Five Things I Wish Someone had Told me in Grad School: Building a nurturing community

6 July 2021, 1639 EDT

In her recent blog post Professor Megan Mackenzie eloquently describes the challenges grad students who weren’t schooled at elite universities face in a squeezed academic job market. However, many talented grad students do reach tenure quickly when they receive the same support and guidance offered in elite universities. My university’s informal policy to get grad students to complete their PhDs as quickly as possible placed many excellent potential scholars at an unfair disadvantage because they were discouraged from focusing on enhancing their academic CV. So, here are five things I wish I’d known about in grad school.

No. 1: Know what kinds of support you need from your supervisors

I would have taken the long list of CV requirements that grad students and early career researchers are expected to achieve to my supervisors and advisors and insisted we create a realistic annual personal development plan which we then reviewed during our supervisions.

No. 2: Don’t network. Focus on developing your nurturing community

The image above depicts networking – a kind of neoliberal process of attending an academic conference and abstractly talking to people. Now picture a diverse group of people standing together in a circle. This is how I visualise a non-hierarchical nurturing community. From what I’ve seen, grad students who are most successful at securing academic jobs quickly are the ones who ‘grew up’ and were nurtured by their wider research community. Their achievements are celebrated and amplified on social media. Even so, it’s really hard finding a nurturing community when you have so many competing priorities and pressures on your time – especially if you’re also employed, have caring responsibilities, cannot travel, or because there’s a global pandemic.

Academics need to get better at nurturing.

Your supervisor or advisor might introduce you to pre-formed nurturing communities. If you don’t have that privilege, join every physical and virtual postgraduate network that’s funded by the associations in your field(s) as early as possible, make friends, and find both female and male mentors. That said, academics need to get better at nurturing. Some are amazing at it but others still see grad students as outsiders, competitors, or unimportant and irrelevant.

No. 3: As a grad student, you’re being socialised into the gendered and racialised hierarchies of academia

I wish someone had told me how the gendered and racialised power dynamics playing out in universities, at conferences, and in virtual academic spaces were subtly socialising me—the white female grad student—to be more submissive and less confident about my academic abilities. Even though I was a product of an elite university in the UK before I started my PhD, looking back, I now realise that as a grad student, I regularly encountered academic narcissism, subtle discriminatory practices, micro-aggressions, and in a couple of cases, blatant sexual harassment. As a state school educated, first-generation higher ed student this was challenging because the institutional cultures I engaged in as a grad student seemed to mirror the peer-to-peer culture in my state school, which compelled intellectual young people to dumb down or conceal their academic abilities to avoid being bullied.

Then there’s imposter syndrome.

Then there’s imposter syndrome. Is it imposter syndrome, or are you being socialised to feel like an inferior student? In reality you’re a highly skilled researcher and teacher. Not everyone has these difficult experiences, however. I watched as a particular ‘type’ of young, white man (with potential access to the largest, most established nurturing communities) was invited to dinners and drinks, sometimes in professors’ homes, which many women I knew were not privy to. I now wonder if these middle-class white men were being groomed to become ‘trusted colleagues’.

Academia is also replete with stereotypes, many perpetuated in western popular culture that promote the brands of elite universities. Male professors are all-knowing sages (knowledge is power). Junior white female faculty are expected to be preppy, well-groomed, and sexy. The junior male colleague looks a bit like a young Jude Law/Justin Timberlake. There’s something very wrong if white men feel compelled to hide their sexuality or their love of long hair and heavy metal while on the job market. So, what hope for the rest of us?

No. 4: Finishing your PhD can feel like you’ve started at the bottom all over again

You’ve earned your PhD. Everyone says congratulations. Now, unless you’re among the lucky few that gets a permanent lecturer position (tenure) immediately, you’ll spend approximately five years (or more) working precariously while trying to demonstrate to academia that you really are good, you really are committed, and you really do produce results. It’ll be very stressful, but parts of the journey will be fun, and as you enter into new academic spaces and join new networks, you’ll grow your nurturing community.

No. 5: Understand that you really are entering into a discriminatory, sexist, and racist industry

Don’t be fooled by the glamourisation of academia while you’re being ‘hosted’ in grad school (see Sara Ahmed’s On Being Included for the concept of hosting). Academia is brilliant, creative, and wonderfully rewarding, but in my experience, when it comes to equality and inclusion, it still feels decades behind the other employment sectors in which I’ve worked. Put differently, academia isn’t merely a reflection of wider society. I wish I’d fully acknowledged this as a grad student.

Should I have made different decisions to avoid becoming a mother when I was a lecturer employed on a precarious, fixed-term contract several years ago?  Many women who are early career researchers agonise over this question. But to do so is wrong. The prevailing assumptions that academics who are mothers are less productive, less committed, or won’t return to work after maternity leave need to disappear. However, I remain ever the optimist. And this is exactly why developing your nurturing community so that you feel intellectually inspired, supported, and encouraged is vital. So is making a personal commitment to being inclusive; not making ill-informed judgements about people, their backgrounds, their academic journeys, and their abilities; and working on nurturing colleagues who aren’t an image in your own likeness are also so very important.

This is the fourth post in our week-long “Five Things I Wish Someone Had Told Me in Graduate School” series.
-BtG Editors