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Does Grad School Affect Personality – Adversely?

Here’s another article that SHOULD ignite some controversy – but I’m afraid the author may be right.  IS it normal for grad school to change otherwise normal, well-adjusted, functioning adults into paranoids?  DOES grad school change personalities (negatively)?

Is it possible to humanize grad school?

Freedom to Learn, by Carl Rogers, the great humanist-psychologist, was published in 1969. I can still remember my thrill when I read the chapter on what grad school COULD be like. He advocated positive support for all grad students once they were admitted. That meant treating them from the beginning like colleagues-t0-be, who could be mentored, and guided to become great learners and teachers.

What the article linked (above) assumes is that (paranoid) grad students are reacting to being treated like competitors-to-be, with suspicion, and being critiqued and tested continuously, at least until the degree is conferred (and after too, if they are seen then as competitors-for-real).

My take is that the way grad students are being treated is analogous to the way those suspected of having committed crimes are treated in much of the non-US world – guilty until proven innocent. Or, lacking until proven able – which, in grad school, is pretty serious as a suspected crime.

Carl Rogers did not subscribe to a survival-of-the-fittest model of graduate education. He assumed that every single one could produce great scholarship, and he invited teamwork-like collaboration among the members of the intellectual community to support grad students through their learning and transition, rather than making it an ordeal to be survived.

Since I read that chapter, quite a few years ago, I have wondered if there are any academic departments around the country following that enlightened model.  Please let me know if you have experience of one of them…..

This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. You’ve added a lot of good reasons why grad school is such an uphill battle in so many departments, Mr. Personality. Thank you. When I look at the list, I suppose I should be thankful that the phrase, “going postal” hasn’t turned into “going academic.” Or, do you suppose grad students get depressed, rather than angry?

    I also agree with your mention of phd students and tenured academics getting disconnected from society outside the walls of the Ivory Tower. But, could you tell me more of what’s in your mind when you say that? Do you mean they can’t help their students find non-academic jobs? Or, is there more to what you’re saying?

  2. Yeah, survival of the fittest doesn’t make sense at the PhD level, especially since it can select for those who don’t have better places to go and for those who simply have enough external financial support (e.g. spousal, parental), those who don’t need to be socially motivated, etc, instead of selecting for the best.

    I suspect that this isn’t the only cause of stress in grad school: a tough job market and repeated uprooting and isolation from outside community and once’s family and friends from before grad school also add to this. But as far as treating grad students like colleagues vs. not, I think unfortunately most faculty think of PhD students as *students*, not *colleagues*. I don’t know of any departments that treats its grad students like colleagues, but I do know one faculty member who treats (all? some?) graduate students as one would treat a colleague/ someone with loads of potential to groom and collaborate with, takes them to conferences, gives them constructive and clear feedback on their work, etc.

    The stance at some departments is that graduate students are cheap labor. Faculty travel to conferences while grad students stay at home. Faculty in humanities are also often not used to collaboration, so what they call an ‘apprenticeship’ is not what I would call that.

    Getting trained to do something which society doesn’t really need (with the exception of a few fields) or rather has too much of already given labor demand probably doesn’t help either. The fact that you are giving up freedom of geographic mobility and have to be thankful for any job with way over 40 hours a week at 20k to 55k a year that might be anywhere in the country or even the world — that can be pretty humiliating too. It probably also doesn’t help that phd students and tenured academics too get disconnected from society outside the walls of the Ivory Tower. Things can also take years longer than expected, which doesn’t help. And you realize you’re no longer quite as special as you thought you were before you went in? And also suddenly advisors can get really picky with your work — albeit even with the good intention of preparing you for the job market. Lots of reasons for a potential drop in self-esteem and adverse effect on personality.

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