Stacey Patton

Senior Enterprise Reporter at The Chronicle of Higher Education

How Grad Students Can Get Past ‘The Nasty Stuff People Do’

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Here at Vitae, we go to a lot of academic conferences—and attend a lot of lectures, workshops, and other sessions—so you don’t have to. The Conferencegoer takes a periodic look at some of the helpful, unexpected, or otherwise interesting talks we sit in on.

The conference: The Compact for Faculty Diversity’s annual Institute on Teaching and Mentoring

The location: Arlington, Va.

The scene: The conference, in its 20th year, is the largest gathering of minority Ph.D. scholars in the country. This year’s sessions touched on teaching millennials, designing syllabi, handling personality drama in departments and labs, and getting published.

The session: “Solo Success: How to Thrive in Graduate School When You’re The Only _______ In Your Department”

The speaker: Kerry Ann Rockquemore, executive director of the National Center for Faculty Development and Diversity.

The takeaway: The road to completing a doctoral degree can be like a slow-moving reality show—one that takes years to unfold, bogs down in personal dramas, and turns into an unnecessarily miserable experience. As dreary as that sounds, it’s even worse for minority scholars.

That’s because they’re not just worrying about finishing their degrees and getting jobs. They’re also navigating around plenty of other obstacles—including overt and covert forms of racism, disproportionate service obligations, and daily “microaggressions.”

“Microaggressions,” Rockquemore said to chuckles from the audience, “are the nasty little shit people do.”

She was talking, of course, about racially-coded acts: In the classroom, a student asking, “Do you have a Ph.D.?” or “Have you taught this class before?” In a faculty meeting, a colleague constantly interrupting or dismissing your ideas. In a research setting, a proposal of yours being met with crickets when a similar suggestion from a scholar of a different race is celebrated.

Rockquemore says these microaggressions contributed to an exhausting grad-school experience:“I stopped exercising. I gained weight. My hair was coming out in clumps. My husband said he didn’t know me anymore. And my family stopped inviting me to events because I didn’t have time for birthdays and reunions.”

Rockquemore said her struggles were not unique; she hears the same stories over and over again.“These microaggressions push people’s insecurities, and what happens is you start over-functioning on teaching to prove that you are qualified,” she said. “This eventually affects your teaching and writing. You get pissed off and that’s energy you need to get your work done.”

So how can minority scholars fight through departmental politics on their way to a doctorate? Rockquemore shared some lessons she wishes she’d been taught earlier:

Know what you want. Scholars often lose energy on introspection, asking themselves “Do I really want to pursue a Ph.D. or an academic job?” That ambivalence can stifle productivity.

Understand the game... The things that tend to matter most to academics—tenure, promotions, scholarly reputation—aren’t necessarily the ones that resonate with university administrators, who may care more about service, committee participation, and teaching. Remember that you’re operating in a political environment and must manage professional relationships in their departments.

...and realize that it’s not all about the work. Writing, for example, might be rewarding, but you’ve also got to do things that will earn you credit from potential mentors and references.

Don’t be afraid to bother people. Even when they really need help, scholars often assume that colleagues are too busy to be asked. Don’t decide for other people if they can help you—and don’t believe that you can figure everything out on your own. It’s the slowest way to get things done.

When it comes to writing, don’t binge and bust. This is a pattern that usually begins in college, when students grow accustomed to looking at the syllabus, seeing that a paper is due by the end of the semester, and then putting it off until the night before. It’s a pattern that some scholars carry over into graduate school and onto the tenure track. The problem is that dissertations, journal articles, and grant proposals can’t be knocked out the night before the deadline and still be competitive.

Don’t make the perfect the enemy of the good. Perfectionists publish less because they hold onto their ideas for too long and eventually get scooped. And when they ask colleagues for input on their work, they can feel attacked and pulled down. It’s essential to get that input, to work collaboratively, and to make sure your research doesn’t become your identity.

Build a many-headed mentor. Rethink the traditional mentoring model. Don’t go to one person for everything. Approach people who’ve been successful in getting what you want—a job, a grant, a book contract—and create a network that you can stand in the middle of.

Differentiate the ideal from what’s real. Racism is one of the great structural problems of academe, Rockquemore said, and it won't be fixed by the time you defend your dissertation or get tenure. But if you become too fixated on structural problems, you’re probably wasting some energy on stewing—especially if you’re a graduate student who isn’t in a position to make changes.

When colleagues or students test your qualifications and disrespect you, you have to find ways to keep from overcompensating in an effort to prove them wrong. In other words, don’t let the pressure of being the “only one” in your department consume you.

If you can manage to run the grad-school gantlet, Rockquemore said, better times may await. “Being a professor is a wonderful life,” she told the audience. “But you have to go through some stuff before it gets good.”

Follow Stacey Patton on Twitter at @SPchronvitae.

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2 Comments
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  • Getting a doctorate is like trying to move Mt. Everest with a teaspoon. But if you stay with it, you can do it. The single most-important key is perseverance. Don't give up, and you'll soon be hearing, "Congratulations, Dr. ___ . "

    Timothy Hadley
  • Stacy, great article. I am actually in a MS program in Instructional Technology but this article really resonated with me. Thanks for approaching this subject, especially in the area of "microaggressions". It's amazing how these little digs can wear on your self-confidence. @Timothy Hadley. Perseverance is the key. I've heard that so many times. Thanks!

    Rema Merrick