Graduate School Neuroses

December 03, 2002

I was nearly to campus when I turned my car around and began driving nervously back toward my apartment. I live about 20 minutes from the State University of New York at Albany, and this was not the first time I had wasted nearly 40 minutes of my day by retracing my steps in this fashion. I go through this routine for one reason: to make sure the coffeepot is turned off, because if it is not, my apartment and its contents (the four out of five completed chapters of my dissertation, my clothes, about 700 books, and my cat) will burn to the ground while I'm away.

A neurosis is any routinized behavior or thought, which done once in a while would be no big deal, but when done in a "neurotic" fashion interferes markedly with one's daily life (e.g., by making you 40 minutes late). Freud defined the repetition compulsion as one of the key forms a neurosis can take. He argued that such ritualistic, repetitive thoughts and behaviors (now known in common parlance as "obsessive compulsive disorder") enable the neurotic to repress information in the unconscious that might be too painful to face consciously. The compulsion enables the individual to "forget" what is really bothering her by counting, washing her hands, avoiding sidewalk cracks, eating compulsively, or repeatedly returning home to check for coffeepot fires. While outwardly maladaptive, these behaviors ensure some measure of psychic preservation.

Being in my seventh year of graduate studies in sociology, I have witnessed more than a few doctoral students moving through the last years of their training, past the dissertation defense, and onto the job market. The development of neurotic compulsions, I have noticed, is a regular feature of this final phase of the graduate-school game. In fact, most of the graduate students I have known -- talented and brilliant people to be sure, and people who, to my knowledge, were once well adjusted -- turned, just around the time leading up to their dissertation defenses and the job-market gantlet into complete, raving neurotics.

For example, my friend Noreen was, for the entire time I knew her in graduate school, in top physical health. In fact, I don't remember her having so much as a cold. Noreen was a level-headed, driven woman and a very talented sociologist.

Midway into her seventh year, however, she developed a fairly severe case of hypochondria. The slightest tinge in her stomach was a tumor. A headache was a mild stroke. During those last harrowing months, Noreen "suffered" from cancer, heart palpitations and murmurs, an infected esophagus, irritable bowel syndrome, rheumatoid arthritis, and several other polysyllabic diseases whose names I can't pronounce.

I remember picking up the phone to hear Noreen's weakened voice: "I'm dying." At first I was concerned. Who wouldn't be? But after several of these calls a week, it became increasingly difficult to feign concern. "Can I have your jazz collection?" I'd think to myself. I contemplated sneaking into her apartment during one of her weekly visits to the doctor and stealing her growing cache of medical books and magazines (which are to hypochondriacs as cigarettes are to chain smokers).

Thankfully, Noreen received a job offer for a tenure-track position and was, within days, cured!

Or take as another example my best friend, Nate, who is on the verge of completing his dissertation, and like me, awakens every morning to anxious thoughts about whether we have wasted the last several years of our lives only to become soldiers in the army of temporary academic laborers (i.e., adjuncts) who live out of their cars as they migrate hundreds of miles every week from one teaching job to the next. He has always been a clean person, but recently, Nate has become so clean that his wife, Judy, has had to cordon off all of her belongings in a separate room of their house in order to stave off Nate's constant nagging about clutter. We call that room "the sanity ghetto."

On a recent visit to see them, I saw the frustration on Judy's face when Nate walked in, and upon seeing a stack of three or four bills sitting on the kitchen table, demanded indignantly, "How are we supposed to live here??!!" Nate is a very talented human geographer, and probably knows more about world hunger and globalization than 95 percent of the people in his field. I'm certain he'll get a good job and be a shining success. If not, I've told him, he can always be an antibacterial soap tester.

So, I wondered while making the trek back to my apartment (to find the coffeepot, as any sane person would predict, unplugged), what are we to make of all these late-term graduate-student neuroses? Indeed, what would Freud say -- about Noreen's hypochondriasis, Nate's clutter-phobia, and my repetitive fears of flaming coffeepots?

Interestingly, Freud says these repetition compulsions can be treated as any old fantasy. They give individuals a false, but productive, sense of agency over situations in which they can exercise little if any real control. Nate, for example, knows he will be subjected, like all of us, to the brutal turbulence of an unpredictable academic job market. But by exercising rigid control over his (and Judy's) tangible environment, he can feel some sense of relief at being able to control something, even if that something is the number of magazines that have been allowed to collect on the coffee table.

Furthermore, as fantasies these compulsions are -- strange as it may sound -- wish fulfillments. Not only do they provide a false sense of self-control, they are an expression of infantile, irrational desires and a flight from "the reality principle" of adult life. This makes sense if we realize that no matter how bad graduate school is, it is a protective space, a kind of delayed adolescence compared with the real, vicious, adult world of publishing and the tenure track. Leaving the graduate school "womb," although we consciously desire it, is a loss, and like all losses, this one brings our "inner child" screaming indignantly to the surface of outward behavior.

For Noreen, being ill, even fatally ill, would have been preferable to the cold, uncaring gazes of the people sitting on the other side of the hiring table asking things like, "What, in detail, are your next 10 research projects, and how, specifically, will you fund them?" When you're ill, people take care of you, nurture you, and recognize your humanity. Rarely is such warmth and humanity present in the world of curriculum vitae, publishing histories, and pedagogic philosophies.

Similarly, for myself, coming home to a charred pile of rubble that used to be an apartment, aside from signifying catastrophe, would mean the end of my dissertation, and an easy way out of the anxiety and recurring sense of failure that necessarily accompanies the job-search experience. If my house burned down, my inner child whispers, I could just go home, recover, and live with my parents -- forever and ever!

My friends and I are not exactly gentle when it comes to poking fun at each other's mental and emotional hang-ups. But rest assured that although these neuroses are fantasies, although they can be funny, they are an expression of real psychic pain.

My advice to people entering the golden years of graduate school? Become aware of your neurosis as soon as it develops. You might not be able to stop it, but by being aware of the fact that it is really just a response to living through a completely insane "life transition," you can at the very least develop a good sense of humor about it.

For in the end, Nietzsche probably knew a good deal more about madness than Freud, and to the too-serious and gloomy his Zarathustra entreated, "Not by wrath does one kill but by laughter. Come, let us kill the spirit of gravity!"

Chet Meeks is a doctoral student in sociology at the State University of New York at Albany. He is on the academic market this year searching for his first tenure-track job.