Are you depressed, dear PhD student?

A few weeks ago I was applying for a post-doc position, a one year fellowship, at a university in the US. Differently to Germany, most countries have a catalogue set of questions regarding ethnicity, race, gender and disabilities. In the midst of these boxes to tick, I stumbled upon suggestions of illnesses that an applicant might have, one of them, understandably, was depression. Asking a PhD student or early career academic whether they might have / had a depression is not without irony. A simple look at the comments and likes unterneath any current social media posts concerned with mental health in academia, especially during a PhD, hints at the incommensurable vastnes of people who might be affected. And the thing is … most of us are not affected because we’re not „strong enough“ for academia, no … it is because this system does not leave any room for care, support and friendship.

Instead, what it does is fill our heads with this idea that everything needs to be perfect. The paper needs to be perfect, as does the presentation. However, usually people are not born to write perfect papers or give perfect presentations. Still, we are judged by them. But how are we supposed to learn if there is no chance to fail and improve?

Oh, I was wrong, there is one thing that we are taught (sometimes quite literally) during a PhD: it is to put out our ellbows, not make friends and blame ourselves for „failure“.

Did you know that the average PhD in Germany takes 5,7 years? But we are initally funded only for 3 years – any extensions needs to be applied for and supported with arguments why it is not our fault that we „are behind“ and that we are „sure it will be finished in the next half a year“. How does that not naturalise the idea that we have to explain ourselves to not always be the „best“? I have question, though: who actually is this „perfect“ academic? Does he (pun intended) never have family issues? Has he never been sick? Has he always had that courage to ask for extensions so that his mind was free to do some (creative) work? Was he always able just to get out of bed every morning, socialise, network and not have nightmares afterwards? Was he always accepted by his cohort, never judged and always supported by his supervisor? Was he always wealthy enough or lucky enough to be properly funded to go to the conferences he wanted to or needed to?

I reckon this perfect early academic does not exist. Why? Because we are humans – and so it should be!

No matter what we research on – it is work that concerns humans, is written for humans, judged by humans and should be done by humans!

For a couple of weeks now, we at En-Gender have opened a bi-weekly space to rant about academia. Not because we do not like academia or want to escape, but because we love academia and want to be or stay a part of it. During these weeks I have learnt once more that there are so many different as well as similar issues that we are facing as PhD students and early career scholars. However, most of them stem from a toxic environment, may it be on state, university or department level. The problem, though, goes further: most of the times we do not see the toxic environment or, worse, accept it as given and push ourselves to „just handle it better“. Why is that so? What makes academia always a little bit worse than other jobs? It might be the mix of prestige, exclusivity and hierarchies, but who am I to tell?

PhD-social-media influencing seems to have become a whole new market space. Also, more and more people start to share their frustration and anxieties (as I have done lately, too). However much this might have positive effects on others, it does not even scratch the surface of what would be at stake if academia was to become a place in which care, support and friendship are possible: nothing less than the destruction of academia itself and the creation of a new one. The problem is, the first ones to not go with the flow are always the ones that are negatively impacted. No one wants to be that person that looses out, especially after finishing this amazing work of writing and submitting a PhD. Most either continue to play along or leave the institution alltogether.

But, academia might be a shit show, but it is not a sinking ship – or at least I hope so. There has always been change, change that followed times of exclusion and frustration. Let’s all just hope that the times of frustration are nearly over and the times of change are about to start! Any suggestions?


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