The importance of boundaries
Often times I hear stories about people who feel powerless doing a PhD and I can understand why. You’re given a position with some freedom, certainly more than you had as an undergraduate, but at the same time you have no real power. You’re an adult who is starting a career, but you have very little say in that career. The system is designed in such a way that you need to trust that your PI will take your feelings into consideration, but that doesn’t mean that they have to, are incentivized to, or frankly that they even will.
I’ve been lucky. I’ve got two PI’s and both of them are excellent in their own ways. They both have two very distinct ways of teaching and running their respective labs, but both care. That’s apparently a rare thing and it shouldn’t be, but the system was designed in such a way that it doesn’t matter if they care or not. The thing that matters is publications, showing results, getting funding. Notice how you, a grad student, don’t factor into a career of a PI outside of being the one doing the work. The only incentive they have to keep you happy is the fact that you are the one doing the work for them, so if they’ve spent time, energy, and money on training you, it’s cheaper and easier to try to make you happy.
That’s the system we have to work with. That’s also why so many grad students end up feeling like they’re being railroaded and pushed to do things they don’t want to do. More importantly, from a disabled student perspective it can mean the difference between a PI who cares about accommodating your disability or a PI who will pretend that you’re not really disabled, no matter the level of disability you have.
But wait, there’s laws that protect disabled students, so how can a PI get away with that? Well we’ve (admittedly simplified) the criteria a PI needs to progress in their career and happy grad students is not on that list. The system is built for the PI, not the student. Since the PI is the one bringing the money and if they do their job, publicity to the university, the school is incentivized to take care of them. Notice once again that you’re happiness does not factor in here. So your PI has no reason, other than their own personal beliefs, to keep you happy and the school actually has reason to work against you should you have a problem.
So where do you, a grad student, fit into this system? You don’t. Hence the title for today and the lead up. Boundaries are important, having healthy boundaries (as apposed to unhealthy ones, which I won’t define since that’s an incredibly complex topic and typically revolves around others setting YOUR boundaries for you) is important. Maintaining those boundaries even more so.
Your boundaries are important and they should serve you in several different ways. The first is the amount of work you do. Sleep is important, setting boundaries to make sure you get sleep will help you avoid burning out. But there’s more to having boundaries than your mental and physical health (although those are very important reasons to have and maintain boundaries). In a workspace that has no incentives to take care of you, you need to be the one to know when your situation goes from healthy to toxic and the sooner you can do that the easier it will be for you to resolve the issue.
Think of having healthy boundaries as an early warning system. If the people in charge are constantly violating them, then chances are it’s not you that is the problem, it’s them. In a system where your health (both mental and physical) doesn’t matter, you need to be the one to take control. Unfortunately, the system doesn’t give you the power to do anything about it directly, but the sooner you hit red alert the easier it is to do something about it.
If you’re just starting out it’s easier to change labs than establishing yourself in a lab and needing to switch. Your first instinct may be to just “deal with it” because that’s what we’re taught, to just take it and keep going. That kind of mentality is why so many people drop from the program. Not switch labs, not finish, I’m talking people literally giving up on a dream, something they worked so hard for. All because people couldn’t be bothered to treat them like a person.
It’s hard, I know. Boundaries are scary, difficult, and since there’s no physical line on the floor, hard to maintain. Things chip away at them and suddenly your boundaries have you stuck in a tiny box because you’ve given up so much of them without realizing it. It’s a sad and frustrating thing to watch. The point being is that you deserve to be happy and there are PI’s out there who will ACTUALLY care. Not because they are incentivized to do so, but because they are genuinely good people.
I have been lucky in my program and I’m thankful for that. But I see others who are not so lucky and it makes me angry. We deserve better, you deserve better. Having healthy boundaries will help you make sure that you’re in the right place. Remember, boundaries are not visible things, but if people keep running into them after they’ve been made aware of them, chances are they’re doing that because they don’t care. Nothing you do, no matter how much you give up, will change that. In short, it’s not you, it’s them. The sooner you figure this out, the easier it is to fix.
Healthy boundaries are what will keep you from feeling like you need to drop out. A PhD is hard enough as it is, it shouldn’t be made harder by people who don’t care about you.