Memo to grad students: Just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they're not about to give you a Ph.D.
A mild case of paranoia might even help you navigate the tricky path to that terminal degree, says Roderick M. Kramer, a professor of organizational behavior at Stanford University's Graduate School of Business.
It's an academic cliché that graduate students are paranoid, but Mr. Kramer has actually crafted a linear model to explain it. The model depicts how factors common to the graduate-school experience—like being a newcomer unsure of your standing, and knowing that you're being sized up constantly—can ultimately induce social paranoia, a heightened sensitivity to what you imagine others might be thinking about you.
"That self-consciousness translates into a tendency to be extra vigilant and maybe overprocess information on how you're treated," Mr. Kramer says. (He published his model in a 1998 paper, "Paranoid Cognition in Social Systems.")
To be clear, he is not talking about clinical paranoia, an illness he studied at the University of California at Los Angeles under the psychiatrist Kenneth Colby, who had developed a computerized paranoid schizophrenic called PARRY. And Mr. Kramer, who has written extensively on the social psychology of trust and distrust, doesn't regard social paranoia as a pejorative term, either.
"It's meant to be almost a playful label to help people remember the consequences of being in these situations," he says.
Academe, says the cartoonist Jorge Cham, is an ego-driven industry where perception is everything and weakness is perceived as a character flaw.
Mr. Cham abandoned his own academic career as a robotics researcher six years ago to draw his comic-strip parody of grad-school life, Piled Higher and Deeper.
"It's competitive, so people are very afraid of admitting that they're having trouble with their research, or that they're having trouble getting data, or that maybe they need to rethink their hypotheses," says Mr. Cham. That often means that the people best positioned to help a grad student resolve a particular dilemma—the adviser and members of the cohort—are the last ones the student will go to for help.
In spite of the accomplishments listed on their CV's, Mr. Cham says that grad students sometimes pull him aside and privately admit feeling like "they're somehow not smart enough or that they're fooling people—that they feel like impostors."
The students interviewed for this article raised that theme more than once. Anxiety about their standing seemed to vary depending on details like gender, field of study, fellow students' collegiality, and the adviser's attentiveness. The biggest variable, of course, was the student.
"I've never presented a project that I haven't felt like my peers or my faculty would find outstanding because I'm so nervous about being judged harshly," says a graduate student in anthropology at a large state university in the South. Though her adviser is warm and supportive and her fellow-grad students are friendly, she routinely hears them criticizing presentations by scholars from other universities after academic conferences. "The last thing you want to do is be on the other end of that stick," says the student, who describes scholarly research and presentation as an "academic performance" with its own precise language and exacting standards.
And as a woman in science she is up against what Mr. Kramer says is one of the primary antecedents to grad-student paranoia: the feeling of being socially distinct—a token. "I'm constantly curious about whether I'm being taken seriously," she says. "I'm very aware of hemlines, how much my neckline plummets, if I'm wearing too much makeup."
Like most graduate students interviewed for this article, she agreed to speak only if guaranteed anonymity. Does that sound a little paranoid? Mr. Kramer might deem it wise. A mild social paranoia can actually be helpful, he says, because it can trigger the types of "prudent and adaptive" behaviors that the anthropology student described, like adjusting your speech or appearance to fit in. It might also cause you not to want a reporter to use your name when you reveal that sometimes you feel a little paranoid.
Paranoia Has Its Pluses
Bradley Ricca earned his doctorate in 2003 from Case Western Reserve University, where today he is a lecturer in English. He recalls experiencing his own adaptive response to grad-student paranoia while preparing for his comprehensive exams. Mr. Ricca, who had been given two questions to study, got word that a friend who was also taking the exams was poised to set the curve.
"I heard that he had not only already written extensive outlines and copy for his answers, but he had footnoted them as well," Mr. Ricca wrote in an e-mail describing the incident. "I froze in my Doc Martens."
Mr. Ricca skipped sleep for nearly a week, writing out his answers and footnoting them. Both men passed their comps, and while Mr. Ricca never did find out whether the rumor about his friend was true, he credits "the paranoia inherent in English departments" with motivating him to study harder.
"English studies seems, to me, a culture laced with paranoia," Mr. Ricca says. "Where are the jobs? Where is the funding? What are we doing this decade?"
People who work in creative programs often suffer the worst from social paranoia, says Mr. Kramer, who began his own academic career as an English major aspiring to publish novels and screenplays.
"The more subjective the enterprise, the more uncertainty about the evaluative standard, the easier it is to overprocess information," he says. "You don't have that objective reference."
One former graduate student in a "cutthroat writing program" sums it up: "When someone criticizes your poem, you think, 'Why do they hate me so much?'"
Mr. Kramer says it's up to good doctoral advisers to minimize that dysfunctional suspicion. "They should stay in touch with their students. They should give them regular feedback that lets them know where they stand—not false feedback to make them unduly optimistic—but realistic feedback."
A female graduate of a different writing program—one where the cohort was much younger than she was and the faculty largely male and unsupportive—credits her survival to valuable mentoring from a new (male) faculty member who wasn't part of the old guard. She also followed the advice of a more senior grad student: "Invest your ego somewhere else and find some support system that's separate from this program—your family, your lover, or whoever."
In her case, the woman bonded with a fellow student who was also in her late 20s, and the two women helped each other gauge when their peers' criticisms were valid and when they were simply rooted in competition.
Such social support systems are a "very adaptive, healthy strategy that reduces uncertainty about your standing," Mr. Kramer says.
But a graduate student in clinical psychology at a public university in the Northeast says he's seen problems result when people try to function as both confidant and classmate.
"Business and pleasure often get mixed together when you're working 80 hours a week and you spend 90 percent of your waking moments with the same people," he says. "You really rely on these people to satisfy multiple roles, and trying to maintain these things certainly can ramp up the anxiety."
Also muddying his department's mental-health waters, he says, is that clinical psychologists sometimes take on some of the characteristics of the patients they work with.
"There might be a bit of an overrepresentation in terms of how people tend to express themselves, just given the content of what we study," he says.
"We tend to adopt the mind-set of those we're trying to conceptualize."
Adding to the anxiety, he says, are the same things that his peers in other disciplines worry about, like whether they're successfully evolving from students into professionals, and whether the gamble of grad school will pay off financially.
"I'm aware of people experiencing symptoms of paranoia or this feeling of disassociating when they're under heightened anxiety for prolonged periods of time, which seems to be the definition, in many ways, of graduate school," he says.
Sometimes, he says, the pressure students feel to demonstrate their mastery of the subject to professors comes at the expense of relationships with their peers. He's even seen students confront one another for talking too loudly or in other ways overshadowing their classmates.
A medical student at the same Northeast institution admits that he and others spend a disproportionate amount of time mulling how to impress their professors in hopes of getting favorable letters of recommendation for their residency applications.
On rotations they may work with a particular professor for only three or four weeks, a short time "to demonstrate that we're personable and that we have the knowledge they demand from us," he says. Grad students feel they must keep themselves at the fore of their professors' minds.
In truth, Mr. Kramer says, most faculty members don't actually spend much time thinking about their graduate students. In a study published in 1996, he found that graduate students estimated that their professors spent 32.4 minutes a week ruminating on their individual faculty-student relationships. The professors estimated that it was more like 10 minutes. Mr. Kramer speculates that, because self-reported data are notoriously unreliable, the actual difference is even greater.
When he meets former students at Stanford alumni events, he says by way of example, many of them remain self-conscious about middling grades they made in his classes 10 or 15 years earlier.
"They're processing the whole thing in terms of this evaluation that took place 10 years ago, and for me it's not even a memory," he says.
They needn't feel paranoid, says Mr. Kramer. Really, he's just glad to see them.
Jorge Cham’s popular comic strip, Piled Higher and Deeper, taps into graduate students’ fears about what their advisers think. Meanwhile, research shows that professors spend much less time thinking about their grad students than students imagine.