Tissues in Aisle 9, Please

When I started this draft on Friday night I originally planned to write about how I found myself in the middle of a grocery store aisle crying so much that a store employee brought me a package of tissues, and said, “You look like you need these, hope things settle soon.” I had some excellent points about the last two months, and the stress of my job, and the energy required to manage everything during a pandemic.

But…as I sit here on this cool Monday morning, drinking coffee, I’m not sure I’m ready for that much vulnerability 🙂 I’ve decided to focus on something else (although related): how to support graduate students through the stress of graduate school.

There are multiple forms of stress in graduate school. There are the administrative stresses, which include coursework, paperwork, and the requisite processes (e.g. plans of study, preliminary exams, defenses). Then there are the professional development stresses, which often involve preparing conference submissions, publications, attending conferences, and job searching.

Then there’s what I call the existential stress. Existential stress is how graduate school affects our sense of self. This type of stress affects us all, but in very unique ways. And for Black and Brown graduate students, existential stress is also informed by the underlying factors of white supremacy and patriarchy and capitalism. Conversations with graduate students that begin over workload and time management often evolve into questions of fit and comfort and support, especially around their identities. I often joke about not selling your soul for a degree and there’s some truth here–often graduate schools expect some type of soul selling. The key is avoiding this as much as you can. Having faculty help you here is essential.

If this were a different type of blog, I might offer a list of suggestions for how to best advise students in the case of existential stress. But I’m still figuring this out myself, and you’d have to talk to the grad students I work with to know if I’m doing it well. Here are the things I do try to do:

  • Don’t dismiss. One of my favorite phrases to use here is “Your situation is unique and you are not alone.” I do not try to convince them that they are misinterpreting the situation.
  • Don’t start to problem solve. Before offering advice or tips, ask if this is what the student wants. A quick “is this a conversation where you want me to provide feedback or where you just want me to listen?” allows the student to decide what and how to share.
  • Don’t shill for the institution. The institution is incredibly problematic. It’s ok to let grad students know this. I never defend shitty policies or processes. I explain why institutions have them (see: gatekeeping) and how to navigate them. But I never pretend they are neutral.
  • Don’t forget boundaries–for yourself and for your students. I say no to students all the time and set limits around access. This is to protect me. However, this means encouraging students to do the same and respecting their boundaries with regard to their own work.

Since I’m a firm believer in the human condition being on display, I wasn’t particularly concerned about crying in a grocery store, even though I could tell people felt uncomfortable. I extend this belief to the graduate students who trust me enough to have these conversations with me. I don’t want them to be particularly concerned with what I think. What I want is for them to see I’m committed to them as individuals. I want them to see me as someone who helps with their stress and does not create or contribute to it. I want to be the person handing them tissues, sitting with them as things settle.

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