Assistant Professor at the University of Michigan
You will hear from many people say that graduate work, particularly dissertation-writing, is an arduous and painful experience. In actuality, it is possible to go through graduate school, write a dissertation, and still have a life. To do so, however, one must approach graduate school strategically. Academia claims itself a meritocracy - those who are the "smartest" or the "best scholars" will do well. According to this logic, if you are not doing well in academia, it must be because you are not smart or a good scholar - a message students from racial/ethnic minorities can expect to hear often in their graduate career. In actuality, however, academia is a game. If you learn the rules of the game, then you can be successful.
How to Get through Graduate School Efficiently
In a PhD program, you are there to write a dissertation. Thus, from the first day you begin class, you should organize your graduate career based on this goal. The reason many students take forever to finish is that they take classes with no particular goal in mind. They write term papers for class that they never use again. Then they go through field exams, which bear no relationship to all the class work they done. They then attempt to propose a dissertation topic that also bears no relationship to either their class work or their field exams.
Instead, it is wise to have a generally good idea of what your dissertation topic is even before you apply to graduate school. It may even be worth the time to delay applying to graduate school until you have a clear idea of what your project will be. The reason is that professors decide on your admission based on their interest in the project you propose in your application. If your proposal accurately reflects what you dissertation will be, you can have more confidence that the department that admits you will actually support your dissertation topic. Many students, unfortunately, have turned in applications that did not reflect what their dissertation interests were. Consequently, when they finally proposed their dissertation topic, these students found there were no faculty in their program who wanted to support their work.
As soon as you have a general idea of your dissertation topic, you can begin to turn in drafts of your dissertation chapters as term papers for the classes you’re taking. This approach will give you time to develop your thoughts, get feedback from multiple professors, and ensure that by the time you are all but dissertation (ABD), you are actually close to finishing. Occasionally, you will take classes that do not fit neatly into your dissertation project. In this case, consider either (1) engaging in academic triage (see below); or (2) submitting those term papers as journal articles if the feedback you receive suggests they are of publication quality.
You are taking classes and are assigned 2,000 pages of reading for the week. What do you do, other than have a nervous breakdown? You must engage in academic triage. That is, learn to prioritize the work that is most important to your overall project. For instance, if you have two big books to read, and one book is something you will clearly never use while another book is pivotal to your project - then skim the first for the main argument so you can discuss it in class, and read the other carefully. If you are tempted to put a lot of hours into a paper for a class that is not that important to your project or reading a book that you will never use again, just remind yourself that every minute you spend doing that is a minute you are NOT spending on your dissertation. Your work does not have to be equally good.
As discussed previously, academia is not a meritocracy. Academic success is based as much on personal relationships as it is your scholarship. Some students have mistakenly assumed that if they do good work, a professor will naturally support them, even if the professor does not respect her or him. In actuality, professors support students they respect. Thus, it is important to be strategic in developing relationships with faculty members.
What to Do If Some Professors in Your Department Do Not Respect You
Remember that in most cases, you do not need all the professors in your department to respect you; you just need enough professors to respect you who can serve on your committees. If you are allowed outside people on your committees, you can have even fewer people in your department respect you. That is why, ideally, it is important to learn what exactly are the hoops you have to go through to graduate, even before you choose your school. Does the entire department need to approve your dissertation, dissertation topic, or any other work? How many people from the department actually have to be on your committees? This information tells you how many relationships you have to cultivate and when. So, for instance, if the entire department approves your dissertation topic, but only your committee approves your dissertation, then you know that you want to make an effort not to anger anyone until after your topic is approved. In some departments, only a committee approves your work, and you can have one or two of those members be professors from outside your university. Then you know you only really need to cultivate those two or so relationships with department faculty, BUT you really need to make sure you do not alienate them at any point.
Picking Committee Members
One of the greatest sources of tribulation for graduate students is using the incorrect strategy for picking committee members. The biggest mistake commonly made is picking the well-known celebrity in your department who is in your field, regardless of whether this person actually respects you. If you pick a professor who does not happen to respect you, s/he will make your life miserable, delay your dissertation completion, and write bad letters of recommendation. The three most important criteria for picking committee members (in order of importance) are:
Pick people who really, really, respect you. If you have to make a choice, pick a person who really respects you over a person who is the expert in your field.
If you can choose from several people who respect you, then pick the people with the greatest clout. You will want to look for people who have clout in your department, but also in your field as a whole. The two may not be the equivalent, so that is why it is important to expand your networks (see below).
Lastly, pick someone who has expertise in your field.
Of course, in the ideal department, you would have influential faculty members who respect you and are experts in your field. If it turns out that you are not in an ideal department, pick the people who respect you over the people who are the experts. This strategy makes it possible to get help from the experts who do not respect you without giving them an opportunity to make your dissertation process miserable. Instead of putting them on your committees, take classes with them and turn in dissertation chapters. You can get their feedback without dealing with any complications they may bring if they were on your committees.
Before your pick committee members, it is important to do investigative research. Faculty members can present one side to students at first that may not reveal their natures. So talk to as many people as you can, particularly students who have graduated under different professors. You cannot go by one person’s story because a professor may respect one student and be a great advisor for her/him, but be a terrible adviser to another student. So you have to discern when collecting these stories, how does this professor operate? What kind of students do well with her/him, and which do not? What kinds of projects does s/he like and dislike? What seems to be her/his sticking point, and are there demonstrated ways to deal with these sticking points?
In addition, do not put someone on your committee without taking a class or having her/him evaluate your work beforehand. Remember that professors are likely to be polite and not tell you directly if they do not respect your work. They are more likely to say banal comments such as "this work looks good," or "this work looks solid." If you get generally benign feedback such as that, do not put this professor on your committee. You are looking for professors who demonstrate marked enthusiasm and support for your work. Also, if you should happen to develop a close relationship with a professor, then really listen to her/him if s/he gives you advice about whom to choose. This professor may be privy to information about other professors you do not have. As one professor says, "Just because someone smiles at you doesn’t mean she or he likes or respects you."
Story: A student was picking committee members, and her advisor suggested that she not include two professors because these professors did not respect her work. But this student thought these professors did respect her since they were very friendly to her so she kept them on her committee. These committee members later voted to reject her dissertation.
You will also want to investigate to get more information on how the faculty relates to each other. For instance, there may be two faculty members who both respect you and would individually be great to work with - but if they hate each other, their conflict will spill over onto your dissertation project. If you have a project that is a bit cutting-edge, and you want a professor with clout to back your project, then you have to see if this person is really influential in the department. There may be people who are influential in the field, but the department may not pay attention to them. Conversely, you may pick a person who is influential in the department, but on further investigation, you may find they are not taken seriously in the field and hence their letter of recommendation may not be that helpful.
Relationships with Mentors
While not everyone in the department has to respect you, you do need to cultivate strong relationships with those you have chosen as your mentors. Professors often have an "out of sight, out of mind" approach to students. They are going to prioritize those they see most often. So, it is wise to take their classes regularly, even if these classes are not totally relevant to your project (the exception to the rule about taking classes that are relevant to your dissertation). You do not want to hound them excessively so that they regard you as a pest, but you do want to maintain some regular contact so they do not forget you exist. You should try to avoid conflict with these people, especially if you have conflict with other faculty members in the department. Remember that while not everyone has to respect you, those that write your letters of recommendation need to respect you a lot.
Expand Your Networks Outside Your Department and University
Especially for racial/ethnic minorities, it is important to remember that your department is not the universe. Let’s say you end up in a very racist department. This department may make you feel that your work is not good and that you are not smart. How can you tell if their comments are just the result of racism, or if your scholarship needs improvement, or both? You need to expand your networks outside of your department. Attend the scholarly conferences in your field the minute you start graduate school. Get to know people in your area, listen to their work, share your work with them, and network, network, network. This process will give you a greater perspective on your work. You may see that there are improvements you need to make. Or you may discover that your department has a particular ideological bent that you do not have, and that is why they do not respect your work. You may also find that there are other groups of scholars who do see the significance of your scholarship. And if everyone in your department is insane, you can start to build relationship with other scholars who will write you good letters of recommendations and alert you to career possibilities.
Story: One graduate student found himself in a department in which there were no professors who supported his work, everyone in the department thought he was unintelligent, and in fact, the department tried to drop him from the program. Yet, he had no trouble getting academic appointments. The key to his success was that he networked in his field outside his department. He developed strong allies who wrote him outstanding letters of recommendation, and he developed a reputation in his field even as a graduate student. When he applied for jobs, then, no one cared about the fact that the people in his department did not respect his work.
It is wise to start attending the relevant academic conferences, such as the American Academy of Religion conferences, as soon as possible. Do not submit papers at first until you have a good sense of the quality of work you need to produce before giving a paper. However, as soon as your work is ready, do start giving papers. Visibility will assist you in finding academic appointments later. Professors may remember you and directly solicit you for job openings if they see your regularly and respect your work.
Other academic societies you should consider joining, depending on your discipline, are:
Ecumenical Association of Third World Theologians (EATWOT)
In additional, the following organizations specifically deal with scholars of color:
Society for the Study of Black Religion (SSBR)
Hispanics or Latina/o
La Comunidad - Usually meets at 9am of the first day of the annual AAR conference
Hispanic Summer Institutes
Study of Native American Religious Traditions (SSNART)
Graduate school tends to prepare students to write papers, but not to present them orally. In fact your ability to get a job appointment will depend as much on your job talk as it will on your written scholarship. So, it is wise to develop your oral performance skills.
Most people tend to read papers, and read them in a monotonous tone of voice. However, written and oral performances are not equivalent - a paper that reads well does not necessarily communicate effectively when spoken. So papers to be delivered should not necessarily be identical to a paper you would turn into a journal article.
If you can learn to give papers without reading them, your performance will be exponentially more effective. Doing so, however, requires much practice. You must practice giving your paper countless times until you know it well and know how long your paper will take. You do not want to give a paper without reading it and sound like you are rambling. It must sound like a very tight presentation or your listeners will be less forgiving than if you read your paper in a boring fashion. So, it is a risk, but if you are successful, you will really stand out among other scholars. Many graduate students have gotten jobs primarily based on stellar job-talk performances. If you do not feel confident giving a paper without reading it, make sure that you do read the paper with dramatic inflections so that you do not lose the attention of your audience. Also, test your performances with others before presenting to make sure your paper makes sense when it is spoken.
Many racial/ethnic minority scholars will often find they have excessive amounts of trauma/drama in their life. Maybe they have several family members to support, maybe there are endless disasters going on in their lives, or maybe there have severe economic difficulties. In the ideal universe, we would create institutions that would be flexible enough to address what is going on in our lives. In the current universe, however, it is wise to be careful about what you share with people who have power over you. Many students have confided in their mentors about the various issues going on in their lives, thinking they would get support. Instead, these mentors said to themselves, "If this student has so much going on that he is having trouble writing his dissertation, what is the likelihood he will be able to get through a tenure process?" Consequently, it is best to present the image that all is going well with committee members whenever possible. Telling personal stories of intense drama too frequently to faculty members tends to generate contempt more than it generates sympathy and support.
There may come a time when something really big happens that affects your work and you have no choice but to share this information. So you want to save your political capital for these occasions and not waste it on smaller things you can handle. Just remember that many faculty members will give students of color a hard time on the basis of racism alone. So, do not give them any other reasons to give you a hard time if you can help it.
Example #1: A student habitually turned papers in late, usually with an accompanying sob story. Professors were understanding at first, but then grew impatient. Finally, a major tragedy occurred in her life, and she had to turn in all her papers late that semester. The dean decided to fail her from the program, arguing that since the student was usually late with papers, then this tragedy is probably just a story she is telling to get out of work.
Example #2: Another student never turned in a single paper late. She followed all the rules, and turned in good work consistently. One day, the financial aid office withdrew her financial aid package, claiming she did not turn the forms in on time. The student claimed that she had turned them in, but the office had lost them. When her case went before an appeal board, the professors sided with the student, saying that her track record demonstrated that she was responsible and hence would probably not have turned her financial aid papers in late.
Department Dramas - Should You Get Involved?
Racial/ethnic minority students are likely to find themselves involved in department struggles. Students who have activist backgrounds and inclinations may often feel ethically called to get involved in these struggles for the sake of justice. Before you get involved, however, there are many issues to consider.
If you get involved in department dramas, you will probably create some enemies among the faculty. As a student, you also do not have that much power in the department, so you may find yourself in a struggle in which you have little power to effect change while at the same time you have much to lose by creating enemies. So, for this reason, the general advice would be not to get involved.
HOWEVER, some students may feel ethically called to take a stand on certain issues. They may wonder if they would even want to stay involved in academia if doing so requires their silence in the face of what they see as injustice. It is possible to get involved in such struggles without damaging one’s career, and sometimes getting involved can even help one’s career, but one must be very strategic.
Pick your battles. Remember that your department probably has a thousand and one racist and otherwise unethical policies. You really do not have that much power, so make sure that if you must involve yourself in a department struggle, that you become involved in only the most important ones.
Do your homework!! Sometimes all is not as it appears on the surface. The faculty who seem to be espousing reasonable positions may actually have a problematic agenda that you are not aware of. You want to make sure you are not being used inadvertently as a pawn in a struggle in which you really do not know what is going on.
Story: A department decided to conduct an ethnic studies search. Two prospective candidates were shortlisted, but one seemed to have more progressive politics than the other. The more progressive faculty in the department, however, supported the more conservative candidate. Some of the students became upset with the process and led a campaign to get the more progressive candidate hired. The more conservative faculty in the department seemed to support the student efforts. However, these students did not realize that the reason why the conservative faculty was backing the progressive candidate was because they knew the provost would never approve that hire. The conservative faculty did not even want an ethnic studies position, and they were hoping that if the progressive candidate was picked, the dean would not approve the hire, resulting in a failed search that might lead to the position itself being eliminated. Thus, these faculty used the students to support their own agenda, and ultimately they were successful. The search was declared a failed search, and the position was eliminated. These students then ended up alienating all the progressive faculty, and the conservative faculty did not really support them in the first place.
It is important to tell the other side of the story of student involvement in department struggles however. The fact is that many departments have even been created based on student involvement, and students have, when sufficiently organized and strategic, been able to make positive, lasting changes in departments that benefitted not only them, but future students of color. And, while it is true that involvement in these struggles can create enemies, it can also create much stronger alliances with faculty members that will benefit your career. While not taking sides is a good way to play it safe, it can also lead to a situation where you do not become noticed by faculty members or you become a person that faculty members have no strong interest in supporting.
Story: One student became involved in a department struggle around improving retention for students of color. After doing his research, he felt he sufficiently understood the dynamics as well as who the faculty allies were. Since all these allies were also the ones on his committees, he felt confident in becoming involved in the struggle. During this process, he developed such strong relationship with his faculty allies that they put much more energy into finding career opportunities and writing outstanding letters of recommendation. While he also created enemies, he found that his allies always had his back if conflict arose between him and other faculty members who did not support his side on the issue.
Keeping Your Sanity
If you are a racial/ethnic minority, you can be expected to be told on numerous occasions that you are an idiot, your scholarship is inadequate, and you do not deserve to be in the academy. In fact, the academy is designed to drive students of color insane. You may find that you begin to doubt yourself. How can your work be good, you tell yourself, when all you get is this negative feedback? Or, you may find yourself becoming impervious to critique. You hear all feedback as just another attack on you, so you become unable to hear feedback that might actually help improve your work. That is why you need to develop a homebase of people who support you and understand your work, but who will also provide honest feedback.
And finally, remember that you are there to learn, not to perform. If you knew everything already, you would not need to be in school. So be confident about what you know, but also be confident in what you do not know. It may seem like everyone understands a concept in your class except you, but that is okay. You will understand it eventually, and not knowing everything from the beginning does not make you less intelligent. Whatever bizarre and unpleasant dynamics you might find yourself in, there is still a joy to learning new ideas that comes with academic work that no one can take away from you.