Dear Professor Monroe. I’m a new grad student (a woman). Do you have any useful tips on how to survive grad school? Sarah
Kristen Monroe. Actually, yes. I worked with a group of female grad students at UCI on this a couple of years ago. We got a little money from the dean and we met –we being any female grad students and any female faculty, in any department on campus – once a month to discuss and share ideas about the situation for female grad students. At the end of the year, I suggested the students write up their thoughts on this. So, with thanks to William Maurer, the Dean of the School of Social Sciences, and Carrie Reiling and Jennifer Jones who compiled the final document, this is the document. We encourage you to form your own gender group, with female faculty, and to enjoy the camaraderie and support of those who have gone before you or are in this with you now. I’d also suggest you join the WCPS at APSA or your regional meetings. There is tremendous support and friendship – and wisdom – there.
From the UCI Grad students: When entering graduate school, women can face a number of challenges that might not be apparent to men, or which men do not themselves confront. Many of the suggestions below can benefit grad students in general, both men and women, but they are particularly relevant for people in any number of underrepresented categories – women, LGBTQ, students of color, etc. The key is to recognize the strengths that you bring to your study, even if they are not traditionally valued by your discipline, and seek out avenues of support.
● Perfect is the enemy of the good. You must send in work, for course papers or for publication, even if you feel it is less than complete. Uncertainty and self-doubt are normal for everyone. Be confident in what you know. You’re here for a reason.
● Learn about the imposter syndrome HERE. Lots of great scholars still feel insufficient, so you are not alone.
● Women often have to walk a fine line between being too nice and sweet on one hand and being pushy or bitchy on the other. While this is unfortunate, and you are encouraged to be yourself, work on asserting yourself without being arrogant or a pushover.
Seek out a mentor
● This person does not necessarily have to be your advisor (and it’s sometimes best if it’s not). If your school does not have a mentor program, contact the APSA and enroll in their mentoring program.
● Even if you have a good relationship with your advisor, one person cannot be everything – find a junior faculty member, more advanced grad student, or peer. Seek these connections both within your department and outside it (whether at your university or another university).
● Joining women’s groups, both in the national discipline and on campus can be a means of formal support, a way to advance your own scholarship, and a sometimes friendlier place to interact in stressful times.
● Women’s caucuses give awards, have established mentoring programs, and are often sites where senior scholars are eager to mentor
● Seek out women as peers and mentors but also allied men. Lots of people are friendly and supportive to graduate students. Be polite and professional but also have confidence in yourself.
● There will be assumptions that you will or won’t have children. This scrutiny can feel relentless.
● What about reproductive timing? When should you have children? Answer: Whenever you want. Many academics find that grad school is flexible enough to have children, while others want to wait until they’re more established in their careers. Some have to consider age or partners – but you need to decide what is best for you and your family.
● Learn about the resources available to you as a grad student, TA, or graduate researcher. At some universities, unions have bargained for child care and time off benefits. Investigate state programs for low-income parents (which many grad students are).
● A lot of TAs want to care for and nurture their students, which can be a double-edged sword. You should spend NO MORE than 20 hours/week on all TA duties combined (or whatever your contract says). Don’t let your job as a TA consume all of your energy – you are a student too.
● Students will evaluate you on any number of characteristics having to do with your gender, including caring/nurturing, clothing, attractiveness, etc., and your perceived effectiveness will also depend on class size. Be attentive to the nuances but don’t let what you can’t change overtake your teaching or your scholarship.
● Female instructors can be treated by students as a therapist or a mother figure, especially if personal reasons are overwhelming the student’s studies. Be kind, but consider referring the troubled student to campus resources such as counseling services or the learning center. Not only is therapy not your job, but understand that you are not qualified to handle these situations.
Sexual harassment still happens
● Unfortunately. If it does, not only is it illegal in the workplace, but it is also a Title IX violation because it impedes your access to equal education. (Check out this PDF from the U.S. Department of Education: http://www2.ed.gov/about/offices/list/ocr/docs/title-ix-rights-201104.pdf)
● Report it. All universities have procedures to deal with harassment, and it can be handled in a way to make you most comfortable, to protect your privacy, and deal with the problem.
● Even if sexual harassment or discrimination is not overt (as in, subtle comments that still have the effect of making you uncomfortable), please report it both for your sake and because can be a part of an ongoing problem.
● This is a big issue on college campuses now and you should consult female faculty and university counselors to get guidance and support.
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Comments and additional feedback from friends and members of the Advisory Board.
X. (Name used if permission given.) Grad school can be both a nurturing space where academics build their networks and professional collaborations, but it can also be competitive – so be prepared for that.
The graduate school environment is oftentimes built to engage students in criticism of previous research and students’ work. Take the constructive criticism and use it to improve your analytical and reading/writing skills; let the rest go, and no need to be your own harsh critic.
Find a group of people (outside of more formal mentors and colleagues) who are friends, people going through the same or a similar process – 2-3 people you can complaint and vent to about your graduate school experiences, as well as just life (which marches on even when you are a grad student!).
Kristen Responds. I could not agree more. It is so important to have friends, and not just professional ones. Blowing off steam is a great luxury but do it with someone who will not repeat it. A large part of learning of becoming a professional is learning to take criticism. I run an Ethics workshop where the entire course is organized around the student doing one piece of work, and presenting that work each week as it progresses, asking for input and advice, and giving input and feedback to other students. It is so helpful to students to learn that not everything is a full-grown finished project. We all need feedback and help. Your peers are invaluable in this. The nework effect is often critical and I am so grateful to friends who so generously point out research I have missed, grants I might be able to apply for, fellowship opportunities. People like Jenny Mansbridge, Martha Ackelsberg, Jennifer Hochschild, and Rose McDermott – among so many others – have become legendary in supporting women, and in supporting any scholar. It’s a community and we all gain from each other’s growth. Young scholars should think about creating informal networks to present work and get feedback, and constructive criticism.