Dear Fellow Graduate Student,
As you well know, this is a rough time to be pursuing an advanced degree. We are underfunded, overworked, exploited, and devalued by a society that (to take just one recent example) attempted to tax our tuition waivers as income, which would have made graduate education untenable for most of us and available only to the wealthiest students. There are gross disparities in funding for M.A and Ph.D. programs. Many of us face a job market that looks nothing like the landscapes our advisors experienced. And yet, the world needs M.A. and Ph.D. recipients now more than ever.
This system is deeply flawed and I earnestly hope that our generation will be the ones to overhaul it. As part of that project, I want to pass on some insights that helped me navigate my institution towards a successful dissertation defense and a job.
One reason I write this is because I was lucky to have wonderful peers, colleagues, and professors who supported me throughout this journey, though I’m continually meeting grad students who haven’t been so fortunate. As Annemarie Pérez’s recent post (“A Radical Idea About Adjuncting”) showed me, being explicit about the ways we’ve been lucky is part of a larger project of building universities that don’t rely so heavily on luck, but rather, are structured for the flourishing of diverse students and faculty, and engaged, urgent knowledge projects that serve the public good.
I also write this somewhat selfishly. I want to live in a world in which everyone has, in Fred Moten and Stefano Harney’s words, “everything that they need and 93% of what they want--not by virtue of the fact that you work today, but by virtue of the fact that you are here.” I believe that the hours you spend reading, thinking, writing, teaching, organizing, working to change your classrooms and institutions, learning so that you may improve the lives of others, and taking to the streets to demand change will help bring that world to fruition.
Don’t be afraid to change your mind. This was the single best piece of advice I received going into graduate school. Don’t be afraid to learn new things, to become obsessed, to fall in love with different subjects. You don’t have to leave graduate school pursuing the project that you identified in your application materials. Take courses with the faculty members who students can’t stop talking about, even if you’re completely unfamiliar with the subject area. Kyla Wazana Tompkins put it best: “we aren’t here to learn what we already know.” We are here to do research: to be unfaithful to the known.
Build the kind of intellectual community you want to be a part of. For me this has meant collaborating with others, even when collaborative work is not valued; remaining curious and asking questions, rather than trying to perform expertise; and working together to try and make our classrooms and institutions more just, equitable, and inclusive. Graduate school has taught me that we have just as much to learn from our peers as we do from our professors and, as Katie Fitzpatrick recently wrote, we “need friendship if we hope to challenge the structural conditions that make the academy so unforgiving.” If your department or university doesn’t share your values (interdisciplinarity, collaboration, social justice… whatever those may be), I’d encourage you to look elsewhere (professional organizations, community organizations, academic communities like HASTAC.org) to connect with others who are striving towards similar goals.
Immerse in critical university studies scholarship. As graduate students, we are taught to question everything, and academe is not spared from our critical gaze. Activists and scholars of African American studies, ethnic studies, and women’s and gender studies have long been working to improve higher education; more recently the term “critical university studies” has emerged for scholarship that emphasizes the institutional nature of so much of what transpires in universities. Texts like Fred Moten and Stefano Harney’s “The University and the Undercommons: Seven Theses” and Sara Ahmed’s On Being Included: Racism and Diversity in Institutional Life illuminate the structural nature of the seemingly idiosyncratic daily struggles of graduate student life. They remind us that when our desires are out of sync with our institutions, it’s often due to academia’s complicity in the colonial, white supremacist, heteropatriarchy. While this knowledge can feel defeating, if you work to address these conditions - in however small a way - you might find yourself in the sometimes rewarding, oftentimes frustrating creative struggle for institutional and social change. At the very least, these readings may help alleviate your imposter syndrome.
Don’t panic if you feel underprepared to teach. If you are thrown into a classroom with minimal pedagogical training, know that there are many resources out there. Some I found most useful are: Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, bell hooks, Teaching to Transgress, and HASTAC Scholars, “The Pedagogy Project.” You can follow along with graduate students in their journeys to become better educators by perusing The Futures Initiative website (a treasure trove of syllabi, reflections, and resources). Your institution should have a Teaching and Learning Center that can help; if not, poach from the TLC websites of other universities (such as my institution’s teaching guides). None of us are, from day one, the kind of professor or TA we’ve always wanted to be especially when so exploited, overworked, and underpaid. As a friend recently reminded me, it’s okay to teach the same texts multiple times and reuse/borrow/adapt assignments as we gradually get our bearings. These resources have helped me create a classroom I’m proud of and I hope they will help you too.
Find advisors you love working with. Having just gone through it, I now understand that behind every successful Ph.D. there is a veritable metropolis of advisors, mentors, and collaborators who have helped get them to that point. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. And don’t assume that just because someone doesn’t work in your field, that they can’t serve as a mentor. Having multiple advisors allows you to spread your questions out so as not to overburden any single one of them. While advising is a graduate professor’s job, you might reduce the anxiety of the perpetual ask by seeking opportunities to thank your advisors and return their help (this can take many forms: thanking them outright, participating in events they organize, offering help in whatever small ways). If it’s useful, consider the structural conditions of advising/mentoring: its proven success in helping first-generation, underrepresented, and minority students as well as the ways women of color faculty are the most undervalued in terms of the mentoring they do. For a gorgeous consideration of advising, I recommend “on (not) mentoring” by Kandice Chuh.
Don’t fear rejection. This is another one that’s easier said than done, but if you have ideas that are exciting and that might resonate with others, consider sharing them first with people whose insights you value and then with larger audiences. I was rejected from four major external grants during the first year of my dissertation research and was awarded two of those grants the next year when I reapplied. Rejection is not failure and, in most cases, is not even about you or your writing, but the conditions/context/politics of the venue to which you are submitting.
This goes double if you are, like me, a white graduate student working to address the intersectional conditions of institutional sexism and racism. You are going to mess up. You are going to be called out. It’s okay to feel sad, but do not disengage, or let your tears substitute for or become the focus of your work. As I tell my students, when we discuss race, class, gender, and sexuality: “we are going to mess up. Our educations have not provided us with a language, grammar, and vocabulary for addressing the institutional and interlocking nature of structural inequality.” The important thing is to listen, learn, and change your actions (I think of this as praxis). Treat these missteps and misfires as part of your education.
Talk to people. Whether that’s on Twitter or at conferences. Ask questions. Let people know when you’ve loved their work or something they’ve said. Send follow-up emails. Compose a thoughtful tweet to let another scholar know how inspiring their book or article was. Invite the people you meet to collaborate with you. Early on in my graduate career, I found structuring this process to be an effective way to ensure that I talked to people and eventually it became a habit (“try to do one brave thing today”). If you don’t fear rejection, the worst that’s going to happen is an unrequited email. I have been pleasantly surprised with the generosity of people in academe, many of whom are totally jazzed to engage with others who have found their work meaningful.
Read promiscuously. Read the things you love; you never know what you’ll find there. Disciplines and expertise are the products of a modern, bourgeois, colonial university system designed to rank, credentialize, hierarchize, and sort. They do not reflect how the world actually operates; everything is useful and potentially interesting.
Have an escape plan. Part of what allowed me to continue pursuing my graduate studies amidst such bleak employment prospects were the escape plans I hatched along the way: from the fanciful (travel blogger, food writer, inventor) to the practical (advertising, grant writing, university administration, education consultant). I prepared for an expansive job market that included both academic and “alternative academic” positions, and I now feel much better prepared to advise undergraduate and graduate students, the majority of whom will, statistically speaking, be using their degrees for something other than a career as a professor.
Send thank you notes. This is a practice my advisor instilled in me, which is now framed atop my computer. For me, this is part of performing the generous intellectual community that I want to be a part of, one that acknowledges so much of the labor that has gone uncompensated throughout history - one that thinks indebtedness not purely in monetary/ financial terms - one that recognizes our fate as inextricably bound to the work of others.
And finally, never, ever forget: you exceed the academy. Do not allow professionalization to swallow you. Your desires, your passion, your intellect, your work, your love, your ability to change the world far exceed the constraints and limited optics of colleges and universities. You are irreducibly complex, not rendered legible or intelligible by your CV, publications, teaching, or service. If you leave the academy, great things await; if you stay and work to fix things, you might find that exciting too. Toni Morrison said it best: “You are not the work you do; you are the person you are.”
PS… thank you to Cathy N. Davidson, Katina Rogers, Elly Weybright, and Roya Biggie for reading drafts of this!