Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Mentoring graduate students with Bitch Ph.D.

Here's my latest post from BlogHer.

Thanks to a quick mention on Scrivener's blog, I learned that Bitch Ph.D. was giving a talk tonight at Emory University. And so I went.

"But trillwing," you say, "you live in California. Did you go all the way to Atlanta to see her speak?"

Not exactly. I happen to be in town for the Educause Learning Initiative conference. (More on that in a later post.) And who would pass up the chance to hear Dr. B talk about grad school life, even if one is no longer in grad school? And I, being a shameless hussy, was more than happy to claim a seat in the crowded room in a strange building at a strange university, a total interloper, a celebrity blogger stalker. (In my defense, so are edubloggers Barbara Ganley of Middlebury College and Barbara Sawhill of Oberlin College, who accompanied me on my trip and whose names you may recognize from last year's BlogHerCon edublogging session.)

Dr. B's topic was mentoring graduate students, and her talk addressed issues at the core of academic life.

One such issue is impostor syndrome, where, in a grad school context, you feel as if you don't really belong where you are, that you're a fraud and everyone will eventually find out. You're not intelligent enough, you haven't read enough, you don't work as hard as everyone else--and when you do work hard, you feel as if your labor gets you nowhere.

The problem, Dr. B pointed out, is that academia is both a job and an identity. You don't just do academics; you are an academic. Therefore, uncertainty about your job becomes uncertainty about yourself.

Another major issue is the relative opacity of grad school protocols and faculty life. Dr. B encouraged faculty to make more transparent not only the key milestones of graduate school--admissions, graduate employment and funding, time to degree, exam structures, the job market, and hiring committees--but also the everyday work of a professor. Many graduate students, she said, don't really know what it means, in the office and in one's private social sphere, to be a faculty member. What, for example, is it like to raise a child when one is an academic? How does one get grants?

But grad students need to ask harder questions, too, such as "How many people in this program are on antidepressants?" The answer to such questions may be difficult to find, but they open up important conversations about mental, emotional, and physical health.

Faculty, according to Dr. B, also need to help students determine whether they want to stay in academia. At a time when there are far more graduates than there are tenure-track jobs, faculty should help students think through their career alternatives.

Dr. B tells her students that "Before you worry about whether you'll get a job, worry about what kind of job you want. Do you really want to live in Grinnell?"

Sound advice. And fortunately, there's more rich career advice scattered through the academic blogosphere. Check out the Research, Academia, and Education blogroll to learn more.

Trillwing is a contributing editor for Research, Academia, and Education at BlogHer. A Grinnell alumna who would love to return to Grinnell if only they were hiring in her field, she also blogs at The Clutter Museum.


Anonymous said...

It would frankly be helpful if the entire process of grad school were less opaque. (Concretely, you would think certain highly reputable schools with accomplished engineering and computer science progams that rely on on-line . . . well, on-line everything could manage to create a few websites that were usable and informative.) Am I whining? yes. Is it true? ditto.

It might also be helpful if these wonderful mentors had professional experience outside the academy (I know some do, but a lot don't, especially if they go straight on from undergrad). That way, when students determine that they don't want academic careers (or if they are in professional progams, such as myself) these mentors and faculty and other fonts of knowledge will have something useful and intelligent to say about these alternatives.

Leslie M-B said...

Susan, I totally agree with you on most faculty not having experience outside higher ed, and thus not being able to counsel us.

On the other hand, they trained to become academics and were successful in becoming so, so we really can't blame them too much for not being able to speak from experience. They should, however, be responsible for connecting their students with people who are resources. And they should accept the fact that people with Ph.D.s do things other than teach.

Anonymous said...

Yeah, true. I don't fault people who want to become academics for training to do so (as someone who wants to be an educator nearly all my jobs have involved working with kids or kid-serving organizations). It is frustrating though, to be entering a new area of this broad field and largely at the mercy (in my condition as a novice) of people who aren't familiar with the opportunities I'm persuing and don't have time to connect me with those who do.

Karen Putz said...

You said: One such issue is impostor syndrome, where, in a grad school context, you feel as if you don't really belong where you are, that you're a fraud and everyone will eventually find out. You're not intelligent enough, you haven't read enough, you don't work as hard as everyone else--

I could relate! This is exactly how I felt in grad school.

The History Enthusiast said...

Ditto to what Karen said. I am definitely a grad student suffering from impostor syndrome. I don't necessarily feel like a fraud, but I definitely feel like I do not fit into the academic community here.

ScienceWoman said...

"Do you really want to live in Grinnell?"

Yes - I actually applied for a job there. It was a long-shot and I got rejected but, yes, some of us do really want to live in Grinnell.

You and Bitch hit on one of my pet peeves about grad school - there is not enough support/resources for students interested in exploring careers outside academia. I don't want to fault individual professors, but I think departments/programs as a whole could do a much better job.

Breena Ronan said...

Good post. I'm not sure the difference between individual faculty and grad programs. Here it seems that the grad programs are basically run by individual faculty, who are all really overwhelmed with work (apparently) and some sort of administrative person. Maybe it's different other places.

When you talk about impostor syndrome in that way, I guess I do have it. I don't feel stupid in comparison to other people in academia, but I never feel like I'm working hard enough or reading enough. I guess I still believe that if I get a PhD people will think of me as an expert and that will give me some sort of cache. So on the other side, I tend to think of people with phds, particularly if they have managed to get tenure track positions, as having better ideas than I have.