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.

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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.

 

 

 

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.