The culture of Ph.D. programs can make some students snap, according to Karen Kelsky, a former tenured professor and academic career coach. In fact, she said in an email, “it isn't usually a snap so much as a gradual disintegration.” Ph.D. programs are extremely lonely and based on a culture of critique rather than support in which professors and peers constantly look for weaknesses in the doctoral student’s arguments, she said.
During Kelsky’s 15 years as a tenured professor and advisor, she witnessed many students toil in solitude on their dissertations while sacrificing their outside interests. “You become overly fixated on what your professors think of you,” she said. “Paranoia is quite rampant in Ph.D. programs because Ph.D. students can get so isolated and so fixated on whether or not the people in authority [committee members] approve of what they're doing since they have total authority to grant the degree.”
Marcella Wilson, a computer-science professor at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC), completed her undergraduate work at Washington Bible College, a small, historically black institution. The close-knit campus with doting professors, she said, did not prepare her for certain aspects of life as a computer-science doctoral student at UMBC. “[The graduate faculty] don’t have time to help you,” she said. “You get [the coursework] or you get out.”
After encountering a number of obstacles to on-time completion—including disagreements with faculty over shifting course-completion requirements, watching as a graduate faculty member warned other faculty not to advise her, and feeling that she was being ostracized—Wilson said she started to have panic attacks and feelings of paranoia. “I felt trapped when I was inside my car … I was becoming agoraphobic,” she recalled. “When I would get into the car, I had visions of myself opening up the door and rolling out into traffic and hurting myself.”
Janet Rutledge, the vice provost and graduate-school dean at UMBC, said Wilson’s recollections are reflective of a widespread problem at her university and graduate programs across the country: a lack of communication between faculty and students. “Very rarely is the faculty motive … malicious,” she said. Faculty members are often “very busy and they don’t communicate the full reason for some of the things that they do, so it is only natural that a student makes certain assumptions based on what they have been able to observe.”
In a brief titled “Re-Envisioning the Ph.D,” Jody Nyquist, the former dean of graduate studies at the University of Washington, asked doctoral students across eight disciplines about the flaws they perceived in the graduate-school process. An overwhelming number complained about a lack of quality mentoring and support from faculty. The study also noted that doctoral students believed mentoring needs to begin earlier, be more systematic, and be based on a multiple-mentor model.