During the last week of a frigid New York February, I walk home from a party with a friend who is in her second year of a doctoral program. Her concerns are familiar: depression, a fear of being alone, a sense of isolation and loneliness from her classmates, and a vague, nagging, terrific disorientation. We joke that we’re in relationships with our computers, hauling them along in some way on every task from work to recreation to spiritual wind-down. While our concerns touch on issues of PhD self care, our laughter acknowledges something more existential: a despair that the women I know seem to encounter in PhD-land and with which my male associates seem blithely unacquainted. What is it about being in a doctoral program that triggers in women this special type of depression? What about it flies in the face of everything we have been taught and at the same time reinforces so many of our most deeply programmed beliefs?
Especially for the older student (i.e., one who has not come straight from college), doctoral programs are a paradox, a constant sense of responsibility paired with ambiguity. On the one hand, you’re a student, with enormous tasks ahead of you to demonstrate your competencies; on the other hand, you are chosen, someone who the department already decided was exceptional and worthy of the presumption that you can and will contribute unique ideas to your field. On the one hand you are an adult with adult friends, relationships, responsibilities, concerns, and physical limitations. On the other hand, you are a student, a mentee, and in the eyes of some, in some ways, a child.
Expectations of women in the working world are a similar paradox. On the one hand, we were told we were adults and were responsible for our own futures; on the other hand, we were told our bodies made us vulnerable to danger and that we must be protected at all times. For those of us who have always been “good” students, we found this a very comfortable way to be female. We knew we were successful because of the praise we got, and could find familiarity and even comfort in the ever-present potential to do even better. Putting ourselves down was a means of connection. A woman who is smart but a little under-confident is charming and worthy of attention; a woman who is smart, arrogant, and irreverent, however, is dangerous and unattractive. So we kept our egos and above average intellects in check, never wanting to threaten our status or anyone else’s. We even came to enjoy this complicated mixture of success and self-deprecation that formed an endless cycle of seeking approval and doubting it.
The PhD process, with all its ambiguities and high expectations, serves as an alien environment to these habits of mind. The intellect is not a tool for gaining the approval of others; to the contrary, it must become the voice of the ego. In other words, it must say not, “Here is what I know, that you may accept it,” as we said so often in grade school and college. In the PhD program, the intellect must say, RI exist, so my truth is legitimate.S This intellect-as-ego is not the reason many women succeed in or enjoy succeeding in school: usually, it is our ability to anticipate what is expected of us and to meet that expectation that leads to successful academic performance for females.
And unsurprisingly, even as we are held to these new emotional expectations, we are still treated in many ways as less valuable than our male colleagues. The pressures placed upon us by spouses and children are dismissed by our advisors because, as modern women, we are expected to demonstrate commitment to career by setting aside everything else. Our male classmates receive close tutelage from our male professors, who keep their distance from us lest relations become uncomfortably close and unseemly. Most of all, and most insidiously, the key to academia is arrogance, and we as women are never taught to be arrogant. We may even be chastised for it, told explicitly or implicitly to back off, to not push so hard.
Going into my proposal defense, I was anxious and nervous about what questions my chair and external readers, all men, might ask me. I did nothing intellectually or academically to prepare; I’d worked all semester on this document and knew there was nothing more I could do to it. I just focused on speaking with gusto until I heard some semblance of an answer come out of my mouth, and then I stopped talking and waited for the next question. My professors could have poked holes in my defense for hours and decided not to pass me; I truly believe it was my bravado, as much as my reasoning, that inspired their confidence. As a feminist, I believe in plurality and provide space for my undergraduates to disagree. But in that defense, my goal was to not be defeated.
PhD benchmarks are called “defenses” because they test the tenacity to insist that one’s own reasoning -one’s own piecing together of data and theory to make a new set of knowledge- is better than anyone else’s. Instead of telling the female doc student that she will succeed because she is smart, tell her she will succeed because she is tenacious, that she is dogged, that she is strong and self-assured. Remind her that the seeds of those necessary characteristics, like the ability to write consistently and persistently, are in her, and she will make them grow. We want our female academics to be fierce scholars, who don’t get caught up in the throes of their own egos and can put all of their energy into identifying and advocating cures to society’s ills. We want them to come to each other not to hide and cry, not to be reassured by each other’s vulnerability. We want them coming to each other -and to us- full of their brilliant ideas, full of themselves.