December 3, 2018

GUEST ROOM | Hidden Costs of a Cornell PhD

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What does a Cornell PhD take? The answer depends on who you ask and why you’re asking. We could say it takes passing three exams: Qualifying, A and B. We could say it takes three journal papers, or four dissertation chapters. We could say it takes hard work and determination, a good project, a good advisor, a few years of funding and a lot of luck. And, to be sure, it takes all these things.

My PhD has also taken people I care about from me. People who began their PhD programs as intelligent, driven, kind and as capable of contribution to their communities as anyone I could hope to work with; people I consider myself proud and lucky to have met. People whom the University mental health support network failed.

Immediately upon arrival, grads are not only required to prove to advisors and the graduate school that they’re worth funding; they’re also tasked with building a support network from the ground up. This is not a level playing field for students who deviate from the “traditional” Cornell academic mold (young, straight, white, cisgender men with U.S. citizenships and full bank accounts). The tasks of finding and building these networks, and of gaining the confidence of an advisor who can support them, are difficult and dire. On top of all of this, the onus of finding workable therapy is often placed by Cornell Health upon grads with little energy or bandwidth to do so, and even when secured, involves long wait times and few alternatives if the therapist is a poor match. For many grads, a mental health leave of absence is presented as the only path forward. Nearly two thirds of grads do not return within four years, the maximum length of a health leave. This is more than a striking number: among them are my friends —  people I care about — who I don’t get to see anymore.

The truth is that the everyday functions of this University — the teaching, grading, research and writing — would not be possible without the skilled work of highly trained grads. Providing adequate mental health care for the graduate employees who do this work is in the best interest of the undergraduates we train and the academic fields to which we contribute. But moreover, it’s our right to demand fair treatment and care for ourselves and our coworkers, on our terms.

This Wednesday I am proud to be taking part in a rally with other grads through Cornell Graduate Students United to voice that demand directly to President Martha Pollack and Provost Michael Kotlikoff.  We have been talking to graduate students all over campus the last month about a mental health petition that demands Cornell do more for our mental health and over 750 grads have signed in support (If you haven’t yet signed, please join with us). At noon we will be marching together to deliver this petition directly to the President and Provost. Regardless of how they respond Wednesday, I believe these demands are only a starting point — the bare minimum we deserve — and it will require not just a rally and petition to acquire them, but also a sustained and concerted organizing effort from all grads, in ways both large and small. Let’s start that work together. I hope to see you there.

Ethan Ritz is a PhD candidate in mechanical engineering. Guest Room runs periodically this semester. Comments may be sent to