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25 Lessons From Grad School That Weren’t (Totally) True

Source: PhD Comics

Halfway through my second-year on the tenure-track, I see that I am faced with another important moment in shaping my career.  Though I effectively proved that I am an independent scholar through the grueling process of completing a dissertation, I still face the challenge of defining my career for myself.  The training wheels are off.  It seems, however, that the task of professional self-definition is a more salient and intense process for me because I intend to carve out my own path — one that prioritizes difference-making, health, happiness, and authenticity.

Just after one year in my job, I have stumbled across lessons I learned in graduate school that were exaggerated, completely false, or overly-simplistic.  It appears one necessary step of my journey toward a self-defined career as a teacher-scholar-advocate is to unlearn, or at least contexualize, such lessons.  Here are 25 lessons that I have identified as problematic or untrue.

  1. The only fulfilling career path in academia is a tenure-track (and eventually tenured) faculty position at a research I university.
  2. One goes where the job isPeriod.
  3. All new (qualified) PhDs get (and want) tenure-track jobs.
  4. People who do not complete graduate school are weak, stupid, or uncommitted.
  5. You must attend the big, national, and/or mainstream conference in your discipline in order to succeed.
  6. Academia and activism do not mix.
  7. Service should be avoided, and never includes community service.
  8. One only becomes relevant through publishing a lot in the top journal of one’s field.
  9. Teaching is not as important as research.  Really, we do it just to get paid.
  10. Academia is an equal opportunity institution.
  11. Higher education is filled with liberal-minded, social justice-oriented people.
  12. Objectivity exists and is the ideal approach for research and teaching.
  13. The rankings of universities are an ideal indicator for quality of training.
  14. Quantitative methods are better than qualitative methods.  Can the latter even be trusted?
  15. One should wait until they are an “expert” to blog or advance other forms of public scholarship.
  16. Homophobia no longer exists in academia.
  17. Black people are more likely than white people to get tenure-track jobs — because they’re Black.
  18. Graduate programs are concerned with the health and well-being of their students.
  19. If you do not love graduate school, you will hate being a professor.
  20. Race, gender, and sexuality are narrow areas of research.
  21. Peer-review is 100% anonymous.
  22. No one will get mad at you for blogging.
  23. Breaks during the academic year are just opportunities to get ahead on research.
  24. Grad students’ opinions matter in the major functions of the department.
  25. Sexual harassment does not occur in academia.

Focus, Focus, Focus!

During my days in the Meyerhoff Scholars Program, the early years of college at UMBC, I always appreciated visits from Dr. Freeman Hrabowski — the university’s president, and Meyerhoff’s co-founder.  Obviously, we did not see him daily because of his busy schedule, but his time with us was significant.  It is funny, though some students criticized his emphasis on academics and leadership over other things like athletics (which is dominant at bigger campuses), Dr. Hrabowski was in some ways a coach.  He would always conclude his visits by having us recite “Dreams” by Harlem Renaissance poet Langston Hughes:

Dreams

By Langston Hughes

Hold fast to dreams
For if dreams die
Life is a broken-winged bird
That cannot fly.
Hold fast to dreams
For when dreams go
Life is a barren field
Frozen with snow.

Then, together, we would say, “focus, focus, focus,” while moving our hands up and down in unison with each “focus.”  Maybe reciting poetry is not typical in basketball locker rooms, but the sentiment to “get our head in the game” parallels a coach’s pep talk.

I left the Meyerhoff program after a year and a half, finishing out the remaining 3.5 years on a general scholarship and pursuing sociology as my major.  But, this kind of mentoring, the emphasis on holding fast to dreams and staying focused, has stayed with me all of these years.  Previously, I have reflected on how Dr. Hrabowksi’s mentorship and leadership has touched my life; and, I wrote about the support and encouragement I received from the late Meyerhoff director LaMont Toliver (who passed in 2012).  I credit Anika Green, a former assistant director (and my advisor at the time) of the Meyerhoff program, with forcing me to get my act together after a first, very disappointing year in college.  (I promised I would do better my second year, to which she said matter-of-factly: “prove it.”  And, so I did.)

The Philosophy of “Focus, Focus, Focus”

I take from their guidance during this key developmental period in my pursuit of higher education the mantra to “focus, focus, focus.”  Certainly, there are times when we cannot focus because something is off or amiss.

To an outsider, I likely seemed uncommitted to academics during my first year, and maybe even trying to “pull a fast one” during the beginning of my sophomore year in taking introductory classes in sociology, psychology, and women’s studies (my major was mathematics at the time!).  But, I struggled to focus because my heart was not in what I was doing/studying.  What I realized later was that my advisors in the Meyerhoff program were committed to my success, even if that path fell outside of the program’s focus on science, mathematics, and engineering.  For all of my growth since I start college 10 years ago (wow…), now with a PhD in sociology and headed to start my tenure-track job at a top liberal arts college, I cannot imagine that they are anything but happy and proud.

Beyond resolving any fundamental barriers to focusing, I understand the “focus, focus, focus” philosophy as one that suggests staying true to an internally defined path.  Certainly, we should be open to changes and detours, to learned lessons from mistakes and failures, and the support and encouragement from others.  But, our calling in life comes from within; it cannot and should not be given to us from others.  Focusing also means staying strong against hostile, external threats that aim to knock us down or block us from excelling.  We have to resist the challenges that aim to undermine our success.

Renewed Relevance

I am generally self-aware, spending a fair amount of time reflecting on where I am in life and how things are going.  Sadly, this tilts a little more towards worrying about the future, getting work done, and staying on top of and (ideally) ahead of things.  But, there is just enough reflection on my past and present to appreciate growth, learn from my mistakes, reassess and reevaluate, and recognize others’ impact in my life.

Sometimes, that feeling that things are off arises.  I have felt it a few times this past year as I went on the academic job market, completed and defended my dissertation, and peeled some of the figurative tape across my mouth to begin breaking silence around important, urgent issues in academia.  I have had to navigate what I feel is right and important, others’ expectations and advice, and some supportive, as well as unsupportive, responses from others.  In doing so, I have felt, at times, as though I may not being going about things the right way, making a mistake, saying or doing something that is unpopular, etc.

So, I have found it useful to seriously, intentionally focus, to ask myself — “okay, what is my path right now?  what are the most important things I need to be pursuing?”  No matter my concerns about what colleagues are saying in the blog world, speaking with other academics is not a priority for me.  So, in stepping back (a second time), I have reminded myself that the purpose of my blogging is, first, to educate, to offer a perspective on current events that I do not see otherwise offered.  A second purpose is to offer advice, resources, opportunities, and insights to colleagues in similar or the same fields and/or of similar backgrounds.

But, beyond blogging, I have reflected on my overarching focus as an academic: to educate as a means of social justice and liberation.  That includes creating new knowledge and correcting/extending existing knowledge (i.e., research) and teaching.  To further the reach of these activities, given the paywalls that restrict research and college education, I blog and work with community groups.

As some of my friends and I joke, “you can’t hug every cat.”  In other words, while I may be concerned about so many varied issues that ultimately stem from inequality and discrimination, I should not spread myself thin trying to blog about every ongoing current event, and keep up with others’  blogs, and participate in blog wars with colleagues, and so forth.  I have to “focus, focus, focus.”

In fact, I am beginning to see the value of focusing on doing a lot on fewer things.  I, metaphorically, have to plant my flag in some spot on the earth and expand outward from there.  And, that all starts from the internal — I am that flagpost.  By having a strong sense of who I am, what I value, and what my goals are, I can be more efficient in making incremental changes around me, starting small and getting bigger over time.

Maybe I can encourage others to do the same, to “use their powers for good” rather than waste it or even use it for bad reasons.  Thus, I conclude with an overly simplified characterization of Gandhian philosophy: be the change you wish to see in the world.

So, here’s to a renewed focus on matters most in my pursuit to improve the world!

PS: Two sociology bloggers, who I admire, inspired this post: Tressie McMillan Cottom who has a clear perspective and educational agenda, and Dr. Crystal Fleming, who regularly self-reflects on her blogAware of Awareness.