do. We must act accordingly by cultivating academic climates that are structured by empathy as well as by rigor.

The means to this end is not that students should cry in front of their advisers. At the same time, so what if they do?

Relationships between advisers and graduate students are as unique as any other interpersonal bond, and so each pair must determine what the contours and extent of their familiarity will be. What’s vital is that graduate students be introduced into academic climates that do not either implicitly or flagrantly shame those whose vulnerability is visible. Crying is a physiological response to unsettling stimuli, not the paramount determinant of one’s ability to thrive in academia’s sometimes-brutal atmosphere.

The “suck it up” culture of graduate programs may seem invigorating, but it’s irrevocably destructive to far too many students. We cannot ignore those students, or simply demand that they acclimate to an environment where thriving means to thrust oneself through hairline cracks in pavement.

Trading sympathetic pastel critters might take the edge off a bit; there is, after all, solidarity in cynicism and mutual recognition. But better that we challenge ourselves to be more emotionally generous, to incorporate empathy into our conceptions of academic professionalism. Better that we take each other as we are, seeking a kind and common ground together.

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