Grad Student as Second Class Citizen?

This sign hangs on the fifth floor of the building where I work as a research and teaching assistant.  The graduate lounge referenced here is on the first floor: not exactly a convenient alternative. This sign caught my attention recently because it exemplifies an attitude towards graduate students that has thus far been very hard for me to articulate. It came together for me when I was having coffee with a friend of mine (who is now a successful member of the academy, with tenure and everything) and he remarked on how difficult it was to go from being a successful teacher, employed with a decent paycheck, considered competent and a person who knew his stuff, to the status of lowly graduate student when he began his Phd. The word he used was “infantilized.”  This is a perfect word to describe what goes on when one leaves the workforce for graduate school: there is a process whereby one’s instructors and mentors (and not all of them, of course, but enough of them) reflexively deny one’s maturity. Now, I am going to give folks the benefit of the doubt and hope they don’t mean to do this to us, but then signs like the one posted here seem to indicate that, as graduate students, we inhabit a world in which the skills that used to be valuable in our careers are no longer valued or even recognized. And while it is important to be willing to learn, there is a difference between humility and humiliation.

I went into a Phd program that was directly related to my career field. I began this journey because I love what I do, but I had a lot of questions about how to do it better. I wanted to research and write. Frankly, I thought graduate school would be an additive experience. How disorienting it has been to discover that it is more like hitting the reset button on my career: nothing I have done before seems to count. The weirdest part of my journey is that I was actually staff at the very same University I now attend as a student. I work just as hard now as I did then, yet I am not even allowed to microwave some soup for two minutes in an empty lounge between the hours of 11 and 2, Monday through Friday.

I don’t mean to be a Negative Nelly, but naming this phenomenon has been quite freeing. At first I thought I was just misunderstanding people, now I understand the nuance a little better. Naming what is happening also can be empowering, so here are some of the ways I’ve empowered myself in an environment that can be frustrating and disorienting, especially for grad students like me who are, ahem, more seasoned.

1. Resist the temptation to act like an 18-year-old.  The last time I was treated like a student, I was, well, a student. An undergraduate student, to be exact. Coming back to school much much later for my Phd, I felt myself wanting to drop my business casual for jeans and ratty sweatshirts. This is a mistake. I realized very quickly that, despite the tendency for graduate students to dress like students, if I wanted to be taken seriously, I needed to dress for work.  (For more on this, see a previous Gradhacker post from Katy Meyers “Level Up Your Life.”)

2. Own your accomplishments. Okay, fellow grad students, it’s time for some tough talk here from Mama Andrea: QUIT DEMURRING WHEN SOMEONE COMPLIMENTS YOU. Kudos in grad school are infrequent enough, yet I have witnessed time and time again a grad student ducking his or her head and mumbling something about “it wasn’t that hard” or “no, it was really like this.” Stop it. Stop it right now. You are smart, you are talented, and you need to own it. I’m not saying everything you do is perfect, but for goodness sake, if someone recognizes you just look them right in the eye and say, “Thank you.” That’s it. Start practicing in the mirror.

3. Start doing some Power Poses. While we are practicing behaviors, let’s continue with a discussion of Power Poses. As human creatures, we are hard wired to recognize subtle, non-verbal cues that communicate all kinds of information about the people around us.  This video from Amy Cuddy of the Harvard Business School discusses research that found that just putting our bodies into Power Poses actually can make us more confident and have the bonus feature of making people more receptive to our ideas. It seems like I do more advocating for my ideas than anything else these days, and you’d better believe I’m sitting with my feet up for two minutes before every meeting (really, it works. Check out the video: it will blow your mind.)

In the end, I have come to believe that success in graduate school is a combination of ignoring feelings of Imposter Syndrome while simultaneously resisting an academic culture that undervalues real-world experience.  I love being in my Phd program and it is humbling to put my half-baked and naive ideas out into the world to be hacked away at. But I am not merely the sum of my ideas, and I grow as a scholar as part of the process. What I won’t tolerate, however, is the notion that just because I have not earned a PhD yet, that I am somehow a lesser person. I know less, but I can learn. I am naive about academic success, but I will become schooled. I have faith in the process, but I am wholeheartedly rejecting all the negative bits. Doing so allows me to enjoy the journey more.

How do you handle the role of graduate student? Has your experience been similar or different than mine has been? Let me know in the comments!

17 Responses to Empowering Our Grad School Selves

    1. “I am not merely the sum of my ideas, and I grow as a scholar as part of the process.” – I think everyone would do well to remember this line throughout their lives. Very well put. It is far too easy to get discouraged and take things personally when you say to yourself “I am all of my failed grant applications, my ideas are not good enough.”

    1. Wow. I bet that sign really makes you feel like a valued member of the academic community:)
      I totally understand what you mean by hitting the “reset” button on your career. I experienced a very steep learning curve my first year; I really felt like I was entering a completely different world: full of technical language and people I’d never heard of. However, my advisor was amazing in supporting me through that rocky first year. He always treated me like a grown up and took my concerns and questions seriously. When I was feeling insecure about my academic writing, he dug up some paper he wrote as a doc student (complete with nasty comments from his advisor) to show me that writing really good research articles was something that took years to master. Plus, he’s really flexible, answers my emails within hours, and seems genuinely interested in my questions, and interests, and general well-being. I promise I am not making this up. I know that he is a rare creature. But, I hope to emulate him one day when I have doctoral students of my very own.

        • Lindy: so great to “hear” your voice here! I did hesitate about writing this post because of how great some of my mentors have been in actively resisting the culture I describe above. I love hearing about how kind and generous your advisor has been in mentoring you. It does me good to focus on the good rather than the bad, too, so thank you for sharing your experience in the comments. And keeping in mind that we will be the ones on the other side of this line some day is good to remember: we can envision perhaps a different future for the ones coming up behind us. Thanks, Lindy!

    1. Taylor says:

      Andrea, brilliant post. I entered my PhD program in a field I had been working in for three years and was shocked when no one in my new lab cared about my previous publications or knowledge of the field. I realized that while I did have some intelligence and basic knowledge, I had much to learn about conducting great science and research. Unfortunately, I wasted over a year of graduate study being completely bewildered by the entire phenomenon of going unnoticed and unappreciated before I wised up. So your post definitely resonated with me, and I’ll be putting your tips to good use.

    1. […] the importance of our body language when communicating. I found it from this also great GradHacker article. […]

    1. Excellent post Andrea – I felt like this myself while studying and try to remember it when I am running workshops for research students now. It’s amazing how responsive the grad student audience is when you give signals that their prior experience is valuable and, often, only needs to be slightly repurposed to solve grad school problems. I wish more academics would read this post as well as the many research student blogs out there and attempt to better understand these issues – I suspect many don’t…

    1. Cory Owen says:

      I think stories like these are why I chose to be a “professional student” and keep my day job. I definitely didn’t want to put my career on hold and feel that I had to restart once I finished my degree.

      Great post!

    1. […] the bonus feature of making people more receptive to our ideas.” (from A Gradhacker piece on Empowering Our Grad School Selves by Andrea […]

    1. Andrea —
      Brilliant. I’ve often wondered about writing another version of this sign. Something like, “This lounge is reserved for all people who would like to share in the thoughtful and inclusive exchange of ideas in a community of learners. Graduate students are welcomed at all times, but staff who would exclude them between the hours of 11 and 2 should stay in their offices and/or cubicles.” What do you think? Should I print some up and circulate? ?

    1. […] enough. As adults being placed in a subordinate position, some PhD students experience a sense of infantilization alongside the conflicting expectation that they develop a professional […]

    1. Heather says:

      This is an interesting post. I have the exact opposite experience in regards to feeling disempowered by moving from career to grad school. I am currently an administrative staff member at a small college, where I teach as an unpaid adjunct (policy says – you’re on salary? No extra pay for you, but you’re going to be pressured to teach because there are too many students and we won’t hire additional faculty!).

      The respect and empowerment I experience as a graduate student has been amazing. Maybe what I have experienced in uncommon. But my professors respect my career background and encourage me to make connections between it and what I am studying. They treat me like a colleague. On the other hand, my workplace has been hell. I experience significant bullying by tenured faculty and am told I have no recourse but to leave when I complain. As a result of the very night and day experiences I am currently having, I’ve completely reassessed my career and am taking steps to get out, even though the job hunt has been less than fruitful and I am staring down unemployment on June 1.

      Your advice to folks who are experiencing what you are experiencing is great, and I love that video. And I dearly hope that my experience is not one-of-a-kind.

      And I hate to say this about that sign: what an amazing place that actually provides some small, dedicated space for staff. As a grad student, I don’t read it as disrespectful to grad students. After all, there is a dedicated space already. But as a staff member who normally is forced to eat at my desk because there is no lounge space for staff (faculty get them and so do students) and regularly has to hike two floors for a bathroom, this sign is – to me – a breath of fresh air.

        • Heather, thanks for you insight into this issue. Of course it is going to be different for different folks, depending on one’s advisor, program, and circumstances.This has been enough of an issue for those I know that I felt I should write about it. I’m glad that you found the advice useful.

          As for the sign, I totally get it. If the lounge were actually used during the hours the sign bans me, along with the fact that the nearest place to heat my lunch is down five floors, I probably wouldn’t be so irked by it.

          I think it is different, too, if I were still working full time as opposed to being a full time graduate student. I worked my first semester and definitely felt a shift when I moved to full time student. As for the mistreatment of non-tenure track faculty, that’s a serious issue in Higher Ed that is a continual problem. I am sorry that your college doesn’t value your extra services enough to pay you for your time. Good luck with your job search and I wish you the best!

    1. Chris says:

      Thanks for your post. I have just finished my second research degree after 6 years of study ie research masters and then PhD. I have been lucky in some ways because I had two very supportive and caring supervisors who took a personal interest in me as well as professional. Just what the dr ordered when feeling low. Still, I have felt the same sense of ‘infantization’ as others – bit out of the loop, not really considered as important by the leadership. I have taught at post-grad over most of those six years, and I think this gave me a greater degree of credibility as well as some connection with other adjunct and admin staff. In general though it has been a lonely journey and i have become somewhat of a hermit to the determinant of my friendship networks and mental health. It has also been a sacrifice for my family (wife and four kids). Now that I am at the end, there are mixed feelings – on the one hand relief, but on the other hand exhaustion and uncertainty. Not what I expected, which was that it would be a feeling of exhilaration. Maybe that will come later. Hoping it was all worth it. Sorry if it sounds depressing….just need a chance to process it all!

        • First of all, congratulations on being finished! I didn’t find your comments depressing: your experience was fraught with all of the same tensions as the rest of us. Being a parent and a partner, I think, adds to those tensions in unique ways. I wonder constantly if the sacrifices I make for school are going to be worth it for my family, who seem to pay the price for my choices. Of course, we all try to minimize the impact, but it’s a tough balancing act. Thanks for the comments.

    1. EndofY1crisis says:

      Thanks for this post. Wow! Infantalization is exactly the right description of how I feel. Yes and ‘impostor syndrome’. Forty-five years old and mother of three with plenty of research and research management experience behind me, I experience a huge sense of dissonance. In my case its not about notices on the door… but more about the structure and purpose of a supervision meeting – Is the purpose to demonstrate competence… or overcome challenges. And how can you overcome challenges when at least half of your brain is on demonstrating competence. Arrgghh…

        • Thanks for the comment. I am just sorry you can relate! As a fellow mama going back to school, I can honestly say that being a parent reminds me constantly that there is a lot more to life than trying to please my advisor/department. Putting the grad work into perspective has helped me find proper balance and I think it makes my work better. When I have time to work, I don’t waste it. And when I am with my kids, I make sure I am focused on them. That focus in both places is honestly the best I can do, and that is my definition of success. Good luck to you!

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