Dear Prudence: Should I write about my abuse in my application to grad school?

Help! Should I Write About My Abuse in My Application to Grad School?

Help! Should I Write About My Abuse in My Application to Grad School?

Advice on manners and morals.
Nov. 13 2017 3:23 PM

Very Personal Statement

Prudie advises a survivor of abuse who is trying to avoid oversharing in a grad school application.

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Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by PRImageFactory/iStock.

Mallory Ortberg
Mallory Ortberg

Sam Breach

Mallory Ortberg, aka Dear Prudence, is online weekly to chat live with readers. An edited transcript of the chat is below. (Sign up below to get Dear Prudence delivered to your inbox each week. Read Prudie’s Slate columns here. Send questions to Prudence at prudence@slate.com.)

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Mallory Ortberg: Good morning, everybody! I am dispensing advice today from a plane, so all of my words carry the additional weight of Skylaw.

Q. Should I mention abuse in a Ph.D. application? I’m currently applying to humanities Ph.D. programs, and several schools ask for a “personal history” statement where I describe how my experiences influenced my decision to get a Ph.D. in my field and how I overcame barriers in my pursuit for higher ed. One of the reasons I’m interested in my field is because I was abused while growing up, physically, emotionally, and sexually, and it relates to my interest in my Ph.D. topic.

I have two worries. One is that sharing my past will be TMI. I read an academic study that said one of the biggest deal-breakers in Ph.D. applications was when people “overshare” by talking about experiences being sexually assaulted, et cetera. My other worry is that I will come off as whiny and performative because in many other ways (financially, socially) I have been very privileged. Many others have had it much worse, and outsiders might never think that I have been abused because I am relatively high-functioning and come from a middle-class family. Should I just skirt the issue, allude to it, or directly come out and say it?

A: If anyone with relevant experience in academia wants to weigh in, particularly in a field that focuses on trauma and dealing with abuse, I’d welcome a more knowledgeable perspective. My inclination is that sharing this information in your application is unlikely to help your candidacy and—as you yourself anticipate—may very well backfire.

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You’re not going into advocacy or social work—a Ph.D. has more to do with research and teaching. Although academic work can certainly be informed by advocacy, it’s not the same thing, and I think you should focus on what draws you to that particular type of work. You can express your vested interest in assisting and advocating for survivors of trauma and abuse without going into detail about your personal history in your application. Moreover, you shouldn’t feel the need to apologize for the ways in which you haven’t suffered, or for the ways in which you’ve been financially privileged as you’re presenting yourself as a candidate for doctoral work. Focus instead on what has drawn you to the field and how you think you might be able to contribute meaningfully to it.

Q. Religion: My husband and I have been atheists for many years. His Baptist parents are still not OK with this. Every time they get us a card, it’s filled with Bible verses urging us to turn to Jesus. Several times a week my mother-in-law wants to have a chat about “getting saved.” I have even found religious tracts tucked away in my house. Every time we say we are not interested we get put into a guilt trip. I am over it! Short of cutting them out of our lives, what can we do?

A: If your husband’s parents are incapable of having a friendly conversation with you that does not eventually turn into a sales pitch for their religious beliefs, then there’s not much you can do short of reminding them, “We’ve told you before that we’re not interested in being converted. We don’t try to talk you into espousing our beliefs, and all we’re asking for is the same in return. Can you respect that, and let it go?” If the answer is anything other than an unequivocal yes, then you can say, “I’m sorry to hear that; we’re going to go.” If they try to extend things by guilting or haranguing you, just repeat that it’s not a conversation you’re interested in having, and walk away. Either they’ll learn through repeated disappointment that they’re not going to make headway with you, or they’ll make it clear that it’s impossible to have a relationship with them unless you entertain their relentless rude proselytization. What they’re doing to you sounds absolutely exhausting (several times a week!), and it’s time to draw a clear boundary and stick to it.

Q. How do I deal with the Christmas blues?: I have depression and seasonal affective disorder. On top of that, I am not a big fan of Christmas. My younger sister loves Christmas. She’d celebrate every day if she could. She especially loves Christmas music, which I have a strong dislike for. I try my best to tolerate it, but on occasion, I have asked her to lower the volume or use headphones. When I still lived at home, my parents were very understanding and they worked out a compromise between us: no Christmas music until after Thanksgiving. Now that I’ve moved out, things are a lot better, although I still have to spend Christmas with my family. It’s something I can put up with, though, and I do it with a smile.

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Here’s my problem: My sister recently commented that I “ruin Christmas” with my bad attitude. I do my best not to display my depression during the holidays. I try my hardest not to complain. I do my best to take part in family activities that I’d rather skip (Christmas dinner, decorating the tree, et cetera), and I do it all with a smile on my face. How can I get my sister to understand that I just don’t like Christmas and would rather not celebrate it? How do I get her to understand that I’m not trying to “ruin” it, that it’s just this unpleasant thing that I find myself putting up with for the sake of my family?

A: For what it’s worth, although every family dynamic is different and I don’t know the details of your situation, I think it’s worth at least considering not spending Christmas with your family this year. You do not, in fact, have to spend Christmas with them. At the very least, you do not have to spend every single Christmas with them for the rest of your life, forever and ever, without a single break in tradition. I imagine that if your sister is already angry with you for not wanting to blare Christmas carols for months on end, she may very possibly take offense at your wanting to celebrate in a more subdued, relaxed way with your own friends or even by yourself—but your sister’s feelings are not yours to manage.

If the idea of starting your own Christmas traditions this year feels too overwhelming, you can simply consider scaling back how much time you spend celebrating with your family. You don’t have to participate in a monthlong extravaganza! You can have Christmas dinner together, then go for a long walk by yourself. You can stay over one night, but you don’t have to sleep in your childhood bed for a full week if that’s what you’re used to. And if your sister accuses you of “ruining Christmas” by insufficiently masking your depression or not enjoying some of the same holiday traditions she does, you can gently encourage her to let that idea go! “I’m glad you get a lot out of this, and I’m genuinely happy for you. This is a hard time of year for me, and sometimes I need a little downtime to recharge. That doesn’t mean I don’t love you or that I don’t want you to focus on the things that you enjoy.”

Q. Twins: My sister gave her twin daughters a pair of cutesy rhyming names (think Daisy and Maisey). It was fine when the girls were small and nonverbal, but now they are 8 and getting increasingly defiant about choosing new, “real” names. They get teased at school and my sister’s only response is that those “other kids are jealous.” I have had to sit down with the girls a couple of times while they had meltdowns over this. They hate the teasing and hate being part of a set rather than an individual. I gave the girls alternatives to picking whole new names, since that “made Mommy mad,” by suggesting they go by their middle names or initials. I also took them shopping and let them buy what they wanted—rather than the same outfit in alternating colors. This has been a huge problem for my sister, so I was pretty pleased that I helped out, except my sister didn’t see it that way. She told me I was “undermining her authority” by encouraging my nieces to go by their initials rather than their full names.

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I watch my nieces a lot since my sister can’t get reliable, affordable child care. I am usually with the girls at least four days out of the week. I don’t think I did anything wrong and am more than a little mad at my sister for snapping at me over this. Should I speak up or keep quiet? I have been taking care of the girls after school for nearly a year and a half, since their father left for parts unknown.

A: By all means have a follow-up conversation with your sister. Tell her that it’s not your intention to undermine her or make parenting more difficult, and that the girls have repeatedly expressed to you a real frustration with their rhyming names and matching outfits, not merely because they dislike getting teased but because they want to express themselves individually. It may be that your sister resents feeling shut out of a conversation with her kids (which, frankly, she’s responsible for, but you probably shouldn’t mention that to her just yet) and will be a little more open-minded if you reassure her that you’re not looking to go over her head.

Q. Wanderlust for the West: I’m in my fifth year out of college, working for the same company I got a job with immediately after graduating. The pay is reasonable and I genuinely enjoy my work. I have a great friend group here in town, a mixture of friends from college and new friends I’ve made post-graduation. On paper, everything looks perfect. In reality, I’ve felt adrift and unsettled for years. I find myself yearning to move West, someplace with nature and sky, where I can meet new people and have new adventures.

I’d likely have to start at a lower-paying job (at least at first), plus undergo considerable moving costs. Part of me wants to just pick up and leave; I don’t have a significant other or anyone depending on me. Another part worries that I’m running away from a vague sense of dissatisfaction that will follow me even if I physically relocate. What should I do?

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A: I cannot promise you that the vague sense of dissatisfaction will not follow you wherever you move, but that’s not necessarily a vote against moving, either. Spend some time doing research. What parts of the West interest you? Are there any cities where you have friends or family already living, and could you visit some of them to see how the area strikes you? How much money would you need to set aside to make sure that the cost of moving (and possibly moving back, if things don’t work out) wouldn’t ruin you financially?

This sounds like a pretty feasible goal—you’re young, you don’t have any dependents, and you’d like to move to a different side of the country for a while. If you spend a few months getting a clearer sense of what you’re hoping to get out of this move, looking for possible job leads, and saving money, I think you’ll have a much higher chance of success than if you just jump in your car and leave tomorrow. Good luck; the West is a great place to live!

Q. Re: Religion: I could have written this letter myself. We have tried to confront the issue forcefully, and they double down—resistance means that the devil has ahold of you, you know. Their opinion is that continuing to try to convince us to convert is how they show us we are “loved.” The only thing that works, in my experience, is to limit contact and not get so riled up when issues arise. We ignore it, and if any pamphlets happen to wander into my purse, we mail them back with a note that mother-in-law must have mistakenly put them in my bag, as it’s not a subject matter we’re at all interested in. It hasn’t stopped, but it has improved.

A: Carefully studied neutrality is often a really effective tactic, and I’m glad that you’ve found it helpful! Ideally, of course, your relatives would lay off entirely, not just “improve,” but we all make compromises when it comes to family.

Q. Dog: About six months ago, my elderly neighbors asked if I wanted to adopt their terrier mix since they were selling their house. Apparently the dog had belonged to the younger stepdaughter, but she abandoned it after she broke up with her boyfriend and moved in with people who didn’t allow pets. It was a source of great frustration for my neighbors. The dog was sweet and well-trained, and I took him in. Only now the stepdaughter has contacted me on Facebook saying that she wants to pick up her dog. I declined and she got abusive. I blocked her but I got some feedback from my friends saying I should have given the dog back since I don’t know the stepdaughter’s situation. I told them I don’t think it really matters: A pet isn’t something that you can stick in storage until it is convenient for you. Did I do the right thing here?

A: Even giving the dog’s former owner the maximum benefit of the doubt (which may be more than she deserves, given that she almost immediately became abusively angry with you), you took the dog from your neighbors with the understanding that he was theirs to give. They clearly did not believe that the situation was temporary or that their stepdaughter was actively working towards getting him back. Sometimes people encounter very difficult, unexpected circumstances that make it temporarily impossible for them to care for their animals, and it doesn’t necessarily make them bad or neglectful pet owners. But in this instance, she gave her dog to her parents for at least six months with no stated plan to resume his care at any point in the future. I don’t know whether they gave you the dog informally or if you have any paperwork, or have him licensed and microchipped, but that would certainly add weight to your side. It probably can’t hurt for you to learn more about any local animal abandonment laws that may clarify your situation, but I’m inclined to think that you were right, and are likely able to provide this dog with a more stable home than she can.

Q. Know-it-all straight friend: I’m a bisexual woman in my 20s and I’ve been friends with “Sam” since I was 8. I only realized my sexuality and came out in my second year of college. Prior to that, I was deep in the closet and neither I nor anyone around me knew I liked girls. Except now, Sam claims that she’s known since high school and it infuriates me. It’s petty, but not only do I not believe her, if it was true it would reflect very badly on her because I have—and continue to—put up with a lot of casual homophobia from her. Is there a gentle rebuke I can give her? Tell her I don’t believe her? Is it even worth mentioning? We’ve been drifting as friends since I came out.

A: Of course it is worth mentioning to your friend that her “casual homophobia” has hurt you in the past and is continuing to hurt you now. It’s extremely understandable that the two of you are drifting apart, and this may very well be the conversation that helps you to realize that she is not, in fact, a very good friend.

“You’ve mentioned a number of times that you always knew I was bisexual. I don’t know if you mean to sound supportive when you say that, but it’s strange to hear you say that because you’ve also made a number of homophobic comments that hurt my feelings. I’d like you to stop. Can you do that?” There’s only one answer to that question that shows you a way forward, and that’s a sincere apology, coupled with an immediate change in behavior. If she can’t give you that, then I don’t think her homophobia is very casual at all.

Q. Re: Should I mention abuse in a Ph.D. application?: I think your advice was spot on. As a psychologist who has served on committees for graduate student applicants, disclosing that type of information would definitely raise red flags. It might help them empathize with clients, but I would not advise mentioning that in any applications or interviews.

A: Thanks for offering a more experienced perspective! Letter writer, I hope you don’t feel like you can’t ever disclose your own experience surviving abuse, especially because that’s a huge part of what’s spurred you on to pursue this particular program. Being a survivor isn’t something you should have to hide or feel ashamed of, and leaving it off of your application doesn’t mean you can’t acknowledge your own history in your work or with colleagues when it’s relevant and appropriate to share.

Q. Re: Should I mention abuse in a Ph.D. application?: I work in admissions in higher education, and I have experience in undergraduate and graduate admission. The most important part of the personal statement or admission essay is to answer the question or questions being asked. The amount of information you provide is up to you, but you can highlight your challenges growing up and how you would have benefited from professional support, et cetera. The important part is to ensure you are answering the questions they are asking of you.

A: I wanted to run both of those in part because I think it’s important to recognize that there a number of ways to think about limited, relevant disclosure! My primary instinct is still to play it safe, but if you genuinely believe that your personal history is relevant to the specific question you’ve been asked on the application, you can at least consider acknowledging your own experience with abuse and how that’s motivated you, albeit briefly, and then move on.

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