From my research, to teaching, to actually caring for my human suit along the way, I’ll lay out what a trauma-informed PhD path can look like for you and/or your students.
Mental health is more than just self-care
I am fortunate that we do get a lot of mental health support in my PhD program; this means insurance covers good therapy and several people in positions of authority model basic literacy around self-care and mental health. We get the “self-care” breaks and encouragements to rest. A big thank you for that. But mental health in the PhD program cannot be patched up with a few cookie breaks and mindfulness emails (my department does much better than this, so excuse the hyperbole). But mental health in the PhD program needs to be more than “take enough rest so that you can be productive”. Mental health will flourish from doing research that matters, having a culture that stands against immediacy, access to therapy, genuine accountability from people in positions of power, and lots and lots of trauma-informed reflection.
“But mental health in the PhD program needs to be more than `take enough rest so that you can be productive’. ”
Trauma recovery often involves releasing shame
But in my experience in the PhD program, I have actually witnessed a whole academic culture that revolves around shame! One of the deep fears I used to harbor was that I was nothing without my intelligence; and that if I wasn’t able to keep up my life wouldn’t be worth much. It sounds so sad when you write it down, huh? But I have seen so many people defend their honor and intelligence in harmful ways; using big words to purposefully make others feel smaller, distinguishing between “hard” and “soft” methods and creating in and out-groups, writing reviews that are simply cruel, or even just discounting others’ lived experience because it threatens their ego. And I have been guilty of especially the first one; building up my skill in math because it made me feel worthy and “smart enough”. But there are so many people who can do math better than me; but there is no one else who can be exactly like me. I choose to shine in other ways now; like helping others not feel dumb like I did. Number one rule of how to not perpetuate a culture of shame in a PhD program: speak up casually and directly when you don’t understand something. Don’t let it fester. Ask people to clarify and communicate, and set the example of asking questions that might seem “obvious”, without being embarrassed about it.
Developing other measures of success and progress for yourself, and learn to reconnect with what makes you feel alive
I often say that the PhD has very few “obvious wins”. I would say those would be getting the degree, getting a paper published, presenting at a conference, scoring an internship. But those are few and far between (or maybe just the once!), and there is A LOT more time of not having those “obvious wins”. A big part of trauma recovery is reconnecting with your here-and-now experiences. Trauma dissociates us, whereas trauma recovery associates us to the world around us. So how can we use those principles to reconnect with the life we are actually living? Not just the paper acceptances or the conference presentations; but the day to day experience of working on our projects and our lives.
“A big part of trauma recovery is reconnecting with your here-and-now experiences. Trauma dissociates us, whereas trauma recovery associates us to the world around us.”
I like to connect with the Earth, poetry, rollerskating, activism projects, movement, cute cartoons, art, writing, loving, cooking, eating, smiling, teaching, and experiencing what it means to be alive. For me, this is all part of developing myself as a scholar and human. I am a lifelong scholar of the world, and I can only help my research by reflecting deeply on my reality and the wonderful things in it. I will become a better researcher and better human by being out in the world.
I believe most of our time should be spent on things that give us purpose
Maybe that sounds idealistic. But part of trauma recovery is reclaiming my power over my own life. That means learning to say “no thank you” when people treat you less than, or when you are bored out of your mind. We must be brave enough to demand better for ourselves. And for me, that comes out in my research. I care pretty deeply about what I do; and I’m not even the best at it. I care about empowering people to understand how machine learning works so that they can effectively resist harmful algorithms. That’s my sacred work. I have connected to that through my own recovery and acceptance that I am allowed to take up space with my grand ideas. When I worked at RStudio, my mentor would say “are you having fun? If you’re not having fun, then we need to make a change.” So if it’s for yourself or for your students, just make sure to ask “are you having fun?” or “are you feeling fulfilled?”.
Trauma recovery is a full-time job. Don’t expect speedy research
“I’d rather take those moments to reflect on how my next project might help people feel less alone, or more understood, or more empowered, or more inspired. Because my number one job is to help myself feel less alone, more understood, more empowered, and more inspired.”
It has taken me so much time to figure this one out. I simply cannot work as fast as others; and for the first time in my life, I don’t really care! Of course I want to keep my advisor happy, stay on track with my progress, and not stay in the program for a million years; but I will not waste another second of my limited time chastising myself for not churning out papers. Most of my time is spent on unlearning survival patterns I have relied on in my life, and reflecting on what a whole and integrated and alive and authentic version of myself looks like. Don’t get me wrong, this “leaks” right into my research. And I personally think it makes my research special, with clear notes of self-compassion, non-judgment, clear vision, and optimism sprinkled throughout the pages. But I have finally accepted that it also makes me slower than some of my peers; and I simply cannot care about that for one more second! I’d rather take those moments to reflect on how my next project might help people feel less alone, or more understood, or more empowered, or more inspired. Because my number one job is to help myself feel less alone, more understood, more empowered, and more inspired.
“I personally think it makes my research special, with clear notes of self-compassion, non-judgment, clear vision, and optimism sprinkled throughout the pages.”
Someone in your classroom is struggling
I teach with the idea that someone in the room is currently experiencing whatever it is you’re talking about. It’s easy to lecture at a hall of silent students (or turned off cameras on Zoom), and easy to say things you wouldn’t normally say if someone came to you with an actual problem. If you’ve heard me talk about data sets in machine learning education, you know I don’t like datasets about things like crime/assault or cancer deaths or things like that without compassionate context. While I don’t think we should tiptoe around anything sensitive, I think we should clearly state our allyship and compassion before diving into whatever we do. Something as simple as “We are going to do some problems on cancer survival rate, which can be a really hard subject. We do this to reflect the kind of work scientists might do to help find a cure or to help patients, and we also recognize that several of you in this room may know someone with cancer”. You can read more about these suggestions in an article I wrote about integrating social justice into data science.
More than just the subject material, but how you speak becomes the example for your students. If you shame yourself for taking vacation days, or judge other professors openly, or imply that you’re smarter than your students, or criticize the students who are doing poorly, or can’t share even an ounce of vulnerability (such as “I struggled in college too with this one class…”), then you set the tone for the class. Be warned, you can accidentally swing over the other way with this as well; opening up the class for so much vulnerability and compassion that you can’t actually teach anything! But a little bit can go a long way.
What you don’t like about yourself, you will criticize in others
“But as you start to make peace with what you don’t totally like about yourself, you start feeling a lot kinder towards everyone around you. You become less defensive about your research, you review with kinder words, you understand your students struggles more, and you open yourself up to learn from people you would have written off in the past.”
Feeling unproductive? At least you’re not lazy like so-and-so. Feeling isolated and kind of dorky? At least you’re not a total weirdo like so-and-so. Feeling like your research isn’t being valued? At least you don’t do that stupid project like so-and-so does. Something I have never seen taught in schools is how to undo the projection we so naturally tend towards. Trauma recovery helps us find what has triggered us in the past, or disturbed us about our parents or relationships or experiences of poverty or abuse or disaster… trauma recovery helps us reconnect with the here-and-now, learning safer patterns of behavior to live a fuller life. One survival mechanism is to shove down what we don’t like about ourselves, and to criticize it when we see it obviously in other people. This leaks into people’s research, teaching, mentoring styles, and more. We are all guilty of doing this, myself included. But as you start to make peace with what you don’t totally like about yourself, you start feeling a lot kinder towards everyone around you. You become less defensive about your research, you review with kinder words, you understand your students struggles more, and you open yourself up to learn from people you would have written off in the past. It’s really easy to be insecure and pick apart other people; it’s much scarier to gently and compassionately pick apart yourself so that you can grow.
As always, you can reach out to me via email (email@example.com) if you aren’t feeling heard in your current situation and have questions or need a place to vent.