Letters to the Editor

On “A Mind of One’s Own: Promoting Mental Health among Grad Students”

Darcy R. Fryer, January 2018

To the editor:

I read “A Mind of One’s Own: Promoting Mental Health among Grad Students” (November 2017) with interest. What strikes me powerfully as I look back on my own graduate education is that the attitudes and behaviors conducive to good mental health in graduate school are not the careerist ones that many graduate programs now promote.

Recent discussions of graduate education in history have emphasized the goals of getting students to finish their PhDs quickly and of cultivating career-minded behavior from the moment they set foot on campus. Legitimate concerns underlie both emphases, and certainly, those of us who were in graduate school 20 years ago might have benefited from being more worldly-wise. But encouraging graduate students to think in careerist ways and focus intensively on careerist goals carries a price; this outlook can dampen the joy of learning, discourage exploration and innovation, make every assignment a high-stakes endeavor, and undermine peer relationships. It is easier to dodge anxiety and depression if one fully embraces the opportunities of the present and does not try too hard to predict or master an uncertain future.

Sometimes, too, the careerist approach is at odds with developing a meaningful career. When I spoke on career panels at NYU and Columbia this fall, I was chagrined to discover that some humanities graduate students today do almost no teaching. Funding packages that do not rely on teaching assistantships were introduced to help graduate students concentrate on research and reduce their time to degree, but how can PhD candidates commit to academic careers when they don’t even know whether they like teaching or are good at it?

One of the best supports of mental health, in graduate school as elsewhere, is finding meaning and satisfaction in the present. Building significant work experience—whether in teaching, publishing, librarianship, museums, or other fields—into graduate programs is vital to promoting graduate students’ sense of capability and self-worth. Graduate students are adults; they need the dignity of contributing to society even as they pursue advanced studies. Valuing intellectual exploration—even if not of immediate utility—and building strong relationships, outside one’s field as well as in it, also support mental health. It is easy to understand why graduate students and their mentors feel the need for a disciplined, careerist approach to graduate studies, but too much strategy and careerism in graduate school may not ultimately be the best strategy for life.

Darcy R. Fryer
The Brearley School

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