In 2013 the top person at The Graduate Center (the institution that granted my Ph.D.) then-Chancellor Bill Kelly – called the institution a “roach motel.” He said this referring to how students checked in and never checked out of their Ph.D. programs (see article here). This statement is bad enough, but to put into context, New York City was barely clawing its way out of a bed bug epidemic. To put into further context, the creepy crawly critters are basically roommates for many people living in New York City. Growing up in the public housing projects in the Bronx, I shared space with many roaches. We had lots of roaches. So you can imagine my disgust and horror when I think back to when the Chancellor of the graduate school I was attending compared me to the very creatures I worked really hard to get away from. But whatever context you put it in, what he said was just plain fucked up.
And I remember students being outraged by Kelly’s characterization. There were several response articles condemning the statement, and he subsequently walked it back. But at the time, while I should’ve felt just as indignant, I was not. When Kelly said his terrible comment I was into my third year as a Ph.D. student in my program and by that time I had already been put thru the ringer. From fighting off criticisms of my work on immigration and deportation by conservative-leaning professors, to dealing with faculty neglect and research idea rejections, I was stomped on so much I might as well have been a roach.
And yet here I am, four years and a Ph.D. later, feeling the outrage I never felt back then. Now that I am able to reflect upon that time, I feel lots and lots of resentment. Because post-defense depression is real, the Imposter Syndrome is real. But those mental states aren’t a result of happenstance – they are the consequence of years and years of being told your work sucks, that you do not have the right to state an original thought but must come up with original research, all while being told that “this is the process,” a necessary one if you want your Ph.D. to mean anything. Some faculty members treat students the same as that frat boy who can’t wait to make the next pledge suffer what they did years before, forgetting the pain and anguish that process inflicts. They force students to become citation machines by making them read their own work or the work of their colleagues, and oftentimes use their labor without giving proper credit.
The tone-deaf nature of Kelly’s statement was not just offensive, it was also a deflection from the fact that it is graduate school – not the graduate student – that is the problem. Ph.D. programs are notorious for having a high attrition rate – not because the students are losers who are akin to roaches, but because graduate school puts them through a terrible hazing process that ends up breaking the will of many students, driving some to emotional and/or mental breakdowns (see an article in the Atlantic from last year about the destructive culture of Ph.D. programs here).
It’s no wonder that we experience the Imposter Syndrome. It’s no wonder that we suffer post-defense depression. It’s no wonder that so many of us consider ourselves a fraud, making the three letters after our name seem more insignificant than unbelievable. When the highest administrator of your institution characterizes the place as a roach motel and implicitly compares you to one of the most disgusting creatures on this planet, how can one possibly look at the doctorate degree and think, “I’ve accomplished something great?” At the end of the day, I still sometimes feel that the faculty in my program don’t take me seriously and will never consider see me as a true scholar or academic, and that feeling did come out of left field.
And just to clarify: not all faculty were exploitative and abusive. I consider myself fortunate to have formed a committee that was very supportive, and in my last year as a student I was part of a seminar program that was led by faculty who were incredibly supportive and it was that group that helped me find my voice. But these are connections I had to form myself: one of my committee members is a not in my program (not even in the state!) and the seminar is one that I sought and applied for on my own.
The thing about roaches, though: they outlast us all and will survive any impending apocalyptic end to this world. And just as my Ace Boom Dr. Stageman said, “we stuck it out through sheer force of will and stubbornness, a refusal to fail even though the powers that be wrote us off. We did it ourselves, and here we are still doing it ourselves, and probably we’ll be in the same damn situation ten years down the road. But we know what we’re made of.”
So, as I reflect upon my student days, and contemplate my mental state post-defense, I have decided to use my memories of the brutal process of obtaining my Ph.D. as well as the condescending and incredibly disrespectful language used by my institution’s administrators as fuel to keep going – a big middle finger to those who hung so many of us out to dry. I will combat those feelings of worthlessness with the reality that at the end of the day, I did it. And I say to you all who are still students in your programs: you are not roaches, you are valuable, you belong in your program, and you will become a Ph.D. – PALANTE!
(* Note: This post is actually a week late – I post every other Tuesday. I don’t know how, but I totally miscalculated and missed a week! Apologies!)
(** Stay tuned! Next post will be our first Guest Blog!)