Academia and your Identity

Kate Samardzic recently wrote a helpful article that illustrates what she wished her friends and family knew about her PhD experience. It captures the experience of many of the graduate students that I know, reading it can be a way to understand better what it’s like to be in graduate school.

In the article, Samardzic highlights the challenge of your identity becoming too wrapped up in academia. She notes:

“For PhD students, our work becomes closely aligned with our self-worth, and we take failures hard. We need to be resilient, and as we struggle to learn academic resilience, we need our friends and family to understand that what we are feeling isn’t just normal ‘job’ stress, and respond to our requests for support accordingly.”

She challenges friends and family to encourage and challenge her in the following way:

“Our self-worth is closely aligned with our work, and when things go wrong, it can really feel like the end of the world. Remind us that it isn’t actually the end of the world. Remind us that every day is a new day and that today’s struggles are a normal part of the scientific process.”

Mental Health and Graduate School

As we’ve noted before on this blog, “graduate students are at a greater risk for mental health issues than the general population.” A recent study by Harvard quoted in The Atlantic reiterates this, noting that “the study’s results, which also include survey responses from nearly 200 faculty members, indicate that many Ph.D. students’ mental-health troubles are exacerbated, if not caused, by their graduate-education experiences.”

The article notes the high pressure in graduate school, but also highlights how graduate school can feel meaningless:

“Compounding the pressures is the sense, at least according to the economics Ph.D. candidates surveyed by the Harvard researchers, that their work isn’t useful or beneficial to society. Only a quarter of the study’s respondents reported feeling as if their work was useful always or most of the time, compared with 63 percent of the entire working-age population. Only a fifth of the respondents thought that they had opportunities to make a positive impact on their community.”

Please continue to pray for those struggling with the challenges of graduate school: not just the difficult workload, but also the difficulty in seeing how their efforts are meaningful.

Adapting your Spiritual Disciplines for Grad school

The Emerging Scholars Network has a helpful article that gives wisdom for adapting one’s spiritual disciplines to the challenges of graduate school. The author, Chandra Crane, highlights “the value of simple, flexible, and defined spiritual disciplines. Or, to put it more succinctly, the urgency of having healthy boundaries between spiritual disciplines which give life and energy, and spiritual disciplines which require effort and sacrifice.” As the author points out, graduate school is complicated and asks a lot of people: “the realities of graduate school are often not enough time, money, or energy. So trying to do the exact same spiritual disciplines in a new season of life is often a recipe for disaster.”

She recommends adapting one’s practice of spiritual disciplines to be more simple: “streamlined, shorter, and/or less rigorous.” She graciously points out that “Accepting this limitation isn’t “settling” so much as settling in, understanding one’s finite nature (as opposed to God’s omnipotence), and adjusting to the realities of a new stage in life.” Reflecting that, she argues that “spiritual disciplines must be flexible enough to handle the constant changes in our lives as our schedules are interrupted and rearranged, and as our energy and stress levels ebb and flow.” For examples of what simple, flexible, and defined might look like, as well as further wisdom on spiritual disciplines, I recommend that you read the whole article.

Difficult conversations in Academia

Academia is not immune to difficult conversations, as a recent article in Inside Higher Ed illustrates. In the article, Stephen J. Aguilar notes that:

“Misunderstandings in academe are common and often innocuous, yet they can create conflict. Perhaps someone misheard something you said, and now they are angry with you. Perhaps they heard your words correctly but comprehended them in a manner that did not align with your intent. Or perhaps they interpreted your silence in a way that was inconsistent with the message you wanted to send.

The rest of the article provides wisdom on navigating misunderstandings and conflict. Not surprisingly, it is similar to much of the advice given by the authors of Difficult Conversations.

Walking and Praying for Campus

Emerging Scholars Network recently published an article by Jamie Noyd which provided suggestions for how walking can be a means for praying for one’s campus. She envisions the campus as a crossroads, “a place of intersection where the church and academia meet.”

Noyd has walked the campus weekly this past year, praying that she would see the university campus as God does. She notes that “the discipline of being present on campus and looking has slowly been changing [her] heart and helping [her] to recognize the presence of God’s kingdom in this place.”

Noyd gives the following suggestions for how others might also walk through campus and pray for the university:

  • “Look at the buildings – old and new – and pray for the work going on in them.
  • Look at posters of upcoming lectures and events. Are you drawn to attend any of them?  How can you pray for them?
  • Ask for compassion for the students, faculty, and staff walking past – and pray that they may be blessed.
  • Ask God to show you the good way to live out the good news on campus and the courage to walk in it.”

For more suggestions for how to grow spiritually while being connected to academia, I encourage you to read more of the series.

Humility: Spiritual wisdom for academics

The Emerging Scholars Network has been doing a series on spiritual wisdom for those in academia. A recent article highlighted growing in humility. The author, Johnny Lin, notes how much self-importance and pride can affect those of us in academia:

A major “spiritual occupational hazard” for an academic is thinking too much of yourself. This can show itself as pride and arrogance . . . or finding yourself unable to understand the students in a class you’ve taught one too many times.

He goes on to highlight that

The traditional antidote to pride has been humility. For an academic, C.S. Lewis’s view of humility as a kind of “self-forgetfulness” is particularly helpful: Do I rejoice in another’s accomplishments no more (or less) than if it were my own (or if it were a phenomena of nature)? 

What that looks like in practice is different for everyone, but as Lin notes, it probably involves at least some of the following:

  • Don’t find your sole/primary identity in our job;
  • Take a Sabbath as it reminds us that the world can function without us and that it’s not on the basis of our efforts that we succeed;
  • “Purposely pursue and embrace mystery in some area of life.”
  • Trust God for every aspect of your career.

Time to reflect

In the short break between semesters, and as we enter into a new year, I encourage you to reflect on what it might look like to live more fully trusting in God’s abundance in our lives. This includes wondering what seasons it might be appropriate to work “too much,” while also challenging the length of those seasons and even the unspoken assumption that grad school (or academia) implicitly involves always working too much.

Heather Walker Peterson wrote a helpful reflection questioning what assumptions we make when we work all the time:

I’ve come to believe that when I had lived attempting to do all things well, ironically I was treating God as a God of scarcity instead of a God of abundance. By not following God’s command to rest, I was like the children of Israel trying to collect manna on the Sabbath when I needed to have gathered a little extra the day before. If God is a God of scarcity, I am required to do more and do it well for him (and me) to look good, but if he’s a God of abundance, then I must trust that I can take risks, listen for discernment, and focus on what I discern as the most important.

What might it look like to live into God’s abundance this coming semester/year?

Loving the grad student in your life

Christian Courier recently published an article by Meghan Kort on how to love the grad student in your life. She begins by explaining a bit about the mental health challenges of grad school and then provides wisdom about “how churches, families, and friends can show more love when we encounter stressed-out grad students in our lives. The following are some helpful (and unhelpful) questions that she provides that can help you reach out to, encourage, and love the grad students that you encounter.

  1. Asking what they’re going to do when they graduate is unhelpful because “life rarely moves as planned.” They know that there’s probably not a huge niche for their expertise “but they are working on figuring out how their God-given curiosities fit into the larger questions that run this world.”
  2. Helpful: “Your research sounds really specific/interesting/unique. What led you to this area of study?” You probably have little connection to their specific topic but you might just have connections with the how and why they came to study that topic.
  3. and 4. Not so helpful: “How is your thesis going?” or “When will you be finished?” A variation of these questions are found in PhD comic’s second most popular comic on what accounts for bad manners in grad school.
  4. Better questions might be “How was your week? Have you been reading anything interesting lately? What parts of your research/writing/teaching do you find most energizing?”

We need to lend extra understanding and patience to grad students as they experience the stops and starts of their academic paths. Some months, they may disappear into the lab or library and check out of church life. At other times they are surprisingly available and eager to apply their skills to church ministries. Ask “what works best for you?” when looking for commitments and try to be flexible with last minute changes.

We need to challenge ourselves to look past what we do not understand about grad students’ research or career decisions and engage with them as valuable members of our churches, families and communities. Long-time campus chaplains and professors, Neil and Virginia Lettinga hope that “more churches would bluntly say to grad students that they are a beloved part of the community – even as they flutter in and out.” As we extend our patience, compassion and love, grad students will find that your presence is a welcome embrace next to the sometimes icy and often isolating ivory tower.

Farming metaphors for grad school

Heather Dubrow at Inside Higher Ed recently wrote a poem describing grad school using farming metaphors. The metaphors of diversifying crops, nutritional value, and efforts bearing fruit are helpful for understanding how complicated academia (and grad school) can be. Below are several excerpts from the poem:

Orange Harvest Moon

A field exuberantly growing
careers that will be harvested?
Or does that promised carrot
just glimmer on some hope-filled pond?

Look — so many universities
dangle that carrot
to feed their hunger for applicants . . .

how about the programs that attempt
to diversify by rotating crops —
Professor? But maybe arts administrator, technical writer, editor…
Are these new carrots wholesome food?
Can this new menu sustain and be sustained?”

I encourage you to go to the website to read the whole poem, including her praise of those in academia who continue to go above and beyond the call of duty.