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.

 

2 thoughts on “You Don’t Know What You Don’t Know

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