Balance

If you search for “academic work-life balance” you will get a lot of contradictory results.

You may see some advice that says the main responsibilities of a graduate student are producing research (here and here). Then you will find more realistic advice which acknowledges that academics, including graduate students, are not only asked to do a lot but also to do a lot without getting paid for it (here, here, and here).

Why is their so much contradictory, often bad, advice about how to achieve work-life balance in academia?

Part of the answer is that their is often a misrecognition of what balance is. I can speak to this because for years I had a bad idea of what balance was. I thought balance was reaching a state where everything was easy and my time was equally dedicated to my academic self and my non-academic self. I thought this was a state I could, with enough work and planning, achieve and then never leave.

What I’m really describing there is perfection and stasis–two things that don’t exist in real life because of entropy and other people.

Because perfection and stasis don’t exist any conception of balance that relies on them is doomed to failure.

But that doesn’t mean balance doesn’t exist.

When I think of balance now I think of a tree. Specifically, I think of my first yoga class at a community college when a bunch of yoga newbies were struggling with tree pose. The teacher said, “Think of trees. Trees are almost always moving with the wind but they are balanced. Balance isn’t the ability to be still. It isn’t inactive. Balance is the constant movement you engage in to maintain your equilibrium.”

I have yet to encounter a better definition of balance.

This is the second key to why a lot of advice about how to achieve balance is not as helpful as one might wish: balance is inherently individual. Therefore, recommendations for balance from other people tend to be specific to them (and not helpful for you) or so general as to not be helpful at all.

Balance is all about understanding how to maintain your equilibrium and equilibrium, in turn, is about honoring your priorities.

For instance, my priorities looked very different the first year of my PhD then they do now. In the first year of my PhD program I was 27, single, healthy and intensely focused on creating an academic career for myself. Although it might not have looked balanced from the outside, I would routinely work in my office on campus until 10:00 or 11:00 p.m. In this last year of my PhD I am 32, married, and have an autoimmune disorder. I now rarely work past 6:00 p.m.

Neither is better than the other. I simply had different priorities and abilities at the beginning of my PhD than I do now, honoring those priorities looked different so my equilibrium and, therefore, my balance, looked different.

 

The first step to any meaningful type of balance is to think about and honor your own priorities and allocate your time accordingly. Put very, very simply: put your energy mostly into the things that give you energy and don’t worry if it looks like “balance” from the outside.

This takes some trial and error, but you can do it. However, even when you’ve decided your priorities and allocated your time in a way that feels sustainable to you hiccups do happen.

Even if you’re really good at planning your day sh*t happens.

The very best way to deal with the everyday stuff that could derail you is to deal with it before it happens.

This is a tip I picked up from the book “High Performance Habits.” Brendan Burchard, the author of that book, recommends identifying your three biggest priorities for the day ahead and when you will address each of them. THEN make a contingency plan.

For me this often looks something like, “I will work on chapter edits during my office hour today. However, if my office hours are interrupted by students or talkative office mates then I will work on my chapter edits for an hour after I teach.”

This way, if something comes up that derails your carefully laid plans the balance of your day isn’t thrown off. You’ve already thought about what adjustments you can make to ensure that your three biggest priorities are met for the day.

Again, balance isn’t stasis or perfection–it is the constant motion we engage in to maintain our equilibrium.

Go forth and be great, my friends!

Soon we will have a Weekly Roundup of some of our favorite advice about balance in academia.

 

 

WTF: Rest

Our theme for this month is rest.

Seems simple, right?

Who needs to be told to rest? Let alone, how to rest?! Seems ridiculous.

Maybe, to a lot of people, that idea is ridiculous, but for most graduate students I know struggle with knowing when or how to take a break from work is a big problem. In fact, among the graduate students I’ve surveyed being able to take a break was the number one problem reported.

It’s not that the graduate students I talked to never took breaks. Of course, they did. However, their breaks tended to fall into one of two categories.

The first category was the sheer-exhaustion break. One common example of the sheer exhaustion break is when grad students get sick over spring break or holidays. They have been pushing their bodies so hard, without taking care of their health, that the minute they stop running on sheer adrenaline their immune system crashes. This often induces a lot of guilt and anxiety because what was going to be a productive break of writing turns into a lot of sleeping and bleary-eyed Netflix watching while trying to feel better.

The second category is the guilty break. This person manages to take a break before they reach the immune-compromising state of sheer exhaustion BUT they feel guilty about it the whole time. This is the person who keeps a book on their lap while “watching” a show on Netflix with their partner. They may even manage to read a few sentences but they don’t do either activity well–they don’t fully relax with their partner and they don’t get their reading done in any real way.

I have been both of these people. Sometimes at the same time.

The thing is, rest is necessary for good scholarship in a myriad of ways. Yes, I mean rest as in getting good sleep, but I also mean rest as in doing things that are not work. Taking breaks keeps you healthier, ultimately allowing you to work more consistently over longer periods of time, and keeps you creative. That’s two out of the three C’s that make PhDs!

Academics, in general, are bad at resting.

There’s a bit of popular advice that academics should structure their schedule like a 40 hour work week.

This advice works for some people but, by and large, most of the academics I know became academics because the idea a 40 hour work week gave them hives. Beyond that, academics are being asked to do more than ever. There is simply not time to fit all of one’s teaching responsibilities, research, and any committees you may sit on into a neat 40 hours.

I’m here to tell you that you can work more than 40 hours a week and still find time for rest. You can work 40 hours a week and still tend towards balance.

How? Well, that’s what we’re focusing on this month. We’ll be covering why rest is important for your physical body, and how it improves your scholarship. We have some great links and resources lined up to share with you and we’re going to be super honest about the very real obstacles that prevent grad students from resting like other ambitious, early-career professionals.

We’re going to start with the concept of balance. Most people, when they think of balance, get the concept wrong. Come back Wednesday to learn more about how real balance is totally within your grasp even as a busy, underpaid grad student.

Call Me “Doctor”

Hi Friends,

It is so good to see you! My hiatus from the site has wound up being about a month longer than anticipated. After a hard push through the month of April to wrap up semester grades AND my manuscript, I needed some time to rest and recover.

Actually, that’s our upcoming topic for the month of June: Rest.

We’ll be talking about why rest is so essential to scholarship and why academics (especially grad students) are so bad at resting. Of course, we’ll also be discussing strategies to work a little rest into your day, your week, and your five-year plan.

We’ll begin covering that topic on Monday.

In the meantime, I wanted to share this video with you. This is the first half of my dissertation defense–which I passed with no revisions (hence, the fireworks photo).

I’m sharing it here for two reasons.

First, and most importantly, I believe that PhD students should view as many dissertation defenses as possible before they defend for multiple reasons, but that will be our topic for an upcoming month so I won’t go into it here.

Second, if you’re coming to this site for advice on how to move from being ABD  to PhD then I thought it might be helpful to know that the advice is coming from someone who has defended their dissertation successfully.

On a related note, although the site has been relatively inactive since the beginning of April, folks have been finding and following the site. Thank you to everyone who has honored us with a follow while I’ve been completing my dissertation. If you liked our archived content I think you’re going to love what we have coming up for the summer!
 

Ch-ch-changes

First, an apology: Earlier in the month I said that I would stopping by every week to update you on some exciting changes coming to abd2phd. However, I’ve found that approaching one’s defense date is a bit like approaching the event horizon of a black hole: time stretches and distorts. The snow in my neck of the woods isn’t helping things much. It contributes to the overall sense that time isn’t really passing; I’m just stuck in a purgatory of revisions. To everyone who has stopped by while I’ve been away, thank you for checking out our content, and a special thanks to those of you that have given us a follow!

Now, to get to the exciting business! If you’ve checked out our Methodology page then you know that we advocate the Pomodoro method (working for 25 minutes and taking 5 minute movement and mindfulness breaks). If you’ve taken a look at our Dreams page you know that we have been in the process of building an app to guide you through this method.

We are still excited about the app and are currently in the process of producing some great movement and mindfulness videos for the app. We want to make sure we debut an amazing app and we hope to do so before the year is out.

In the meantime, we are preparing to run our first productivity and one-on-one coaching groups starting in June. If you are looking for some help staying productive this summer then consider joining our inaugural cohort!

April Showers; PhD Flowers

This is a different sort of post.

I’m getting email alerts every day that someone has “liked” a post or, even more exciting, followed the site. To all of you who are checking out the site, liking it, or even following it; I just have to say

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You are the real MVP and I am so grateful you are finding our content valuable.

Now for the weird part:

April is going to be a low-content month here at abd2phd. As I’ve mentioned before, I am a real PhD student (TM) in the humanities. My committee and I are honing in on a defense date for this dissertation sometime between May 31st and June 4th. That means I need to have my manuscript ready to give to my committee by April 31st, just a few weeks from now.

This final round of revisions just happens to overlap with end of semester grading, doing taxes, and maybe selling my house–because real life does not have the decency to pause when graduate school gets busy.

As delighted as I am that this site is serving a broader audience, I need to take a step back to do the thing. After all, why would anyone take advice from me on how to move from ABD to PhD if I don’t get the PhD?

I won’t be taking a full hiatus because I just couldn’t do that. However, this month I’ll be focusing on the future of abd2phd, along with my own future. Instead of posting the normal monthly thematic content or the weekly roundup, I’ll be dropping by every week to update all of you about the future of abd2phd.

After I defend my dissertation,  I’ll be focusing full time on building abd2phd to serve you better. I have so many ideas and things I’d like to do, but the entire purpose of this site is to serve you. Therefore, I’d love to get some feedback from you over the month of April about what you want to see. As I post my updated vision and goals for the site over the month of April I hope that you’ll take time to comment to let me know what you love and what you don’t. Feel free to tell me what type of content we’ve had in the past that you’d like to see more of. If there’s a type of content you’d like to see but haven’t yet let me know that too.

And, of course, thank you for helping build this community.

Money

Recently, I was talking to a graduate student at a land-grant university. Because this person works at a land-grant, the salary of everyone who works there is public information and available online with some minimal searching. This person, a second-year PhD student, was shocked to discover that all of the faculty in their department make six figures a year.

For the past decade or so, most online academic writing has been in a self-hating death spiral about how horrible academia is. That isn’t to say there aren’t legitimate criticisms. Indeed, if there weren’t legitimate criticisms this site wouldn’t exist. However, in the flurry of pieces on how happy our alt-ac colleagues are, scathing quit lit, and adjunctification it is easy to lose sight of the fact that it is still possible to make a good living in academia. There are reasons why tenure-track jobs are referred to as “golden tickets” and their increasing rarity is only one of them.

Academic conversations about money get weird very quickly. We are prone to the deeply flawed “do what you love” narrative which tells us that talking about money is gauche. Then there’s this weird idea that academics are somehow separate from the labor economy? Then there’s the idea that academic work just isn’t valued which, as I’ve argued elsewhere, is by design. None of this, however, is what I want to talk about today.

Today I want to talk about the vast financial chasm between graduate students and faculty. Sure, we all know it’s there, but we all work to keep from seeing how immense it really is.

My MA program hosted a number of professionalization seminars throughout the year which was a wonderful thing.

In the two years I was there I went to exactly one (which is a mistake I’ve posted about here). As a first-gen, working-class student I had deeply internalized the meritocracy myth and I thought going to professionalization seminars was a luxury I could only afford if all my work was done which, since the work is unending, it never was. It wasn’t until my second year that my friends in the PhD program convinced me that regular attendance at the pro-sems was one of the intangible factors used to assess how serious MA students were about becoming PhDs.

So, I paused the work and went to a seminar where a group of graduate students was told by a faculty member that she fondly looked back on her graduate school days and all of the free-time she had then. As a faculty member, she assured us, we would have less free time than we currently did and we had best be committed and prepared.

I almost broke down crying on the spot. I was already feeling overwhelmed due to 12 hour days on campus, every weekday and couldn’t reconcile the degree I had always wanted to get with working even more. (To be fair, my undiagnosed anxiety disorder probably played a part too.) Deep inside, I felt that there was a problem with what we had been told but I couldn’t put my finger on what it was.

It took me years, literal years, to identify what was wrong with that meeting.

In fact, it wasn’t until a series of odd life events had led me to work at a for-profit “college” that it finally clicked.

Money.

Money makes things easier. In the capitalist system, we live in money makes life easier. Working late? That’s okay–I’ll just order some carry-out from that Italian place with surprisingly good gluten-free options on my way home. So busy you forgot to order that very particular set of shoes the bride wants her wedding party to wear? That’s okay–just pay for rush delivery. Would that new book really help define the article you’re working on? Order it on Amazon instead of requesting the library buy it and then waiting.

This list, drawn exclusively from personal examples, is just a partial list of one-off things that money helps with. At my current campus it costs somewhere between $250-300 to park on campus. It is free to take the bus. Although there are exceptions both ways, graduate students generally bus and faculty generally drive and park. From my house to campus it takes a solid half hour to get to campus by bus. It takes seven minutes by car and about fifteen to drive and park. This means that, on an average day, an hour of my time is taken up in transport just because of money. I don’t mind taking the bus–thanks to Resist Bot I use it as my built in time to contact my congress people–but the material point isn’t whether or not I like it. The material point is that I have an hour less time in my day than the faculty who are paid a living wage and can afford to get a parking permit.

But there’s an even larger issue at work here. New research has shown that being poor takes up brain space constantly and being poor during childhood changes your brain permanently. The human brain can only handle working on so many problems at once and when your brain is constantly engaged in the arithmetic of survival you concretely and unalterably have less to give to teaching, research, and writing. (See here, here, here, and here for starters.)

While faculty may have more work responsibilities (a proposition I’m still not convinced of–fight me) they also have more brain space to devote to those responsibilities and money to make little problems go away before they turn into big problems.

These financial differences are almost always present between grad students and faculty, but are exacerbated between faculty and working-class PhD students. There is so much work to be done here. Faculty and administrators need to reckon with their continued use of the apprenticeship model of academia to exploit graduate students. They also need to do more work on supporting first-gen and working-class PhDs *after* they’ve been accepted into programs. Graduate students need unions to help them create these reforms.

All of that is a lot of work that will require a lot of people and, probably, a lot of time.

Until then, know that you’re not crazy if you think that faculty might be a little out of touch with the realities of graduate student life. Know that you’re not crazy if you think that being poor is making your scholarly work harder than it needs to be in a million little ways that sometimes turn into big ways. Know that money–coming from it and having it–make a huge difference on how you move through this system. Know that you are worth more than  you’re paying paid. Know that it’s not fair. And know that we see you working your a** off and being awesome.

 

 

 

Rules

Over the month of March, I’ve tried to focus on the challenges faced by working-class and first-generation PhD students. Yesterday, I shared a story about a recent meeting with a committee member which was disturbing because of some basic information I should have known but didn’t.

The TL;DR version is that there was a piece of information regarding my defense which my committee thought was so basic they didn’t need to talk about it so I had been misdirecting my efforts for quite some time. Honestly, I thought that the longer I stayed in academia the fewer and further between these moments would be.

My actual experience has been the exact opposite.

While I don’t have any hard data to back this up I think the key is that I have these moments more often the further I get away from the structured experience of course work. Like most graduate students, I was always good at being a student. As I’ve talked about before, the apprenticeship process of graduate school is designed to convert you from a consumer to a producer of knowledge.

What is assumed about this process, however, is that the apprentices in question already understand how to move in the professional world. The assumed learner in the U.S. system is from a middle-class background. Working-class and first-generation PhD students have already excelled in a system that is inherently biased against them and perhaps this is why, when we get to graduate school, it’s assumed that we already know everything we need to know to become academic professionals.

Working-class and first-gen grad students find ourselves in an interesting position. Most of the working-class academics I know are good at appearing middle-class. It’s sort of a necessity for moving into and through this world. However, there is a wealth of background knowledge about white-collar jobs that we may lack since we didn’t grow up hearing about and seeing our parents move in that culture.

So, here are two tips I’ve learned from friends from middle-class backgrounds and friends who have worked white-collar jobs. I only recently, like, in 2018, learned to employ these tips consistently and have already noticed a remarkable difference. I wish I had employed them much, much sooner.

  1. Get as much as you can in writing. What I mean by this is, whenever possible, ask a question via email to get the answer in writing. Second, when you have a meeting with a committee member, send a follow-up email summarizing what was discussed during the meeting and agreed upon action steps. This will not only help you and your committee remember what you agreed on it also provides an opportunity for your committee members to let you know if you missed something. For instance, after a meeting 18 months ago if I had followed up with an email saying “As discussed today I’ll be focusing on A, B, and C,” my committee member might have responded with, “That’s good but don’t forget about X” and yesterday’s tale of woe could have been avoided. Getting in the habit of doing this now may not just help clarify your progression through your PhD program but be a good practice to cultivate if you want to transition to non-academic work after your degree where this is a pretty common place.
  2. After your exams, work closely with your committee and your program’s admin to make sure you are doing everything according to the (graduate student hand)book. This may seem completely obvious, but it can be easy to forget when you are managing teaching, researching, writing, conferences, and being human. It’s important to make sure you are working with both your committee and your admin. Throughout my graduate career, I’ve seen people who, for various reasons, only check-in with one of these parties and it never ends well. I get it. There is a huge temptation to rely just on your committee, particularly your chair, because they are the people that will pass you or not. However, faculty have a lot going on. You are likely not their only advisee and, on top, of juggling advisees in different stages of the process they are balancing their own teaching, research, writing, and being a person. They don’t always have time to keep abreast of changes to the handbook or proclamations from the graduate school that may affect your progress. In contrast, admins are great at keeping track of these changes. They can also be less intimidating, particularly for working-class academics who may be more familiar with admin work than professorial work. (I know I am–My mother was an admin for her whole career and I’ve worked as an admin on and off throughout my adult life.) Yet, despite the fact that your program’s admins are necessary for the completion of your degree they are not sufficient. Stay in contact with both your admins and your committee.
    1. As a subset of this point, ask questions. This is particularly hard for me. I hate admitting I don’t know things I think I should know. Oddly, for people who love learning, I see this quality in a lot of academics which is, in part, why this website exists. But it’s important to check-in regularly to make sure that you are progressing as you should be. The tricky part about this, though, is that you don’t know what you don’t know. This is why I have a few questions I’ve developed to use in meetings with my committee and program admins to get at information I may not know I need and, therefore, can’t ask for in a straightforward way. In no particular order they are:
      1. I don’t know what I don’t know about this process. Can you lay out the steps to completion as you see them?
      2. What are strategies that have been particularly successful for you/other students?
      3. Can you walk me through what you need from me before I can defend?

I can’t reiterate strongly enough that if you ask these question in a face-to-face meeting you should send a follow-up email outlining what was discussed and what you agreed upon as soon as possible.

If you have any other tips, tools, or best practices that have helped you navigate academia as a working-class or first-gen student please share them in the comments!

Sh*t I don’t know. Sh*t I do.

Hey Friends,

I’ve been absent for a while. I didn’t mean to take time off in the middle of this series but sh*t happens. In particular, I’ve been going through what The Thesis Whisperer calls “The Valley of Shit.”

I have been so close to calling it quits and walking away to do anything else.

On top of that, this series about being a PhD student from a working-class background has been . . . difficult.

It’s forced me to confront the fact that I don’t think I know much about how to be a working-class PhD student.

Am I from a working-class background? Yes.

Have I been in a PhD program for six years? Yes.

Have I written a dissertation? Yes.

Does that mean I know f*ck all worth sharing about being a PhD student from a working-class background? I don’t know.

Today, I had a conversation with my chair about what needs to be done before we can schedule my defense and I left that meeting, a meeting 6 years into my PhD and 8 years into graduate school, and 17 years after starting college classes, feeling like I don’t know sh*t about how to navigate academia.

Things that seem so basic to my committee, things not even worth mentioning, are revelations to me. I don’t want to get into specifics, but I had been working on the assumption that, to schedule a defense, I needed to do A, B, and C. Thus, I was diligently putting *all* my effort into doing A, B, and C.

When I asked my chair about scheduling a defense date she said she wouldn’t feel comfortable discussing that until I had done X.

X?

What the hell?!

It’s not that I can’t do X. I can. X is easy.

It’s just that I had no idea X was a prerequisite to getting A, B, and C done.

I wonder how long I would have diligently kept working on A, B, and C without knowing that my advisor was waiting for X.

It may sound like I have a bad thesis advisor, but I genuinely don’t think that’s the case. My advisor is patient, gives good feedback, responds to emails promptly, and gives me a lot of leeway to construct my project.

These are all excellent qualities and I’m grateful for them.

My impression after today’s meeting was that the idea that X needed to come before A, B, and C was so basic my advisor never thought to mention it. I was so focused on A, B, and C that X would never have occurred to me.

I find myself running into this dynamic all the time. I am almost done with this degree and still have these moments of finding-out-something-hugely-important-that-I-should-have-known-ages-ago All. The. Time. In fact, I have these moments more and more the closer I get to defending.

It’s exhausting and demoralizing.

I would love to tell you that I have learned the tricks and can tell you what to do, but I can’t.

Here is what I do know:

I know that these moments of “WTF?” and the difficulties you have in navigating archaic institutional structures are not reflections on your intelligence. They are not reflections on your scholarship or your dedication. They are not reflections on your ability. They are most certainly not reflections on your worth either as a person or a scholar.

I know that you belong here. I know that you can figure out this system if you want to.

Although I feel like I have so much to learn about navigating this system, and so little advice to give, in reflecting on the meeting described above I’ve come up with two best practices I wish I had adopted much, much sooner which, maybe, could have stopped the painful incident described above from ever happening.

Work

I don’t remember how old I was when I started my first “job.” I wanted to save money for something but I wasn’t earning any money so I couldn’t save any. To remedy this my mom got my aunt to “hire” me to clean her house on Saturdays. I was paid $3/hr and tipped $1. The “cleaning” I did took about one hour. I think I vacuumed and dusted, but what I most remember is being so happy and proud to earn my own money.

I got a job shortly after turning sixteen.

My first semester at college was the only semester I didn’t have a job. After that, I usually had more than one. The last quarter I had three and a full load of classes.

By the time I got to graduate school, I wasn’t just used to working. I was used to working hard and a lot. The idea of just doing one job, even if that one job paid more than I had ever made (and, yes, my graduate stipend was the most I had ever earned up to that point) was uncomfortable.

I know a lot of first-gen and working-class PhD students who have picked up second jobs.  Some folks work part-time gigs at local coffee shops. Some folks turn their artistic outlet into a side hustle via Etsy or other online selling platforms. Some folks finish up their prospectus defense and get a real job, effectively turning their dissertation into their side hustle.

If you’re a first-gen, working-class student debating the merits of picking up an extra job during the semester you should know it is definitely possible.

One of the things that is too often overlooked in the advice given to graduate students is the most obvious thing: To get through graduate school, you need to actually survive. You need to physically and intellectually survive which, under capitalism, is inextricably bound up with economic survival. I’m not going to tell you to not get a side hustle or two. If you need it to survive–because your grad school stipend doesn’t pay enough or because you just need something that feels fucking normal to you or any other reason–then you should do it.

Before you do it, though, you should think about a few things.

Thing 1: Do you really need it? A lot of the impetus I felt to get a second job came from a combination of imposter syndrome and the need to not feel like I was letting my family down with this weird career choice. Getting a second job probably would have made me feel better. Hell, just searching for other jobs made me feel better. But it would have been a band-aid over the real issues and may have ultimately exacerbated them. Remember, you deserve to be here. Give yourself permission to do this thing, to enjoy it, and then see what happens.

If you really, really do need that second job then here are some other things to consider.

Thing 2: Is your committee/department going to be weird about it? Listen, unless and until your committee is going to start paying your bills I don’t think they should have any right to comment on any legal activities you engage in to pay said bills.

Unfortunately, most actual committees I know don’t agree with this basic concept of personal autonomy. A lot of committees and chairs are skittish about second-jobs because they view it as a distraction from your dissertation. Is this a privileged POV? Absolutely. Do you still have to deal with it? Yes.

To the extent that you can, try and gauge your committee (or even your department)’s position on second jobs.

Knowing that they disapprove, if they do, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t get a second job. It just means you should be strategic about it. Try and get a job where it’s unlikely you will run into the folks who disapprove. Don’t talk about it at departmental events or other spaces where it may get back to your committee. If, god forbid, you share a calendar try and block out work time as either “writing” or “working out.” I have yet to meet a faculty member that would criticize excessive writing or work out time.

Thing 3: Are you going part-time or full-time?

I know people who have done both and have been happy with it. This isn’t a question with a right or wrong answer. It’s a question that depends on you, your needs, and the structure of your program. My MA program scheduled most seminars from 2-5 p.m.–prime hours for a regular job. My PhD program scheduled most seminars from 5-8 or 6-9 p.m.–easier to accommodate an office schedule.

As long as you are in coursework or teaching for your tuition waiver, your schedule will change every semester. This can also be hard for a forty-hour job to accommodate. If you are on fellowship and done with exams you may have a lot more flexibility.

Again, there are no right or wrong answers here, there is only the answer that is right for you. Part of that answer is also about what your end goal is.

If you don’t want to work in academia then getting a full-time job after your exams can be a strategic move to help you build skills and connections in your chosen job market.

If you do want to be a career academic and just need some extra money to live then a part-time job which allows you to invest time into academic professionalization is probably best.

Most importantly, do whatever you need to do to survive and, maybe even, thrive.

If you are a grad student who has worked part-time or full-time outside of your graduate funding feel free to share your experiences and best practices in the comment section!

Service Work and The Working-Class Academic

I was supposed to share this post yesterday but didn’t because I am *deep* in dissertation edits trying to defend this semester. I thought about apologizing but then I realized that nothing could more effectively prove that these pieces are coming from an actual PhD in the humanities than being late. Also, sorry.

As I’ve hinted in previous posts that I was not exactly what one would call a good departmental citizen during my MA. This wasn’t to say I was an asshole. At least, not more so than usual. I had, and have, many dear friends from my MA. I liked the majority of my courses and I did well enough. What I was not good at was participating in departmental life more broadly.

Like a lot of first-gen, working-class students I had a deeply internalized boot-strap myth. It kinda makes sense, right? After all, for those of us that make it to grad school that boot-strap myth can be reassuring–we did it! We worked hard and we made it so if we just keep working hard we will obviously make it further. Hooray!

I was always good at school. I was smart and I worked hard and people noticed. Then those people helped me get to graduate school. Then the rules changed, but I didn’t know that. I kept doing what I had been doing: working hard, trying to be smart, expecting someone to notice.

It wasn’t until the last semester of my MA that a PhD student told me I didn’t stand a chance of getting into the PhD program if I didn’t start showing up at departmental events. So, I started going to the various brown bags and symposia the program offered. I did not get into that PhD program and I’m not saying that I didn’t get in because I didn’t go to those events. However, if I had started going to those things earlier I think I might have learned how to design and talk about a PhD project that would have stood a better chance of getting in than the one I came up with in isolation.

When I got to my PhD program I was determined not to make the same mistakes so I corrected. Actually, I way, way over-corrected. I said “yes” to anyone who asked me to be on a committee in that first year. I thought that doing service work would help me meet people, people who could be helpful during my PhD, make connections, and understand my new institutional home.

Service work can do all those things.

It can also take over your life.

I know because it took over mine. It got to the point where the director of graduate studies in another program said I was the busiest person he knew because everyone else he knew was on a committee with me. I was so over-committed to service work that my days without classes were filled with meetings leaving me precious little time to do the reading and writing for the courses I was taking–let alone the prep work and grading for the courses I was teaching.

Don’t be like me. I am a terrible example either way you look at. Service work, like so many things in life, is best in moderation.

Know that if you are a woman or a person of color you will be asked to do more service work than men and white folks. (See here and here.) Know that service work is often time-intensive and unrewarded. Know that there are gracious ways to decline. Know that you must decline.

I add that last line because I think service work is particularly appealing to first-gen and working-class students. Service work appeals to both our strengths and our weaknesses. One of our strengths is that we tend to be interdependent learners–our motivations for learning are often other-oriented–and service work thrives on interdependent skills. We excel here. One of our weaknesses is that creeping feeling of being out-of-place in an institution that wasn’t built for us. Service work can allay this fear because one does not need to be particularly good at service work–one just needs to be willing to serve.

Nevertheless, you absolutely must balance service work by learning to say “no” to the work that does not serve you and finding the work that will.

Before going any further it’s necessary to note that I’m primarily talking here of internal service, that is the service at and to your institution, rather than external service with journals, conferences, national associations, and so on.

In the first few years of your PhD focus on internal service. Pick one thing. Just one.

Will there be multiple great opportunities? Yes.

Will any of them be one of a kind? No. Even if they same like it, I promise you they are not.

Pick your one thing and stick with that for the year.

When deciding what your one thing will be think about your long-term goals. If you want to be a career academic it will be beneficial for you to get experience being on a steering committee or being the grad student rep on a search committee. These opportunities are often reserved for senior grad students. If this is your ultimate goal ask around to find out who has been on these committees and what type of service they did earlier in their graduate school career. Were they on the program’s grad-student-organization? Did they represent the program on an inter-college community? Don’t blaze a new trail. Follow the one they’ve laid out.

If your not certain that your goal is to be a career academic you are free to chose from a wide variety of service opportunities but try and pick something that will translate into job skills. For instance, the majority of my service roles include event planning and marketing around specific causes. I also happen to be applying for PR positions with reproductive rights advocacy groups. Coincidence? Definitely not.

The best, and worst, thing about service work is that there is more than enough of it to go around. Decide what skills you want to get from service work so that it is serving you in the long run.

Pick your opportunity.

Pick one.

Do it well.

Add it to your CV.

Repeat every year.