Y’all, I’m so tired in all the ways a human being can be tired. The change of seasons and this Brett Kavanaugh bullshit has got me exhausted and the only thing I’ve been doing for days–when I’m awake–is trying to find little things that don’t make me miserable. So, you know, I rewatched all of “The Good Place.”
I have, noticeably, stepped away from our Septemeber series on teaching. Every day I wake up and tell myself, “Write about how to teach intersectionality today. It’s more important than ever with all of this BS going on.” And every day I wind up eating cookies and watching Sailor Moon to not think about the interesting times we live in.
If I learned one thing in my teaching career it’s that it can be incredibly powerful to bring your whole self to the classroom.
Of course, you shouldn’t do anything that you’re uncomfortable with but the quickest way to build trust in the classroom is to be vulnerable there–to model how to connect lived experience with classroom concepts.
If you, like me, are struggling right now–struggling to get out of bed, struggling to teach, struggling to exist–then I would encourage you to take that into the classroom. Chances are, a lot of your students are struggling as well and would appreciate a chance to talk about it.
We hear a lot these days about how our digital spaces are increasingly becoming echo chambers because of our ability to mute or block people who have differing views. Because of this, our classrooms have become even more important cultural spaces. They are places where students are taught how to critically evaluate their opinions while also interacting with people who have different views and different life experiences. This can be incredibly important.
I know it certainly was for me when I was a young, extremely conservative student.
So, in light of all of this, I have just a few resources to share. The first category are things that help us get up and do shit. The second category are some teaching resources for your classroom.
Stuff That Makes Me Hate the World a Little Bit Less:
Safe Spaces–I love this piece for explaining safe spaces to students: what they are, what they aren’t, why folks need them, and how they work. (Bonus Points if you can guide your students towards understanding that “man caves” are safe spaces for white men.)
Jokes Seth Can’t Tell–I love this regular segment on Late Night with Seth Meyers for introducing an example of people owning intersectional identities and how in-group and out-group language works.
Growing Up Poor–If you’re teaching in the US then it’s going to be incredibly hard to get your students to acknowledge, let alone talk about, class. I use comedy clips almost every class period to get things started and this one is, far and away, the perennial favorite. It can also spark some good dialogue about class differences.
Potato or Nazi–My favorite way to start a conversation about imperialism and cultural appropriation.
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.”
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, 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.
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.
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:
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?
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:
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.
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:
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
I don’t know what I don’t know about this process. Can you lay out the steps to completion as you see them?
What are strategies that have been particularly successful for you/other students?
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!
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.
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.
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!
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.