Academic PTSD – WOC Guest Post

[Posting has been a bit delayed as I’ve recovered from my accident. I will be posting on an accelerated schedule to try and get caught up!]

I am delighted to offer another guest post in my series of contributed posts by black women and other women of color.

If you’d like to submit a post or an idea for a post for consideration, email me at I pay $150 for accepted posts. The posts can be anonymous or not, as you prefer and can be about your experiences of racism/microaggressions in grad school or the career, your post-academic musings, hard-won advice for other students/faculty of color coming up, intersectional practices in teaching or research that you have found valuable, and also of course, makeup and clothes, or even tech gear you’ve found that helps in your work. More information can be found here.

Today’s post is by Dr. Rita Shah. Dr. Shah is an Assistant Professor of Criminology at Eastern Michigan University. Her research combines textual analysis with qualitative and visual methods to understand the ways in which correctional systems are socially and legally constructed. Her first book, The Meaning of Rehabilitation and its Impact on Parole: There and Back Again in California (2017), queries the concept of rehabilitation to determine how, on a legislative and policy level, the term is defined as a goal of correctional systems.


As I wrap up the Winter 2019 semester, I’ve been reflecting a lot on my first two years at my new(ish) institution. In particular, I’m thinking about the link between workplace bullying and PTSD and the particular ways that might play out in academia (or, as one scholar put it, Posttraumatic Scholar’s Disorder). While we talk a lot about the toxicity of academia, especially for faculty with marginalized identities, we don’t really talk about how that toxicity follows us, even if we’ve managed to escape it. I know of only two pieces that explore this topic: Professor Naima Lowe’s piece on how standing up for students led to doxing and PTSD and Dr. Liz Wayne’s Twitter thread on the trauma of academia and its long-term impacts. I wish we did talk about it more, though; maybe then I would have been better prepared for my first year in my current position and the anxiety I feel now.

Because it took a whole year for me to realize the space I’m in now is not the toxic environment I left. It took a whole year to stop wondering when the next microaggression or back-handed compliment or undermining comment will come.

Or at least, it took a whole year for those worries to not be a concern every single day. I don’t know if I’ll ever get past it completely. Which means I don’t know if I’ll ever fully be at my best, because I’ll always be second guessing myself and every single interaction with my colleagues—something that is now engrained in me because of the toxicity of my first academic position.

There were many things I loved about that job. But for years, the institutional racism slowly wore me down. It slowly crushed my soul. It slowly led me to question my worth. Because every day was a battle of deflecting micro- and macro-aggressions that undermined my abilities, my expertise, my efforts, and my experience.

Critiquing how we as faculty responded to racist incidents on campus led to an email from a senior white male colleague who was hurt I did not support him, claimed it meant he could no longer trust me, and attempted to silence any further criticism. Raising a question about how data was being presented in an undergraduate honor’s thesis defense led to a faculty member questioning my academic credentials in front of other department-mates and several students. Discussing structural racism in the criminal justice system led to student evaluations that said I discussed race too much and feedback from department colleagues that I wasn’t supportive of differing views.

At my pre-tenure review, I was told I need at least one more publication for tenure even though I had a single authored publication in a top-ranking journal and knew that had been enough for others at the institution to earn tenure. At my tenure evaluation, I was critiqued for not being culturally inclusive even though I was the only faculty of color in the department and often the only person of color in the classroom. (And these are just the micro/macro-aggressions I have space to include in this piece.)

After years of feeling like I had to justify my very existence (and earning tenure in spite of it all), I left for another position. But I carry the baggage with me. 

Every time my name is raised, I wait for the backhanded compliment. Every time someone says something kind about me, I wait for the undermining comment to follow. I even took my new department’s evaluation of my pre-tenure review dossier to my union president because I had a hard time accepting there weren’t any hidden digs. There weren’t, but I simply didn’t believe the positive and highly-ranked review was real.

And as I enter my third year at my current institution, all of that anxiety is coming back. Because it was in my third year at my last position the microaggressions became more consistent. It was in my third year the macroaggressions became apparent. It was in my third year I realized I didn’t belong.

While I am mostly confident I belong at my current institution, the trauma of years 3-6 at my last one still linger. As I (hopefully) move past tenure, I can’t help wondering if life will repeat itself. I can’t help wondering if life is already repeating itself, but it’s a more subtle form so I’m missing it.

I know I’m not the only person to deal with the toxicity of academia. Nor am I the only one who has left, either to a new position or to a position outside of academia altogether, to get away from it. Nor am I the only one navigating the long-term impacts of the toxicity.

But I do have a lot of questions about it. Questions that, if answered, might help all of us navigate it better. 

Questions like: What are the long-term impacts of this toxicity? What is the impact of constantly tensing up, or feeling anxious or scared every time we’re in a meeting or our name comes up? How much productivity is lost because we are always on the lookout? What decisions are made (or not), actions taken (or not) and relationships forged (or not) because “[we] are not experiencing the same reality that [others] are”?

And, perhaps more importantly, who is most impacted by Posttraumatic Scholar’s Disorder? And how does that long-term impact of academic toxicity and trauma continue to limit academia’s ability to be an equitable and inclusive space?

I don’t have any answers. And I’m sure there are others who have done much more work on this topic than I who can speak on it with more clarity. But I really wish we talked about it more, if for no other reason than to put a name to a problem so many of us deal with.

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Academic PTSD – WOC Guest Post — 8 Comments

  1. Dr. Shah, this is an awesome piece! You’ve so clearly articulated the expert so many of us have at PWIs. They (institutions) can be draining. I am going to read more about Posttraumatic Scholar’s Disorder – I think I have it! It seems to me the experiences of WOC at PWIs and PSD resemble Claude Steele’s concept of Stereotype Threat that students experience.
    Thank you for this timely piece.

    • Thank you! I hadn’t heard of Stereotype Threat, so I will be looking into that as well. I’m sad the piece is resonating with so many, but I hope, like you, it helps others put some language to their experience.

  2. I experienced a very severe case of academic mobbing at my last institution. Reading this account, I was taken back to the years during which several of my colleagues banded together to systematically torment me, attack my achievements, undermine my position in the department, poison others against me, gaslight me, and destroy my professional reputation (in fact, I would say that what the author above describes sounds like a mobbing too). As is often the case, the administration was complicit in the mobbing, and I quickly realized that I would receive no support or defense, despite my exemplary record of achievements in teaching, scholarship, and service. I began to experience anxiety attacks whenever I had to speak publicly and was often sick for a week ahead of any department meeting. When I eventually fled the institution for another university, halfway across the country, I suffered from severe PTSD, for which I eventually had to seek treatment. Three and a half years later, I have finally ceased to be shocked that my new colleagues treat me with kindness, generosity, and collegiality. But, it took me a very long time to stop responding to every potential conflict with hypervigilance and panic. For anyone else who is experiencing academic mobbing, I recommend visiting Kenneth Westhues’s website; it’s an incredibly useful and pragmatic resource that will help you make sense of what you are enduring. Knowing that this phenomenon often follows a predictable trajectory–with increasingly virulent attacks against the target–can help you to decide how to respond to the mobbing as well as how to protect both your health and your reputation.

    • Thanks for this great response and the suggestion for Westhues’ website. I’m sorry you also had this experience, but I’m glad to hear you’re in a better place (personally and professionally). It’s nice to hear that it does get better. Gives me hope!

    • *** Thank you for sharing your experience. I did not know that these systematic aggressions were known as mobbing. At my current job, I’ve definitely suffered from mobbing and the array of attacks that you mentioned.

      The attacks started by the recently appointed head of my school when I refused to follow her orders to hide some information that reflected badly on her management. Soon after, she started bullying me, as well as her close circle of allies and the administration team. This has been a truly frightening experience that put me on the verge of considering quitting my job and my 20 years in the academia.

      I was lucky in the sense that the mobbing also targeted other members of my school (ethnic minorities and untenured women). The mobbing attacks stopped when someone leaked to the media some of the nasty emails that the head of the school had sent us. Weeks after, that head of the school quit, as well as several of her allies.

      To this date, I have no idea who leaked those emails, but I thank that person every day. What a clever and effective strategy.

      The toxicity levels in my school have gradually subsided, but I’m still overreactive and hypervigilant. The experience has changed how I cope with stressors. I’m now seeing a therapist that is helping me to see why I was targeted, and why I am not the one to blame.

      I have also started looking into the materials available in Kenneth Westhues’ website that you recommended. Wow, that has helped me to understand even further why I become a target despite all my academic achievements.

      I wish you a speedy recovery too.

  3. I can sympathize with Rita’s experiences, and I hope that she finds peace and success. I have diagnosed PTSD as a result of academic bullying due to being different. However, as Karen’s site so often demonstrates, academia will never change, especially for those with disabilities. The “D-Word” will never be one that is tolerated in an elitist system, not even by Professor Karen. Just read her book — she’s downright nasty toward people with chronic illnesses and other forms of disability. But hey — she’s “inclusive” of WOCs and LGBTQIA+, so those count more, right?

    To answer your questions:
    “Questions like: What are the long-term impacts of this toxicity? What is the impact of constantly tensing up, or feeling anxious or scared every time we’re in a meeting or our name comes up?”

    I don’t know how this can be quantified in an academic sense. In a system that prides itself on its bullying, nothing will change. Rather, it’s about recognizing (a) academia as a globally toxic institution; (b) PTSD as affecting those outside of the military or war crimes; (c) the status of people with disabilities as being equally important as race, gender, or ethnicity.

    “How much productivity is lost because we are always on the lookout? What decisions are made (or not), actions taken (or not) and relationships forged (or not) because “[we] are not experiencing the same reality that [others] are”?”

    Academia actually does not care about productivity; it cares about WHO is seen as most “productive.” I’ve routinely seen senior “scholars” get papers published in respected journals for which an undergraduate might get a C. Blind peer-review means nothing; reviewers can generally spot (or at least suspect) who wrote which paper. A big name means a big publishing record. That is all. It does not mean quality. That’s how WOCs and people with disabilities are penalized. Due to family, health, or socio-economic disadvantages, they often have to publish for quality rather than quantity. But guess what — this keeps them from tenure-track positions because another candidate has the time and money to publish in prestigious journals, not to mention that the advisor may have already paved the way.

    The questions you ask are good ones, but they only address the surface issues. In reality, these groups have very little chance from the start. It isn’t because of “competition;” in spite of this very convenient excuse, there are always 200+ applicants for every job, even in industry. Rather, it’s because differences are NOT AT ALL rewarded in the Ivory Tower. Even IT has more diversity than academia, and that is not by accident.

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