Monica Miller

Marion L. Brittain Postdoctoral Fellow at Georgia Institute of Technology

Throwing Like a Girl, Acting Like a Grad Student


A well-meaning professor recently complimented me on a paper I presented by declaring that I didn’t present “like a grad student.” Instead, the professor observed, I was quite professional, and my manner was polished.

Shortly after that, as I was collecting ideas for workshops for students in my department, I was told that one faculty member had worked up a great presentation. The topic? How to keep your essay from reading like a grad student wrote it. I heard about another presentation, too, one on email communication—more specifically, on how to correspond without sounding like a grad student.

At this point, I started to feel echoes of my childhood, when other kids (or gym teachers) would declare that I ran like a girl. (Or threw a ball like a girl. Or threw a punch like a girl.) To these taunts, my exasperated response was usually: But I am a girl!

And I’ve reached a similar point once more. Only now I want to declare: But I am a grad student!

We all agree, of course, that using “girl” as an insult in the 21st century is unacceptable. The use of “grad student” as a derogatory term, on the other hand, is generally unquestioned. But the usages are in some ways analogous. To chide someone for throwing like a girl is to tell them that their form is not “standard.” It’s to say: You’re doing this wrong. To criticize a grad student’s essential grad-studentness is to send a similar message: We’ve internalized all of these conventions, norms, and etiquettes, and you haven’t. So you don’t belong.

The problem with this is that, for many grad students, there’s no clear answer to the follow-up question: Well, how do I do this right?

As much as we like to think of the humanities as egalitarian and democratic, there’s a lot of unacknowledged hierarchy. Other fields—business or law, for example—are quite forthright about how to play by the rules: They may define the appropriate professorial and professional honorifics, devote whole classes to the proper writing style, even provide information on table etiquette. But it’s my impression that in the humanities (and particularly in English), one is expected to pick such things up by osmosis.

It’s not that these conventions can’t be taught to humanities students. It’s not hard to say that in writing, you should spend less time on other people’s ideas and more on your own. Nor is it hard to lay out the etiquette on when to write a thank-you note. In fact, Karen Kelsky lays out plenty of specifics in a blog post on the The Professor Is In titled “Six Ways You’re Acting Like a Grad Student.”

Many of the behaviors Kelsky describes involve a paradoxical sense that grad students tend to act both underconfident and overconfident. On the one hand, grad students are too quick to qualify their own ideas, too inclined to end each sentence as though it were a question? On the other, they’re often too willing to share their views on theory they don’t fully understand, or to be overwhelmingly negative in their comments on the work of classmates and scholars. And then there are hallmarks of grad-student behavior mentioned by Kelsky that seem simultaneously insecure and arrogant—like thinking that people in your department are out to get you.

Admittedly, it’s true that graduate students do often exhibit less-than-professional behavior, and it really is up to us to seek out help and resources in a professional manner. But the contradictory behavior Kelsky outlines is, I believe, often just a result of anxiety—about expectations, about policies, about processes. When it seems as though the same five grad students get consistently better teaching assignments or other perks, it’s easy to assume favoritism, even if that’s not overtly happening. Institutions can still go a long way in demonstrating and enforcing equity (in my example, by establishing clear criteria for teaching assignments and being transparent about how those assignments work). Here, departments and faculty advocates can be really helpful, both to look into possible problems and provide insight into systems that are frequently too complicated for grad students to quickly decode.

So here’s my plea. Faculty, departments: Help us learn the right standards, and be specific in your advice. In order for grad students to move past rookie foibles and have a fair chance in our fields, a real commitment to professionalization and mentorship is essential.

While working on this column, I kept thinking of a phrase from Dr. Who: “wibbly wobbly timey wimey.” In the show it’s meant to describe the nature of time, but it’s also a great way to characterize the experience of being a grad student. We’re pre-professionals, but we’re expected to exhibit professional behavior. We’re doing a lot of work that we’ve always done—reading, writing, research—but we’re also feeling our way through teaching and dealing with a leap in expectations and a steep learning curve.

When I asked professors directly—What behaviors strike you as “like a grad student”?—many responded with examples of students coming to class without having done their reading, waxing knowledgeable about things they don’t understand, or just making too many excuses.These comments have made me reconsider my own attitude toward my own undergraduate students, especially the ones who send me emails which give way too much information about their illness, their car problems, or their family issues. I think what my undergraduate students are trying to do is establish credibility. This is something that we, as graduate students, are doing when we produce excuses or overconfident criticisms of our own.

When people told me I threw like a girl, my usual response—“Of course I throw like one!”—allowed me to shrug off the implied insult and focus instead on improving my skills. As graduate students, we should do the same thing. Our position is insecure, interstitial, wibbly wobbly. Let’s just acknowledge that and have a much more open conversation about what we need to learn in order to become colleagues after we are classmates.

Image: Jackie Mitchell, the 17-year-old who learned pitching from Dazzy Vance and famously struck out Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig in an exhibition. (Underwood & Underwood/Corbis)

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  • I sympathize with the author's plea as I was once a graduate student. However, as a long serving graduate program director, I have a huge list of stories of unprofessional behavior by graduate students that are all true. A small handful (and not the worst ones) include students preparing CVs lacking most of their accomplishments/full of typos; students preparing for major presentations the night before (often without telling their advisors that the presentations are coming up); missing deadlines for course registration/required paper work despite multiple reminders (in one case, we had a grad student put our grad secretary in her SPAM list since she was tired of getting program reminders); graduate students going home for Christmas without turning in grades etc.
    It is notable how often the worst offenders who I think have no chance succeeding in life due to their unprofessional behavior in graduate school completely get their act together after getting a job at a company. When I see them later, they said "well graduate school was school" with the implication that school was not something to take seriously, while their post-grad job was. I get sheepish looks when I point out that they would have had a much easier time in grad school if they had taken it as seriously as their so-called "real job". In the end, these folks did not need a clearer view from us about professional expectations (believe me I hammered them on it constantly and they got it in their post grad job), they needed an attitude adjustment about how graduate school should be approached. I would say that only about 10-20% of our graduate students really treat graduate school as a professional experience. Those are the ones who get the nominations for awards and plum teaching assignments too....

    Melinda Duncan Melinda Duncan
  • Thanks for the reminder! A colleague suggested using "doctoral students" instead of grad student" which would help, since the latter has become a catch-all phrase including the negatives.

    Amy Mohr Amy Mohr
  • @Melinda, I would not call those behaviors "acting like a grad student"-- I would call them unacceptable.
    I've never understood the phrase "acting like a grad student". Maybe I've just been lucky, but I haven't encountered the sophomoric attitude that it seems to encompass. The status anxiety, yes -- but surely that comes from being an adult and yet being treated as a child at the same time?

    Jaclyn Neel Jaclyn Neel
  • @ Jacyln I completely agree that the behaviors that I described are unacceptable. However, if you ask anyone who has administered a graduate program for any time, they will have there share of such stories. At ten years in, every time I think I have "seen it all", someone comes up with a new idiotic thing. I honestly think that graduate students are often treated as juveniles and not adults because so many of them act like juveniles. I happily treat those who act like adults as adults, it is just that so few do, so one gets into the habit of expecting juvenile behavior. Maybe staying in school so long arrests development of adult behaviors?

    I thought it was interesting that you used the term "sophomoric" to describe the same thing which I believe also comes from professors observations of the behavior of a "sophomore" level student (pretty similar to "like a grad student").

    Melinda Duncan Melinda Duncan
  • I quite agree. In the same vein, I find vague advice such as "Don't pad your CV" to be more harmful than helpful because it adds one more thing to be anxious about, but gives me no idea how to actually avoid committing the crime of padding my CV. I've also noticed a suggestion of violence in this sub-genre of advice columns--a desire to reach through the computer screen and shake the offending graduate students, for example. I don't see how that approach is helpful for anything except reinforcing hierarchies and undermining (the slowly accruing) confidence of grad students.

    Naomi Clark Naomi Clark
  • I think that touching on the notion of students acting as juveniles is incredibly important to this conversation and one that stretches beyond what "acting like a grad student" means. I also think that this goes both ways. North American society attaches certain stereotypes and ideas to what being "in school" means, including not being an adult, not having a "real job" and not yet moving on to a successful life. In turn, grad students often take that as a free pass to act in a less than professional manner, which then leads to the continual treatment by faculty and staff as pre-adults, and back and forth.

    As a humanities PhD student, I've noticed that one complaint that often comes up is that grad students are expected to devote all of their time to studies while their personal life is pushed aside and professional development is limited to producing papers. The fact that many faculty are unwilling to give concessions for weddings, family issues and generally having a life outside of the program I think also exacerbates the situation. If grad school (or doctoral studies) were treated as a valid career choice or at the least a path to a career, much as an internship at a law firm or residency in med-school, I think that grad students would also have more incentive to get their act together and be held responsible for their professional behavior in general. However, that would also involve letting grad students make their own time-management decisions and setting actual work hours that they are expected to fulfill. It is of course not the same as working 12-hour hospital shifts, but perhaps a better notion of reasonable work time and vacation periods would help with this entire situation.

    Emily Cole Emily Cole