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!

4 thoughts on “Rules

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    • Jaime Hough says:

      Hi Miranda! I’m so glad you found our site and that it was helpful. The need for graduate students to teach and research, which saves the university money is, I think, what you’re asking about and a subject that has been well covered in the literature about adjunctification and graduate students getting jobs. I would recommend checking out the work of Karen Kelsky at The Professor Is In if you’re more interested in how/why universities keep admitting so many grad students that they can’t fund and/or won’t get tenure-track jobs.

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