By Daniel Heath Justice and Marissa López[For the history of this document’s development, please visit the blog post “On Mentoring Graduate Students of Color.”]
“But I don’t want to go among mad people,” Alice remarked.
“Oh, you can’t help that,” said the Cat: “we’re all mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad.”
“How do you know I’m mad?” said Alice.
“You must be,” said the Cat, “or you wouldn’t have come here.”
Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland
As nearly anyone who’s experienced the long apprenticeship required by graduate school can attest, there’s something not quite sensible about the whole process. Newcomers to grad school very often find themselves, like Alice, wandering in a Wonderland where expectations, presumptions, and assumptions are constantly tested and undermined, often to the good but sometimes with more negative consequences. Grad school can be a process both challenging and transformative, and those who begin the journey will encounter a wide array of strange customs, nonsensical procedures, and quirky personalities along the way. For those who come from communities traditionally excluded from higher education, the often-opaque world of academia can be particularly alienating, as its often unspoken and unofficial expectations may not be familiar to scholars in the early stages of their careers, and even less so to scholars of color and first-generation university and college students negotiating what can seem an alien, illogical, and sometimes hostile environment—an academic Wonderland defined as much by historical accretion of tradition, ceremony, and ideology as by rational purpose.
All students interested in advanced education should be conscious that successfully navigating the rigors of intellectual and institutional life requires attention to the self and to physical and psychic well-being, regardless of whether you intend to pursue a position in the academy or have other intentions for the degree.[i] The authors offer the following advice—a travelogue of sorts, one more focused on the general contours of the journey than on the specific terrain of any particular institution—drawn from our experiences as current faculty and former student wayfarers through this unusual land, and informed by numerous conversations with colleagues, mentors, and current and former students.[ii] Though relevant in many cases to all graduate students, the ideas herein are particularly directed toward graduate students of color (and first-generation students, who represent a significant percentage of this demographic) as they plan their graduate career.
There are many available publications offering advice to prospective and continuing graduate students. Our intention is not to duplicate those texts or to offer a comprehensive analysis. Instead, we imagine a mixed audience of faculty mentors and their students, offering a condensation of otherwise available information about graduate school and glossing it with strategic advice and observations of how these general concerns specifically affect students of color, especially those who are planning to pursue academic careers. We are hopeful that the resulting essay provides a useful starting point for a larger discussion between mentors and students, and that the resources discussed herein might be of use to students finding their own path through the wild, weird journey of graduate school.
Romance vs. Realities
As much as possible, students must strip themselves of overly romantic notions about what graduate school and the academy should be, as the reality, though exciting and engaging in many ways, comes with more than its fair share of mundane routine and drudgery. Graduate school provides training for numerous careers and purposes but, particularly in the humanities, its dominant task is to prepare advanced students to enter into sustained scholarly conversations through a rigorous training in the methods, histories, and archives of one or more academic fields. It is very hard work for very little pay and much headache. Graduate school in the humanities will not be a continuation of the undergraduate years. It is a long and arduous process with no guarantee of employment or job security at the end. Over half of all graduate students on both the M.A. and Ph.D. levels do not complete their degrees, and of those who do even fewer obtain employment in tenure-track lines. Thus, the decision to enter graduate school should not be made lightly.
The transition from undergraduate to graduate student in the humanities is accompanied by significant increases in scholarly expectations, demands on one’s time and energy, and financial challenges. Graduate school will also put personal relationships to the test as loved ones sometimes struggle to understand how much time must be devoted to this endeavor. Furthermore, potential graduate students must understand that both graduate school and a professional academic career require a fair amount of geographic mobility. Depending on one’s communal and familial commitments, as well as a willingness to live in less than ideal regions, climates, or communities, this can be exceedingly difficult.
All graduate students grapple with these issues, but students of color and those from poor or working class backgrounds often have additional issues to negotiate as they wrestle with articulating the value (conceptual and monetary) of their work to themselves and their communities. Furthermore, while many institutions are nominally committed to vaguely defined concepts of “diversity” and “equity,” limiting assumptions about people of color and their intellectual traditions still persist.
None of this is meant to discourage. This work is hard, but it is vital, and a diverse group of scholars is critical to the continued development of the academy. The humanities engage some of the most compelling questions of what it is to be human, to be ethical, to be conscious of ourselves and the world we inhabit, questions that have become increasingly important at the dawn of the 21st century. To be an active scholar in the humanities is to help shape the answers to these questions, to the benefit of all. But it is nevertheless hard work. Understanding the reality—and having a larger, sustaining vision, without succumbing to naïve sentiment—will go a long way toward ensuring successful completion of one’s goals.
- Thomas Benton offers a humorous take on the realities of graduate school and professorial job prospects in the humanities in a series of articles in the Chronicle of Higher Education: “So You Want to Go to Grad School? The best piece of advice you can give an undergraduate who wants to pursue a Ph.D. in the humanities is, don’t” (http://chronicle.com/weekly/v49/i39/39c00301.htm).
- See the Council on Graduate School’s PhD Completion Project (http://www.phdcompletion.org/index.asp) for attrition and completion statistics. Their data sets are quite sophisticated, but generally speaking, they find that from seven to ten years after beginning a PhD program 30% of students drop out and 55% complete the degree. This means, among other things, that after ten years 15% of humanities students are still in graduate school.
- The MLA web site has statistics on the job market (http://www.mla.org/career_resources#careerandjob). The most recent findings on job market trends report that for the past few years advertised positions in both English and Foreign Languages have hovered around 1,500 with approximately 50% of those positions being for full time, tenure track jobs. The MLA reports, from surveys, numbers of PhDs awarded compared with numbers of tenure track placements. For English in 2004 (the latest year for which data is available) 934 people received degrees while 459 received tenure track jobs. In Foreign Languages, 587 people received degrees while 268 received tenure track jobs. These numbers can be a bit misleading, however. Placement statistics are slightly better for students of color, though students should also be reminded that in any given year they will be competing with people who already have degrees and/or jobs and who, as a result, may have more publishing, teaching, and institutional experience. Similarly, not all who pursue Ph.D.s are interested in working in academia, and these numbers don’t reflect this small but growing population.
- The MLA also published a report in 2009 on the state of the workforce, charting the increasing loss of full-time, tenure track jobs. The report, “Education in the Balance: A Report on the Academic Workforce in English,” is available on the MLA’s website at http://www.mla.org/report_aw.
- Many blogs shed light on the joys and despair of an academic career. Their names speak eloquently to their contents: Adjunct Whore (http://www.professingnarratives.com/); Professorial Confessions (http://muserant.blogspot.com/); Bitch Ph.D. (http://bitchphd.blogspot.com/); Academienne (http://academienne.blogspot.com/) and Slaves of Academe (http://slavesofacademe.blogspot.com/) are a few of the more colorful and evocative.
Determining Needs and Desires
As described above, graduate school is a challenge, one with both significant potential rewards and sacrifices. A vital step in thinking about one’s graduate school career, therefore, is reflecting on one’s reasons for doing the work, and to understand, as fully as possible, the strengths and areas of improvement necessary for a life in (or outside of) academia. Reflection is an ongoing process as objectives and life situations constantly evolve. Before beginning graduate school it’s important to have clearly defined objectives and motivations to help face all the challenges of an academic career. As one develops academically and professionally, one will want to continue the reflection process by assessing progress towards those goals, commitment to initial motivations, cultivating strengths, and addressing any weaknesses.
At the beginning: Why graduate school? Is it for the degree itself, for the opportunities it offers, for the intellectual growth of the experience, for the fulfillment of family and community dreams? Does the student want to be a professor, a writer, a teacher, or to pursue opportunities outside of the academy? If an academic career is desired, what type of institution would be the best fit for the students priorities, strengths, and non-academic goals? Being able to answer these questions—and being flexible enough to adapt the vision when good opportunities arise—gives structure and purpose to the enterprise in both productive and challenging times.
Thinking about one’s professional goals is particularly important before beginning the Ph.D., as prospective students must, depending on the kind of academic career they plan to pursue, know how to think practically about achieving their goals. Landing an academic job is difficult for everyone but, depending on your field, you may face particular challenges by the rank and recognition of the school of your choice. Students should consider an institution’s placement rates and funding availability when making a final decision. Students have to keep in mind that paying for their degree with teaching detracts from research and writing time, so if research trumps teaching on a student’s scale of priorities, they would do well to consider schools that offer substantial material support.
Keep in mind, though, that just because an institution provides a strong funding package doesn’t mean that it follows those resources with helpful mentoring or an environment that is supportive of a student’s intellectual development or scholarly interests. Students should take a holistic approach and examine all relevant factors, not just financial. Sometimes a smaller school with fewer funding resources can offer more interpersonal support, mentoring, professional development and encouragement than an institution with a more recognizable reputation but more alienating departmental climate.
An ongoing process: Staying committed to one’s goals, and having the strength to modify them, is impossible without building a strong professional and personal community that provides a structure for self-evaluation. For scholars of color this is especially important, as so much of our work is often bound up with political aims—whether one directly undertakes them or contends with other people’s expectations—and we must deal with an often frustrating array of expectations from friends, colleagues, and families. These pressures make it all the more difficult for the scholar of color to be clear about his or her own personal and professional goals.
That clarity is all the more important as the majority of graduate work takes place in isolation; for graduate students of color, this condition is often exacerbated by being among the few minority scholars in a program, department, or institution, or by being in an institutionally marginalized field. Students of color must also take care, however, to realize that their struggles are not entirely unique. Many groups and communities have historically faced a range of intersecting prejudices in the academy. Their experiences can inform the current generation’s work. Whether or not one consciously takes up the mantle of the scholar-activist whose work is specifically directed toward institutional and social transformation, scholars of color, by default, continuously confront institutional racism and bias. Even if one doesn’t want to be an activist, one still has to deal with the academy’s continuing legacies of inequity and limited accessibility to a wide range of economically and politically marginalized peoples; these suggestions (and those elsewhere) are intended to help students of color negotiate that burden and strategically prioritize around it.
We believe that scholars of color must, at the start of their careers, commit to building constructive relationships benefiting those who follow us as well as the academy in general, as a more humane environment is of benefit to all, not just people of color. In short, it’s important to fight hard when necessary, but to also recognize when dialogue and patience is often more effective than conflict.
- Friends and mentors are one’s strongest assets here. Keeping lines of communication open—through community and professional activities—and remaining flexible and honest with oneself helps one to see, and others to point out, areas that need improving (writing, public speaking, organization, activism, etc).
- Mentorship and professional relationships are discussed in more detail below, but community can take many forms: family, friends, and cultural community, a graduate student cohort, professional societies and so on. Personal networks, especially contacts outside of the academy, are essential to a long-term balance of priorities. Developing ties beyond one’s studies keeps one’s life and work in perspective, and reminds one of the broader significance of academic life, as well as its inevitable absurdities.
- Robert Peters’ Getting What You Came For: The Smart Student’s Guide to Earning an M.A. or a Ph.D. helps lay out the big questions a student must answer when applying to graduate school and offers useful action plans for staying on course to completion.
The close, individual relationships that develop between faculty and students, or senior and junior faculty, are arguably the most important factor in ensuring a successful academic career. Strong mentoring relationships help younger scholars navigate the sometimes invisible connecting threads of academe—inviting collaboration, making introductions to significant scholars in the field, promoting a student’s work to presses, journals, or colleagues—but these relationships can be difficult to develop. Faculty members have multiple demands on their time and students have a myriad of needs. An institution might facilitate mentoring relationships by assigning mentors to students upon entering a program, but students should be advised to seek out multiple mentors who can attend to different concerns and areas of experience.
A student’s primary mentor is usually their dissertation director, who will guide the student’s research and professional development by supervising the dissertation writing, and encouraging both publication and participation in academic conferences. The student will want to find not only someone with similar scholarly interests, but also a person whose pedagogy will bring out the best in them. The student will want to consider the faculty member’s reputation amongst other graduate students as well as the success rate of their former students. Students should also make sure they understand exactly how much time a faculty member seems willing to devote to them, and both parties should be clear about workload expectations.
A student will, of course, have other, perhaps more significant, mentors besides their director. Within the academy these might include other faculty at their college or scholars from other institutions with whom the student has struck up a relationship through conferences or other professional activities. Mentoring relationships can also blossom, especially for the student of color, out of community or political activities. These relationships help a student gain entrée into what, in Ethnic Studies at any rate, tend to be small, insular fields where personal connections are quite helpful, particularly if one is doing field or archival work of any kind, such as gathering oral histories or building the relationships that can lead to an institutional donation of personal or collective archives.
Building both academic and communal mentorships involve similar, general principles. The student should be motivated and energetic in order to demonstrate a sustained commitment to the expectations of accomplished graduate work, and should also be sure to respect a mentor’s boundaries. Students should limit their expectations from any one mentor and should also understand that mentorship is not the same as friendship; though it can certainly be friendly, the relationship should have clear and mutually recognized boundaries. And finally, a student should be open to a diverse body of mentors. A mentor need only meet two qualifications: the student should be able to learn something useful from the relationship and should be able to communicate clearly with the mentor. A mentor need not be of the same race, class, gender, orientation (sexual, political, or otherwise), religion, or ability as the student, and the student should try, as best they can, to be open to working across ideological and political lines. Much can be learned from people with different ideas and interests, and some of the best mentors are those who come from unexpected perspectives and challenge our own presumptions and preconceived ideas.
- The University of Michigan’s Rackham Graduate School publishes an excellent, comprehensive guide to mentoring, “How to Get The Mentoring You Want: A Guide for Graduate Students at A Diverse University,” available for download on their website at www.rackham.umich.edu.
- While directed primarily towards mentors, students may also find the following illuminating: Brown, M. Christopher II, et. al. “Mentoring Graduate Students of Color: Myths, Models, and Modes.” Peabody Journal of Education 72.2 105-118; and Davidson, Martin N. and Lynn Foster-Johnson. “Mentoring in the Preparation of Graduate Researchers of Color.” Review of Educational Research 71.4 (Winter 2001): 549-574.
At its core, scholarship is about building and communicating knowledge; in other words, research (building) and writing (communicating). These are vital to our work, and professional development as an academic requires great facility in these skills. Not only must we be very good at these things, but we must also be good at doing a lot these things: we must be productive, and one of the first tests of this comes when writing our dissertations. To paraphrase advice that one of the authors of this document was given repeatedly: “a good dissertation is a done dissertation” (Another memorable version is: “Don’t get it right, get it writ!”). All graduate students can, however, fall into chasms of despair—characterized by agonizing self-doubt and narrowness of purpose—that can limit productivity. Finding strategies to deal with these things early in one’s training will go a long way towards ensuring future professional peace of mind.
To paraphrase another piece of advice: “good researchers read widely; great researchers read promiscuously.” More grist for the mill means more flour; the more one reads the more one writes. Scholarship is often about making connections between ideas, events, people, and worlds. Scholars of Chicana/o literature can learn from Latin Americanists as well as Native, African, and Asian Americanists, and vice versa. Furthermore, communities of color have historically been marginalized and economically disempowered in such a way as to limit our archive. It might take some real digging to unearth one’s source materials and some creative thinking to articulate them as cultural texts. Perhaps more than in any discipline, in literary studies one is truly building a body of knowledge by working on communities of color and one must be as adventurous and open as possible in considering one’s texts.
Turning all this great material into scholarship is difficult for every scholar, but can be especially so for students of color who might lack the support networks of students coming from families with more experience with advanced degrees. Students of color may have difficulty communicating the value of their work to themselves and their communities. Indeed, this is compounded by the fact that academia is often criticized for its stylistic excesses, tangled and impenetrable prose, and vague, inaccessible content. All these things can combine to stymie an emerging scholar’s productivity, but a dedication to writing, under any circumstances, can help one work through these challenges. Understanding writing as a craft with both practical and aesthetic dimensions, and consciously working to improve both, will give structure to the daunting task of completing a dissertation, and help the student tackle future professional writing challenges.
- Birkenstein, Cathy and Gerald Graff. They Say/I Say: The Moves That Matter in Academic Writing. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2006.
- Bolker, Joan. Writing Your Dissertation in Fifteen Minutes a Day: A Guide to Starting, Revising, and Finishing Your Doctoral Thesis. New York: Henry Holt, 1998.
- Germano, William. Getting it Published: A Guide for Scholars And Anyone Else Serious about Writing Serious Books. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2001.
- —. From Dissertation to Book. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2005.
- Harman, Eleanor et. al. eds. The Thesis and The Book: A Guide for First-Time Academic Authors. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 2003.
- Luey, Beth, ed. Revising Your Dissertation: Advice from Leading Editors. Berkeley: U of California P, 2004.
Becoming a “professional” entails learning how to conduct oneself as one’s colleagues do and making oneself legible to people, academic or not, outside one’s specific field. In many ways it is like learning a very complicated verbal and physical language. Though sometimes seen as a supplementary, professionalization should be regarded as a vital part of a student’s training. For first-generation scholars, many of whom are scholars of color, it is particularly important, as they might not have access to the informal training available to students with a long, family history of graduate education.
One learns how to behave as a professional by seeking out professional training as well as opportunities to implement that training in the field. Professional training begins at one’s institution where one’s department, a career center, or various graduate organizations might offer workshops on topics such as academic networking, talking about teaching on the job market, dressing for success, and so on. Many institutions also offer “Preparing Future Faculty” seminars that can be incredibly useful.
Home institutions prepare one to make connections in the larger field, which is usually first encountered through workshops, symposia, and conferences, either as an audience member or participant. These events acquaint scholars with issues relevant to the field, of which students can and should deepen their knowledge through other media such as listserves, journals, and relevant web sites. In addition, conferences and the like provide excellent opportunities to network with scholars from outside one’s institution.
These networking opportunities are a big part of learning to make oneself legible to other scholars and non-academics, especially at conferences like the Native American and Indigenous Studies Association conference or the National Association of Chicana/o Studies annual meeting at which scholars gather with cultural workers and community activists. While much of the graduate student’s work is quite private and often isolated, success in the field requires some degree of interaction with peers and senior colleagues in a professional venue. Public presentations and publication are a key element of professionalization. They are not only about information exchange, but also about ensuring a scholar’s public accessibility and accountability. Students should be encouraged to participate in professional life and to publish their work when appropriate. As with all students, venue is important, and students should expect help from their mentors in determining the right time and place to present one’s work. Students and younger scholars of color face an additional challenge in emerging fields as they struggle to make themselves legible across disciplinary divides, as well as in the face their colleagues’ differing views of a particular venue’s prestige.
- Mentors should be the first place a students seeks information about professionalization, especially about conferences and publication.
- The writing books described above are a good supplement to a mentor’s advice about selecting an appropriate venue for your work. They also offer targeted information about writing and revising papers for presentation or publication.
- UC Berkeley’s “Summer Institute for Preparing Future Faculty is a model for professionalization training: http://gsi.berkeley.edu/conf_wkshop/institutes.html
- Reading through the job search handbooks listed in the next section, as well as the MLA’s general advice to job seekers (available on the MLA’s website at http://www.mla.org/career_resources) can help one see which professional areas they should pay close attention to.
- The Committee on the Literatures of People of Color in the United States and Canada’s brochure, “Guidelines for Good Practice by the Committee on the Literatures of People of Color in the US and Canada” (available on the MLA’s website at http://www.mla.org/rep_guidelines_poc), details issues facing scholars of color and offers strategies for addressing them.
- William Clark’s magisterial Academic Charisma and the Origins of the Research University (Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2006) offers a useful and fascinating analysis of the history of the current academic enterprise, and illuminates some of the seemingly archaic and counterintuitive practices of contemporary academia (especially regarding the modern academy’s martial and ecclesiastical origins).
The Job Market
From the beginning of their graduate careers students should be thinking about their future job search. Because the prospects on the academic job market are so limited, a student should also consider positions outside the academy. This is tricky, however, as students expressing interest in non-academic jobs are often perceived as less serious about their studies and run the risk of “marking” themselves as less worthy than other students. Such stigma is a particular threat to students of color who might be compelled towards more community-based, non-academic uses for their degrees. Students must be encouraged to follow their career instincts and act accordingly.
In either case, the earlier one begins thinking about future employment the better: if seeking an academic job the student can begin as early as possible to prepare themselves professionally in terms of networking and scholarship; if interested in jobs outside the academy one can avail oneself of internships and other non-academic career-related resources one’s institution has to offer. An institution’s career center is the logical first place to begin thinking about the job search process for both academic and non-academic jobs. Many centers maintain libraries of useful information, have helpful career counselors on hand, and can dedicate time and resources to the job search that faculty may be unable to contribute. Within one’s department will usually be a Placement Chair, a faculty mentor or coordinator for students on the academic job market in a given year.
Both the academic and non-academic job markets pose specific challenges to students of color. Even the most well meaning prospective employers operate under certain assumptions about race and ethnic communities. Depending on the size of the interviewing institution, if one studies Chicana/o literature, for example, interviewers might assume one to be equally fluent with all Ethnic American literature, and of course be able to teach both a US Latina/o and a Latin American survey. There might be no understanding that those two courses would in fact need to be different courses, and interviewers might complement you on your English, even if you have PhD in English in hand. If one is African American but studies Melville, interviewers might ask about teaching twentieth-century African American courses and whether or not one has done any work in African American literature. These are simple realities of the job market, and it is wise to be prepared for such lines of questioning.
- UC Berkeley’s Career Center maintains an extremely helpful website for Graduate Students and PhDs seeking academic and non-academic job information (http://career.berkeley.edu/PhDs/PhDs.stm), most of which is accessible to non-UC users.
- MLA website, Career and Job Market Information: http://www.mla.org/career_resources
- Forno, Dawn M. and Cheryl Reed. Job Search in Academe: Strategic Rhetorics for Faculty Job Candidates. Sterling, VA: Stylus, 1999.
- Heiberger, Mary Morris and Julia Miler Vick. The Academic Job Search Handbook. Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P, 2001.
Once again, our advice here is suggestive and intended as neither exhaustive nor discouraging. An emphasis on proactive agency, smart work, professional commitment, personal awareness, and intellectual flexibility links everything we have set forth above. The academy is a rich world of ideas and intellectual exploration, but it is also an ancient institution with many unpleasant legacies that have operated to the benefit of some and the detriment of others. Entering this complex, contradictory space means participating in a process that has shaped our human experience. No one who enters remains unchanged; and though we cannot determine every aspect of that change, we can influence much of the experience.
- The MLA website has a wealth of relevant material for emerging scholars; see especially “MLA Advice to Graduate Students: From Application to Career” (http://www.mla.org/advice_grad)
- Profession: The MLA’s annual publication provides invaluable resources for understanding the profession for graduate students, faculty, staff, and those interested in the study of language and literature (http://www.mla.org/profession)
- Chronicle of Higher Education: the unofficial paper of record for current events, professional issues, and career resources in the academy. (http://chronicle.com/)
- The Chicago Guide to Your Academic Career: A Portable Mentor for Scholars from Graduate School through Tenure, by John A. Goldsmith, John Komlos, and Penny Schine Gold (Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2001) and The Academic’s Handbook, 3rd ed., eds. A. Leigh DeNeef and Craufurd D. Goodwin (Duke UP, 2006).
- Journey to the Ph.D.: How to Navigate the Process as African Americans, eds. Anna L. Green and LeKita V. Scott (Sterling, VA: Stylus 2003)
- The Latina/o Pathway to the Ph.D.: Abriendo Caminos, eds. Jeanett Castellanos, Alberta M. Gloria, and Mark Kamimura (Sterling, VA: Stylus, 2006)
- Indigenizing the Academy: Transforming Scholarship and Empowering Communities, eds. Devon Abbot Mihesuah and Angela Cavender Wilson (Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 2004).
- By “attention to the self” we mean staying healthy, physically and mentally. It’s important to know at the outset that graduate school can be emotionally challenging. Students should be aware of mental health resources available to them at their home institution—from discussion groups for dissertators to individual counseling—and should be empowered to make use of them.↵
- The authors wish to thank the members of the MLA Committee on the Literatures of People of Color in the United States and Canada in 2008 and 2009, both for the impetus through extended conversations to develop this project and for their helpful revision suggestions and encouragement, as well as the many colleagues and students who contributed ideas to various drafts of this project.↵