Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Academic Monkey Gives Unsolicited Advice

Note: This might be the first in a regular series, or just something I do when I've been drinking, or a one-off post that never happens again. Most of the questions I think about have been paraphrased from conversations in my presence or openly stolen from more successful advice columnists on the interwebz. Where necessary, I have boiled down to just gist rather than let people drone on for 5 pages. 

~ Academic Monkey

Problem Posed:
I am a male first-year graduate student who lives in school housing across from "Ted," a belligerent, drunk and drug-abusing classmate who won't leave me alone. He sends me dozens of texts each day prompting me to engage in deep, intellectual conversations about his emotional problems. His unreasonable behavior around other students makes it clear why he doesn't have other friends. I have people-pleasing tendencies, which is why I have tolerated him so far. I would like to cut him off so I can focus on my studies, but I'm not sure how. He has said to me that he has fantasies about beating up people who upset him. I suggested that he see one of the school's free therapists, but he insists that I am better than any therapist.

Unsolicited Advice:

I remember my first year of grad school, when a fellow grad student (a fourth-year! How posh!) be-friended me and began to break down her life in terms of Kafka and Foucault. Sometimes she did this in class. Sometimes she shared it over drinks after seminar. I thought I was proving myself by befriending the ABD set and getting half her references. Stylish!

Then I met her four cats, one of which was so sick that it just sat in her house, openly bleeding from its ears, while my new friend talked about how heaven was a social construct that her dying cat didn't believe in. There was some hoarding going on in the house (aside from the cats). We went to a department-related wedding together, where Cat Lady got drunk and sat in the middle of the dance floor crying about wanting to sleep with her advisor. Members of the department would knowingly wink about it for years afterward.

There is something special about academia. It draws in a certain sort of person, the successful and smart type, who then engage in the practice of constantly deconstructing everything around them until they have deconstructed themselves into nothing. It's ambition mixed with destruction. Social boundaries no longer have any meaning. Reading this letter reminded me of a friend, "Edward", who confessed to a crowded seminar of 15 students that he had been molested as a child, and that the molestation helped him to understand that week's reading in a very special light. He then began to cry and finally the professor gave us a fiver so "Edward" could get a hold of himself.

It is not your responsibility to balance other people's lives. Friendships during grad school are vital to success, lest you disappear into the library and never escape. But friendships should remain acquaintance-level drinking/bitching buddies, not psychological inter-dependence. You have to let go of Ted. You have plenty of excuses why: classes, teaching, research. If appropriate, reach out to a graduate advisor so people are aware of Ted's problems, but then disengage.

Plus, if you have to get all wrapped up in an inappropriate relationship during grad school, you might as well get some sex out of it. Turn Ted loose and let him figure out how to drop out all by himself.


  1. "There is something special about academia. It draws in a certain sort of person, the successful and smart type, who then engage in the practice of constantly deconstructing everything around them until they have deconstructed themselves into nothing." - AM

    “When scholars study a thing, they strive to kill it first, if it's alive; then they have the parts and the'be lost the whole, for the link that's missing was the living soul.”
    ― Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Faust, Part One

  2. My former professor introduced me to his gradflake so I could give said gradflake some advice on his dissertation. Said gradflake then offered to send me links to the 3 webcams he had going 24/7 in his apartment. Needless to say, when the gradflake later invited me to collaborate on a research project with him, I politely declined, prompting a string of abusive emails from him, and then, mercifully, he decided to "punish" me by never contacting me again....

    1. ...breathe deeply...back away...RUN RUN RUN

  3. Let me just say that an unsolicited advice column is just the ticket. Go Monkey!

  4. Works for me, too. Maybe you could give unsolicited advice to those Princeton Ph.D.s whose applications you've been reading?

    1. OH MY GOD I hadn't even thought of that...

      (although the Princeton reference was to my circle of friends, many of whom are 3 years out with PhDs and still struggling to get interviews because no one takes them seriously at a CC job or second tier rural school and they don't have the extra talents needed to create jobs out of nothing)

    2. Well, wherever you came across it, I think Princeton (and similar institutions) needs to hear it (lets just say that what you describe above sounds like a very familiar scenario -- from 20+ years ago, which suggests that not much has changed/is changing in the Ivy League).

      Or maybe you've just told them (can't believe somebody at Princeton doesn't have a google alert set on the university name. Whether they care about their reputation as a grad school is another question.)

      Still, I think it would be useful for prospective and current grad students to read -- both those who are at Ivies and thinking they're set thanks to the school's reputation, their advisors' connections, etc., etc., and those at supposedly "lesser" places who think the Ivy Ph.D.s are going to get all the jobs, when in fact they may be in a far better position to make themselves widely marketable.

    3. I think it goes to show you that different groups of unis have different strengths and weaknesses. It takes so much to get into Ivies that we all assume it means automatic job prospects. But the funding situation amidst so many other, better-rounded students, plus the sense that a student from, say, Loyola or Buffalo might be more humble than the Ivy who is "forced" to "lower" herself to apply to a non-Ivy... well you see what I mean. It's a mixture of bias and a failure to be prepared for this new adjunct-driven, entrepreneurial education system that we all know and disdain.

      (Finally, please note that by "Princeton" I am shielding my friends, who went to a different, yet related similar school in that category/region. I would never use the names of real schools)

    4. I went to an Ivy as an undergrad and then one of the University of California campuses for grad school. When I got my first TT position at a community college, the other proffies let it be known that my grad degree was worth less than theirs because theirs was from UCLA and mine wasn't. I considered this and came to three conclusions:

      1. They were right.
      2. UCLA was a backup school for people applying to my Ivy.
      3. We were all teaching at a community college, so what tea-partying difference did it make?