Mindfulness

Some days rest is easy: the sun shines, the breeze blows, and your inbox is empty.

These days are magical.

And Rare.

If you’re a typical PhD student your days are more likely to be spent in a small, windowless office shared with several other graduate students.

Other graduate students in your field, and the connections you form with them, are a vital part of success, and sanity, in your later academic career.

But they can be a heckuva inconvenience when you really need to get some writing done and all of your officemates are catching up on departmental gossip or meeting with students or doing anything else that makes your office feel like Grand Central Station.

This can be truly devastating to your productivity given that it takes over 20 minutes to recover from an interruption in your work.

For me, the spiral of thwarted productivity goes something like this:

Officemates in our shared office; living their lives.

Interrupting me.

Me: [Gets annoyed.]

Me: [Feels bad for being annoyed.]

Me: [Tries to work.]

Me: [Is distracted.]

Me: [Doesn’t make progress.]

Me: [Gets mad at myself for not making progress.]

Me: [Gets annoyed at officemates for thwarting my progress.]

Me: [Is annoyed and distracted and makes no progress.]

Me: [Leaves office hours.]

In the face of this destructive cycle mindfulness can be a lifesaver.

Like flow, mindfulness isn’t so much a form of rest as it is a way of approaching an activity whether that activity be rest or work.

Chances are, you’ve heard about mindfulness before. It’s been touted as a treatment for an impressively wide range of problems and seems to have several different definitions ranging from being present in the moment to observing your responses without judgment.

While there’s nothing wrong with being in the present, we’ll stick to the latter definition of mindfulness: observing your responses (thoughts and emotions) without judgment.

Let’s replay that earlier scenario with a mindfulness practice:

Officemates in our shared office; living their lives.

Interrupting me.

Me: [Gets annoyed.]

Me: [Feels bad for being annoyed.]

Mindfulness: [I’m feeling bad. Why am I feeling bad?]

Mindfulness: [I’m feeling bad because I’m annoyed at my officemates for talking even though this is their office and it’s not their fault.]

Mindfulness: [Is there anything I can do to improve this situation?]

Me: [Yes, I can enter attendance now which doesn’t take much attention and reschedule writing for after I teach.]

Me: [Takes a deep breath.]

Me: [Feels better.]

The power of mindfulness is that it cuts through that voice in your head saying “I should be doing X!” That voice, while meant to be helpful, is actually a distraction that prevents work from getting done. Mindfulness helps silence that voice and actually get work done.

A mindfulness practice is, well, just that–a practice. The goal isn’t to do it perfectly but simply to do it. Over time, a mindfulness practice can help you feel, if not rested, a sense of peace in even the most chaotic of environments. And after all, what is a grad student office but the most chaotic of environments?

 

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Wonder: Your Superpower

Near the end of my Master’s program, I had the good fortune to attend a small workshop with Omise’eke Natasha Tinsley. Dr. Tinsley was generous enough to end the workshop with a Q&A. As all private Q&As between young profs and grad students are wont to do the questions eventually turned to

“HOW ON EARTH DO YOU GET THROUGH GRAD SCHOOL WITH YOUR SANITY INTACT?!”

Dr. Tinsley said something that got me through graduate school:

Don’t lose your love of stories. 

Maybe your PhD isn’t in literature. Maybe stories, in the sense of novels or films, aren’t what got you into graduate school.

But something brought you here. Specifically, it was a love of something that brought you here. (Side note: I often listen to this song on repeat while writing or doing syllabus prep.) It was a bit of wonder at the beauty of a good story or the elegance of high theory or the historical intricacies of AAVE or the nuances of social commentary in space operas or whatever the thing was that made you say to yourself, “I could definitely spend 7 years and a book on THIS thing.”

And yet.

The process of graduate school can wear away that sense of wonder. It starts to slip away in your first “Intro to the Discipline” course where you read the canon and start to wonder if you can shoehorn that thing you’re so passionate about into academic jargon. It erodes a bit more in a semester where there are no classes offered related to your thing and so you have to take a bunch of other classes and write a bunch of papers about stuff that isn’t your thing. Then come prelims where you read a wide-range of books and your sense of wonder renews itself but in a negative way that leaves you wonder-ing why so many half-baked theories got published in the first place. Then comes the actual dissertation which is just so much more work than you can imagine before you actually do it and you wonder if it was a mistake to start a project that seems like it will never be finished. In short, it’s very easy to lose your love of the thing, your wonder, somewhere along the way.

There are a lot of surveys of why 50% of humanities PhDs leave their programs before completion. None of them ask about wonder. Yet, from my own observations, a lot of people who walk away do so because that sense of wonder either turns to something outside of academia or withers away. In the most difficult moments of graduate school that sense of awe or wonder, that deep devotion to your topic, is your lodestone leading you through the Forrest of No Fucks Left to Give.

Wonder is, in short, a superpower we all have access to. It can be the thing that leads you down the right path research/career-wise, and it is an easily accessible answer to many teaching questions.

I know a lot of folks reading this will be preparing a syllabus (or several) for the upcoming fall semester. If you’re putting together a new syllabus use wonder as your guide to fill in the gaps. When asking what texts to put on the syllabus ask which ones you’re dying to talk about–which ones fill you with awe/wonder? Put those in.

When trying to decide how to set up assignments you can use wonder to ways. First, what assignments really sparked your own wonder and creativity as a student? Incorporate those. Second, what types of assignments have you always wanted to incorporate or try? Incorporate those.

I can tell you from almost a decade of my own teaching reviews the feedback I consistently get from students in every class I teach is that I really love teaching that subject. Some students think I’m a great teacher. Some students think I’m a terrible teacher. Some love me. Some hate me. But they unanimously agree that I really, really love teaching that subject even if they think I’m the worst person to ever stand in front of a class.

Similarly, every award I won during grad school was some version of an audience-choice award. I used to think that meant my research wasn’t good enough to win a more prestigious award. However, I’ve come to think those audience-choice awards really mean that I did an excellent job getting people to care about my topic and I think I did that because I cared so deeply about it even at the points when I hated graduate school the most.

Now, there’s a solid chance you’re reading this and thinking to yourself, “I’ve totally lost my sense of wonder so please stop blathering on about a superpower I don’t have.”

No.

No, I won’t stop blathering on. Wonder is a renewable resource, my friend, and I believe in your ability to reclaim your superpower.

The reason I’m going on about wonder in our summer series on rest is because rest is the only way I know to renew your sense of wonder. There are so many moments that take it away. You could argue the whole academic system is designed to take away your wonder, but you have to find the moments to renew it.

I often find that little moments of wonder occur during moments of mindlessness. When I’m waiting for the bus or walking across campus and not really thinking about anything  I’ll feel a deep sense of wonder and awe that I get to be in this space. Maintaining my sense of wonder, my love of stories, is also why I read fiction every day throughout grad school. Even though my PhD isn’t in literature it was important to me to stay in touch with my love of language throughout this process.

Finally, I know a lot, A LOT, of people who tell me that wonder is definitely important for their teaching and research and they will get on renewing their sense of wonder just as soon as they are done with graduate school.

Bruh.

D1Z-thats-not-how-it-works-thats-not-how-any-of-this-works

You need to take time to attempt to renew your sense of wonder, your love of the thing, often. Ideally daily, even if it’s just for twenty-five minutes, because if you don’t figure out how to make rest and wonder part of your routine now then you never will.

I’m speaking particularly to humanities PhDs who want to get TT jobs here.

Graduating is a huge accomplishment. Getting a TT job is an even bigger accomplishment. For both of those accomplishments you are rewarded with more responsibility, not less. You have more things to do, more claims on your time, and the pressure doesn’t ease up. Sure, you have more money and better insurance, and those things definitely help some, but most folks I know who have TT jobs are just as busy as they were as grad students and most are more so. The extra money and better insurance means you (barely) break even with your newly increased work load.

This isn’t meant to discourage anyone from getting a TT job. Rather, I want to encourage you to do so in way that is sustainable for your mental, emotional, and physical health. On a related note, there’s some science indicating wonder seems to be a vital component for each of those things.

Mindfulness​, Mindlessness, Flow, and Wonder

In our special summer series on rest we have covered why grad students are bad at resting, and what activities definitely do not count as rest.

In the next part of this series, we are introducing four essential types of rest. Like a well-balanced diet blends your macro-nutrients so a well-balanced schedule will mix your types of rest. Each of these types of rest has their advantages for your brain and for your work.

In this post, we will go over each type of rest and in the next week we will take a more in-depth look at why need these types of rest and how to get them.

Mindfulness: You’ve probably heard a lot about mindfulness. It’s touted as a panacea for the ills of our modern age. Hell, incorporating mindfulness is part of our mission statement because there is some promising research and what it can do for the anxious and overworked. However, Mindfulness is sort of like the aspirin of mental health: in certain conditions it’s good to have some every day but it’s a preventative measure or temporary relief–not a cure.

Mindlessness: You may not have heard as much about mindlessness but it is what it sounds like. It is the state in which you zone out and you’re not thinking of anything. Mindlessness is, in my opinion, the type of rest graduate students in the humanities are most desperate for. If I had a dollar for every time a humanities graduate student told me they couldn’t have fun anymore (e.g. enjoy video games, romance novels, movies) because they couldn’t turn their brain off, well, then I wouldn’t be working on this site–I’d be relaxing mindlessly in Hawaii.

Flow: When I think of flow I think of math and the pleasure of losing myself in a problem. The flow state is that magical time when you are working on a difficult, but solvable, problem and you lose yourself in it. Writing feels best when you manage to get yourself into a flow state. If you don’t like math you may be familiar with flow from an absorbing workout, a crossword, a puzzle or some other endeavor that involves pleasurably losing yourself in the moment.

Wonder: Wonder is the rocket fuel of graduate study. Without wonder completing the degree relies on determination and willpower. Unfortunately, willpower doesn’t really exist so that’s a difficult and doomed endeavor. Wonder is the state of seeing yourself as a small part of a very big universe. It is perspective and it is vital to graduate study. Every graduate student I have ever met became a graduate student because they had wonder–they saw a big puzzle that captivated their attention and they wanted to be a part of solving it.

These forms of rest are not mutually exclusive. It’s possible that a mindfulness exercise could induce a state of wonder. You might indulge in a bit of wonder leading to mindlessness. A little bit of wonder might help get you into a flow state, and so it goes.

Come back next week when we’ll go into detail about what mindfulness is and what it can do as well as what it isn’t and what it can’t do.

Rest

In preparing to launch this site I interviewed over 40 graduate students. In my near-decade in graduate school I have informally talked with hundreds of graduate students, post-docs, and faculty about how they structure their time.

I’ve always been interested in how people create balance for themselves and I’ve gotten some truly interesting answers.

One prominent professor, who will remain unnamed, confided in me that she got through graduate school by being drunk the entire time. So, you know, that’s one way to do it but not really one I (or that professor) advocated–too much damage to the liver.

I’ve already talked about how some people approach graduate school as a 9 to 5 job. I’ve also known people who structure their weeks very rigidly, allocating all teaching tasks to days they teach, writing to days they don’t teach, and one day a week for errands. I like the idea of such a predictable schedule but I’ve always found that real life gets in the way of all my best efforts.

What I have repeatedly found is that academics are very bad at resting. When I ask people how they rest they often tell me that they aside some time during the week for rest–sometimes it’s an hour or two a day, sometimes it’s one day out of the week, sometimes they allocate weekends, and so on.

However, that doesn’t really answer the question. That is when they rest and not how.

When I probe a little deeper and get academics, particularly grad students, to tell me how they rest the overwhelming finding is that they aren’t resting at all.

Here’s a short list of things people have told me they during their allocated resting time:

  • Dishes
  • Laundry
  • Yard Work
  • Grocery Shopping
  • Meal Prep

Those things are not rest. You may enjoy doing them. I, personally, enjoy grocery shopping but that doesn’t make it rest in the same way that I enjoy teaching but it is still my job and not my leisure time.

As a general rule, if the task has to be done then it is not rest. Dishes, laundry, yard work: these are not rest activities.

That doesn’t mean they aren’t useful. In fact, later this week we will cover exactly how and why activities like this can be helpful to your academic success, but they aren’t rest.

Some activities look like rest from the outside but may not be rest. Again, the guide is whether or not it is something that has to be done. If it has to be done it is a task or a chore and not rest. For example women, people of color, and working-class graduate students often need to do a great deal of emotional labor that may look like rest or leisure from the outside but, internally, feels like something that has to be done and it crosses the line from leisure to another chore.

Take a good, hard look at your week. Are you finding time to truly rest or are you buying into the fallacy, so aggressively perpetuated in academic circles, that any non-academic activity is rest?

 

How Many Hours Are In a Day?

Long ago, I took a class in HR Management.

We all try things.

To this day, the class in HR Management remains one of my favorite classes of all time. I have dozens of good memories from that class and one not-great memory from that class. Guess which one I’m gonna tell you about today?

The professor of that class told us that everyone had the same amount of time in the day. At the time, this didn’t quite sit well with me but it took me YEARS to figure out why.

In fact, it wasn’t until I heard about spoon theory that I fully understood what made me so uncomfortable with the statement that everyone has the same 24 hours in a day to get stuff done. If you haven’t encountered spoon theory before this image explains it:

Spoon Theory

Essentially, people who live with chronic illness do not have an equal 24 hours in a day to get things done. They have as much time and energy as their illness will let them, which is not always predictable but is non-negotiable.

And while talking about chronic illness in grad school is important it is not the only thing that can inhibit your ability to get work done. As we mentioned in a previous post, thinking about budgeting or where your next meal is going to come from takes up brain space you can’t give to academic tasks (you can also see here and here). In addition, stereotype bias can inhibit academic performance (see here, here, and here).

What I’m getting at here is the incredibly obvious point that how many usable hours you have in a day is a function of your privilege. In fact, I often introduce the concept of privilege to my students by asking them to think of reasons why the same activities might take different people different amounts of time where less time to task completion = more structural privilege.

This is obviously correlated to the fact that the more energy you are required to spend on one task the less time you have for other tasks.

And guess what? We all have finite amounts of energy.

When it comes to rest, and how much you need, or what type works for you there is only one expert: you.

The key to surviving graduate school with a modicum of sanity is to allow yourself to take the rest you need without guilt, shame, or comparison.

The simple fact is we don’t all have the same 24 hours in a day. We never did.

I would go insane if I compared my productivity to my colleague who doesn’t need more than 4 hours of sleep a night. I typically need at least 10 to function. I could waste time thinking about those 6 hours I wasn’t writing or I could acknowledge that I do better work in less time when I’m well rested.

So, from this post to the next, I’m giving you a bit of homework: Think, really think, about how much rest you would like to have in your day, your week, and your month.

On Friday, we’ll be talking about what rest is and what it isn’t.

We Bend So We Don’t Break

Yesterday someone I follow asked the Twitterverse how to keep working when one’s natural impulse is to drive to the Trump administration’s concentration camps and tear them down with their bare hands.

Yesterday, I had an answer–something about trusting that our work is dedicated to tearing down systemic injustices and will create a more equitable society in the long term.

Today . . .

Today I had Kesha and ice cream and time alone.

I am a U.S. based scholar and this site is primarily geared towards people moving through the U.S. PhD system. You might have noticed that the U.S. is, well, this image says it best:

IMG_0767

So, by my reading we’re at Stage 7? We could debate it but, why? At the end of the day, the U.S. is way too damn far along this path.

You may be wondering why I’m bringing this up during our month on rest?

I have yet to met a PhD student in the humanities who isn’t also an activist. In times like these, when there is such an urgent and immediate need for activism, it can be incredibly difficult not just to focus on our work but to maintain our mental and physical health.

Remember that your activism will have more effect if you can sustain it over the long term. Remember that this administration is counting on you becoming too sick and tired to fight their agenda. Remember that resting is an important part of your activism.

I’m not here to give you a hard and fast guide for how to balance activism with grad school, now or ever. As with so much in grad school, there is no hard and fast rule.

I’m here to remind you to bend so you don’t break. Do what you can when you can and don’t feel guilty when you need to take a nap, watch Moana, or wander around Target.

When you do have the time and energy to #Resist here are four things you might consider:

Adding this excellent ContraPoints video to your class to teach your students how to spot fascist propaganda. Seriously, I don’t care what class you’re teaching–I’m sure you can find a way to work this in even if it’s just as extra credit.

ResistBot might be the best invention ever for those of us that want to be involved but have phone anxiety or, for whatever reason, can’t call. I frequently use ResistBot when I’m on the bus but it can also be a great writing break. Also, if you’re teaching any kind of composition class having students compose a resistance letter might be an idea 😉

5Calls is amazing. You tell it what you care about and it tells you who to call and gives you a script. It also tallies how many calls you’ve made (it feels so productive!).

Kindness Is Everything–The photo that heads this post is a real (shitty) photo of the front of my house. I found this print by Kristin Joiner, bought the digital proof off of her Etsy store, and had Office Depot make me a big a** poster. I have another one in my office window on campus. I’ve also used my student print quota to print 100s of these things and fliered them all over campus. Seeing them in the student health center is actually the accomplishment I’m most proud of.

Over the weekend, I’m going to be working on some posts about the science of rest and why need to make time for it as you work towards your Phd. In the meantime

#Resist #Persist, but don’t forget to rest and drink water.

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.

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

giphy1

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.

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!