Student or Professional? On the Paradox of Being a Graduate “Student”
Kelly Hanson is a PhD candidate in English at Indiana University, Bloomington. You can find her on Twitter during her work hours at @krh121910.
One of the best pieces of advice I ever received about graduate school came during my last semester of coursework. The professor, while talking more broadly about academia, said off handedly, “You’re more than just a graduate student, you know.” And it was so simple. So obvious. I already knew it. Except I didn’t really know it.
In that moment, I had the ultimate grad school epiphany. Work was not some constant thing that life occasionally interrupted; dinner was not a break from work; sleep was not a break from work; going out with friends was not a lack of productivity; and catching up on a TV show was not simply a reward for having worked all day. Life doesn’t interrupt work; work interrupts life. As David Harvey has so eloquently noted, academic labor can permeate the entire day, and in contemporary academic professions, there is often no clear line between personal time and work time. For graduate school, I would suggest, the seeping of labor into all hours of the day and weeks of the year produces a central tension in a graduate student’s life: the paradox of being both a student and a professional worker. Knowing that we are people first and graduate students second is something we may already “know.” But is this a thought that we truly know in our everyday lives, work, and habits?
Clearly, we all know that we’re students and professionals. It’s so simple. So obvious. Except that it actually isn’t. If academia has difficulty distinguishing between work time and personal time, then graduate students who are being trained in the field are often inculcated with negative or unproductive habits surrounding work and time management. The difference between being a student and being a professional lies at the heart of this time problem for many graduate students—including myself.
If I conceptualize myself as a “professional,” this implies that I am a worker, that what I do on an everyday basis is part of my career, and that my work is “real” work. This also means my labor falls under federal and state labor laws, that I am eligible for health care, and that working “full time” is working 40 hours a week. As such, my work ought to have a “quitting time.” If I conceptualize myself as a “student,” however, things change. “Student” suggests that I am still learning, that I am not the equal of my professors, and that the work I do on an everyday basis is work only towards my degree. My labor is not valued or paid, it does not fall under federal or state laws, and it has no legal time limits or stopping point. For students, there is no “quitting time.” The implications of such a category are vast, not only for our own health and sanity, but for our rights and collective organizing power.
For career-academics, this paradox can be particularly eruptive in relationships with an advisor or dissertation director, the person who both judges your work and guides your professional progress, and who may expect you to work constantly because she worked constantly. Large amounts of free time and a lack of clear working hours can compound this problem. We all know someone who thinks that graduate students shouldn’t have “weekends” when dissertating, or reading for exams, or even during coursework. If we think of ourselves as apprentices, then our professors have all the power, and can tell us to work around the clock. If we are workers, however, then we control our working hours, and we ought to treat our work as, well, work.
The problem, of course, is that obviously as grad students we are both professionals and students. And certainly, the valuing of research and other academic labor poses larger problems beyond our immediate existential anxieties. Nevertheless, viewing ourselves as professionals can go a long way towards alleviating stress about our advisor relationship, helping us effectively manage our time, and helping us carve out a fulfilling personal life. Graduate school is a job, just like any other job. And we should encourage students to view themselves as professional workers from day one, to see their courses and writing as professional labor, not simply as “student work.”
Viewing yourself as a worker might take simple forms: scheduling your reading and writing time in a calendar and treating it as seriously as you would any other job. Or, conversely, you might want to schedule your quitting time: no work after 10 PM. 8 PM. Even 5 PM. No responding to “work” emails after, say, 9 PM. Time management apps might help. Participating in extracurricular activities might help. Or not. There is no single way to accomplish this paradigm shift. I am only suggesting that we begin by recognizing our labor, work, and value, as both more and less than labor and value. Your work is less than your raison d’etre, but more than just “making a living.” It is a job, and you are more than just a graduate student.
For me, learning to conceptualize graduate school as a job offered the chance to clearly delineate between my personal life and my work. Setting clear working hours like I would in any other job not only helps me be productive and get my writing done, it also helps me focus on my writing and research. I work better when I’m not stressed, and thinking of my work as just work has helped alleviate anxiety and fears about perfectionism. I work because I want to. But I also stop without feeling guilty or stressed or anxious about not continuing work. Sure there are new articles in the field to read, and a conference abstract to write. But, I am not working right now. Right now is personal time. So I’m going to drink my morning coffee and read the paper. Work doesn’t start for another hour.
Do you think of graduate school as a profession? Or do you prefer to be a student? Let us know in the comments!
[Image taken by Flickr user JD Hancock and used under the Creative Commons License]
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