“Managing Academic Survivor Guilt Without Losing Yourself”

Dr. Manya Whitaker, a professor of education, offers personal reflection, advice, and critiques on her blog, the other class. Recent posts include the exhaustion of preparing for microaggressions in the workplace, students’ guilt when discussing social inequality in the classroom.  She has also kindly written a few guest blog posts for Conditionally Accepted. 

Below, she reflects on the feeling of guilt many marginalized scholars feel as they excel in academia — and at what personal costs — while others don’t.

Managing Academic Survivor Guilt Without Losing Yourself


You made it. Now what are you going to do with it?

If you’re like me, this is a question you ask yourself from time to time when you look up and are amazed anew that you somehow breached the walls of academia. It’s the feeling you have when you acknowledge that in walking on the stage to be hooded, you had to walk away from something and someone.

On the heels of that realization comes the guilt. No matter how screwy it sounds, I sometimes feel guilty for having made it. What did I do differently to deserve this? Was it fortune or privilege that afforded me the opportunities necessary to achieve my goals? Basically, why me and not them?

This is academic survivor guilt: an overarching sense of inequality experienced by marginalized scholars because we carry the burden of representing an entire body of people while accepting the reality that to do so, we left them behind. It is the feeling of wrongfulness because you survived what so many *minorities1 did not. You survived high school, survived a single parent household, survived a low income or working class neighborhood. Then, to top it off, you had the nerve to survive college, graduate school, and the job market while equally qualified academics did not. Yes, I worked hard, but so did thousands of others whose goals may never be realized, often for reasons beyond their control. I feel like I owe…. someone. But I’m not sure who or what. That makes the guilt that much more troubling.

When I push myself to really investigate this self imposed sense of responsibility to people unknown, I sometimes toy with the idea that perhaps I feel most responsible to myself. And similarly so, the source of my guilt may be me. I feel guilty not because I achieved my dream, but more so because I may have lost some of myself in the process.

In this publish or perish world of academia, who we intended to be—our ideal self—can easily be postponed until after the department meeting and accidentally discarded along with last semester’s final papers. The misplacement of self is a gradual process, and when you finally get to a mental, emotional and professional space to have the courage to be your most authentic self, you may find that that particular version of you no longer exists.

Though this may be acceptable to many and a goal for some, there are others of us who strive to maintain the purity of heart and compassionate ideals that prompted such a selfless career choice as teaching. Though ever day is different and I can’t foresee exits from the highway of me, I try to do a few things to keep track of myself:

  • I practice reflection. I check in with myself at least once a week through writing, yoga, or taking a walk. This quiet time allows me to listen to my thoughts and acknowledge my emotions.
  • I accept changes in myself. Growing is what life is about.
  • I review my life plan and make adjustments as necessary. I always strive to be better than who I am, not who I was.
  • I hold myself accountable. If I am consistently doing or saying things that misrepresent who I am, I make a plan to stop. This plan can be cognitive (replacing negative thoughts with positive ones) or it can be behavioral (limiting interactions with people who bring out the worst in me). I remind myself that I am responsible for what I do. I cannot and will not be responsible for what you do.
  • I share myself with others. Healthy conversations with a close friend about this very issue can go a long way to helping me work through my tangled web of thoughts. It is also allows me to hear how similarly situated professionals manage their own guilt. The social can be a wonderful mirror for the self.

You will notice that what I do not have listed is anything to do with external validation. There is little value in gaining others’ approval of yourself if you can’t stand by yourself. In every class session, every meeting, and through every manuscript, we are asked to give. We give our compassion, our time, our thoughts.  Professing is philanthropic work.  I advise you to keep a little for, and of, yourself.


1 – *minorities is used as an inclusive term for individuals who are marginalized because of their race, ethnicity, nativity, language, social class, gender identity and expression, and/or sexual orientation.