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.

You Don’t Know What You Don’t Know

Let me tell you three stories of working-class, first-generation PhD students.

Story 1a: A friend needed to graduate at the end of the current semester or leave academia. She had run out of funding and, without the tuition waiver of a TA appointment, would have to pay out-of-state tuition if she stayed another semester. It didn’t matter that she had bought a house, had a license from, and lived in that state for years. If she wanted to be considered an in-state student she had to file a petition, complete with loads of supplementary documents, to persuade the university to consider her an in-state student. However, the petition guidelines stated that, if you could not prove you had moved to the state for a reason other than school, which, as a PhD student she obviously hadn’t, then you would be considered an out-of-state student. This friend agonized over how to have a frank conversation with her committee about deadlines. Previously, she had been content to let them ask for several rounds of relatively minor revisions, but when her funding stream dried up she needed to graduate soon but didn’t know how to tell her committee that it was graduate now or never because she simply couldn’t afford to keep paying the school to keep completing revisions. (Going in absentia wasn’t an option for this friend.)

Story 1b: Trying to expedite the revision process this friend hired an editor to help her make sense of her chair’s feedback and make changes in a timely manner. (She figured that the few hundred dollars invested in an editor would be better than the thousands wasted by walking away so close to done.) In their meeting, the editor, who had read both my friend’s chapter and her chair’s comments, said, “I see where she’s coming from but she’s not doing you any favors by not giving you a revision plan.” My friend, stunned, came to me after and said, “Have you heard of a revision plan? Is that a normal thing to get? Can I ask for that?”

Story 2: Another friend, after 18 months on the job market, was delighted to get her first conference interview. She rushed to tell her committee and director of graduate studies assuming they would be excited that one of the program’s PhD students might get a job. While most people were pleasant they were also distant–not offering much in the way of substantive advice or asking questions about the position. Afterward, my friend told me that she had assumed that her initial enthusiasm was naive and was embarrassed about it. A week later, my friend was making casual conversation with faculty in another department and said her plans for break included a conference interview. This other faculty member insisted on putting together a mock interview for her. She, also, came up to me after and said, “Does your department do mock interviews? Did you know that was something we could ask for?”

Story 3: Another friend had a parent die unexpectedly and her second parent was in ill health. She decided to take a semester in absentia to help her remaining parent adjust to the loss and recover some health. Before making this decision she discussed her options with her committee, director of graduate studies, and department chair. All said that they would support her in this transition and that she would have funding when she was able to come back. (Do you see where this is going?) My friend, unfortunately, trusted all of these people enough that she didn’t follow up on the verbal agreements with an email to confirm. A semester later she is preparing to come back and waiting for her funding assignment. In a Skype meeting, her advisor asks, “What will you do for funding?” She responded, “Whatever I’m assigned, I guess.” That was when her advisor told her that all available slots had been assigned months ago. An afternoon of frantic emailing revealed she’d somehow been taken off of the department’s grad-student list-serv and had missed the email asking students to let the department know if they would need funding. She never knew she missed it because she was still on several other departmental list-servs and just assumed that funding arrangements were taking a while, as they sometimes do.

This friend was later told by her advisor that she needed to do a better job advocating for herself. My friend was absolutely flummoxed. If she’d had an inkling that something was wrong she would have advocated for herself but she was content to trust to the verbal agreement she thought she’d made.

Certainly, all of these stories have a theme of (gross) negligence on the part of people in power, but there’s a lot of literature out there about the toxic elements of academic culture and departmental bad actors. I don’t want to go over that ground.

All of these stories have another theme in common as well–none of my friends knew that they could or should ask for certain things. They were all willing to believe that if they worked hard and kept their head down they would make it in the meritocracy of academic labor. I won’t attempt to deny that academia’s myth of meritocracy drew me in as well.

Except, academic labor is far, far, far from a meritocracy. Knowing what to ask for and how to ask for it are important skills that can make or break careers. Each of these stories represents a dramatic instance in which working-class PhD students didn’t know what they didn’t know. They didn’t know what they could ask for. They didn’t know what documentation they were going to need to hold their higher-ups accountable. They just didn’t know.

This is all a *very* long intro for my thesis: the obstacles to being a working-class PhD student aren’t all about access. Once you’re in, once you’ve got that access, there is a whole other set of obstacles related to navigating bureaucratic structures designed for the middle and upper classes.

Think of it this way: a PhD is always a journey and often a lonely one. It takes preparation from provisions to maps to knowing the best places to stop, refuel, and rest.

PhD students whose parents worked in the professional classes are simply more familiar with how to plan and execute this journey.

Working-class and first-gen students are often, somehow, expected to complete the same journey with none of that preparatory knowledge that seems so natural to students from the middle and upper classes. It can feel a bit like eagerly setting out on a journey only to realize you might be lost right as storm blows in on a lonely stretch of road.

I’m almost at the end of my academic journey, preparing to set a defense date, and I still frequently find things I didn’t know I didn’t know. However, I have picked up a few things along the way that I will share with you over the week. I was going to share them with you in this post but it became unreasonably long so, instead, I’ll be posting topics every day this week including: service work, real jobs, language, bragging, and surviving.

 

Weekly Roundup!

Get ready, y’all!

First, we’ve got a series of graphs looking at first-generation PhD students compiled by the NSF. The information isn’t exactly cheery but it is necessary.

Five years ago Inside Higher Ed did a series on first-gen grad students. We think it’s worth revisiting some of their articles below:

Imposter Syndrome–I particularly appreciate tip #2 in this list. Because academia often bills itself as a meritocracy I spent my entire MA program working long days and late nights. I didn’t make time for departmental events because I thought it was more important people see the quality of my work than see me. I was wrong and I didn’t realize I was wrong until it was too late to salvage my reputation.

Transitioning from first-gen college student to first-gen grad student–Pretty much exactly what it sounds like.

Just some great advice–That is all. (Also, maybe bookmark Conditionally Accepted.)

My all-time favorite–This piece is about first-gen and working-class undergrads, but it’s just so damn thorough I can’t help but love it. It’s also easy to see how a lot of the things talked about translate to graduate school challenges.

Finally, check out the Working-Class Studies Association. They have a CFP open until the end of the month!

 

WTF: Working-Class Academics

I’ve been putting off introducing this month’s theme: working-class and first-gen PhD students because it’s personal and because I don’t know where to start with something that is, simultaneously, so big and so close to home.

Let me start with why I’m addressing this topic at all. A month ago, I wanted to do a Weekly Roundup post with helpful links about what it’s like to come from a working-class background and be in a PhD program. I was absolutely certain that there would be enough posts to generate a Roundup (at least 3), but there weren’t.

Well, that’s not exactly true. There were posts aplenty but they were mostly from the UK and while they were well-written and insightful it can be hard to translate advice between the UK and US academic systems. There were, of course, also some great links to working-class scholar organizations (which will be in this week’s Roundup), but I couldn’t find the type of advice I was looking for–the type of advice I wish I’d had when I started. So, to paraphrase the great Toni Morrison, if there’s a post you want to read but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it. That’s how this month’s focus on working-class and first-gen PhD students came to be.

Before properly beginning this month’s series, here’s a quick rundown of my background: My mother was a clerk for her whole career and, because she never got a college degree, was an hourly worker–never eligible for the promotion to salaried, exempt status. My step-dad drove dove a cement truck and then a dump truck. I was the first person in my immediate family to get a college degree. My mother did attend some community college before she had my oldest brother and both of my brothers gave college a try before leaving for different reasons. Neither of them got degrees.

I know some folks don’t count families who have had members attend college but not graduate as first-gen. I’m absolutely sure it’s a different experience. As hard and confusing as it was for me I had some people with some experience to rely on. I can only speak to my experience but if you know someone willing to guest post drop me a line on the contact page.

It’s also important to note that my family is white. Being white comes with a lot of privileges in general but one thing I’ve noticed in academia is that people are more willing to assume I’m middle-class than they are with my colleagues of color which, in turn, makes it easier for me to present as middle-class in professional situations which leads to a whole host of other benefits. It’s also important to note that being white played a part in allowing my family to move out of the trailer park and into a house-house when I was 15. And being white played a part in helping me to get an FHA loan to buy a house (with my mom’s help) when I entered a PhD program which has helped me immensely as well.

While I’m excited and nervous to spend the month of March sharing what I’ve learned about being a PhD student from a working-class background I am most aware of what I don’t know. Always, but especially this month, take what’s useful, leave the rest, and please use this as a space to share resources that have helped you navigate this experience.