How to Help?

Jender’s Advice on Applying to Grad School post got me thinking. What ought staff/faculty do if they know that postgraduates are having trouble in their department?


If you know that women postgrads in your department are experiencing problems—with other members of staff; with other postgrads; etc—what do you do? Ought it be left to the postgrad(s) herself/themselves to decide what to do and to do it? How ought they be advised? Is it right to act on your own initiative? And if so, how and what and when?


I suspect that when women postgraduates have trouble in a department, how the department handles it* makes a big difference to how the experience impacts the postgraduates themselves; inaction, or wrong action, could make a bad situation worse, and could make a woman feel even more excluded, even if general sentiment is silently on her side.


What do you think?


*I am assuming that these things are generally known. Departments tend to have thick grapevines, even if those vines seem conveniently to disappear when tricky situations arise.

6 thoughts on “How to Help?

  1. Could you clarify what “postgrads” are? The same as “grads” in the US?

    There’s a great idea that’s just appeared on the What it is like blog, here:

    The basic idea is to have a department meeting about the problems women and others are facing, as is being revealed by the blog. They are also going to ask how they can make a difference to the profession. This all sounds great.

    If there’s bad behavior occurring in the department, it might be a good idea to think it isn’t just a matter of one or two individuals. Not only is that probably true, but it also means one is making the problems a community issue. I’m not thinking of naming names in doing this…

  2. Thanks. That’s what I’ve assumed, but I thought I’d ask because the term isn’t common in the States at all.

    I hope I haven’t derailed discussion of your valuable question. It’s just not enough to notice there are problems!

  3. It made a great difference to me and my classmates that when problems were brewing, the feminist in the department made a point of telling us what our options and rights were. For instance, we got semesterly evaluations of our course performance, which we were allowed to read, but only in the department office. She advised us that although the evaluation-sheets had to stay in the department office, there was actually no rule forbidding their photocopying, and every reason to make ourselves copies so that we’d have evidence of past performance reviews. This turned out to be invaluable when a professor, who was named in a complaint, switched out an old review for a ‘replacement’ which omitted his previous and problematic language!!!

    If she had not advised us to photocopy our evaluations, it would never have occurred to us, deferential grad students that we were. So you don’t have to advocate for every complainant, but backing her up with helpful information is very, very good.

  4. Nice, profbigk. 2 profs here have been so kind as to help me with that kind of not-really-unethical-but-not-really-orthodox-either reading of the grey areas in department regulations, too. You could probably say it’s the only reason I’m still here.

    The “little people” do remember help like that.

  5. I have to say that you have hit the nail on the head with this post.

    I applied at an “august” institution, being promised an advisor who was supposedly knowledgeable about my topic and area. I ran into problems after trying to work with the said individual for about 2 years. It may not be unethical to try to supervise a phd you’re not an expert in and to compensate for this by directing your student to work in other areas they have no interest in, but it isn’t really honest or kosher either. Other faculty knew of the situation but basically wanted to ignore the problem. And so they were prepared to talk to me about work but not about the disasterous supervision (or non-supervision) I received. No advice. Nothing. No explicit attempt to address what went wrong. No suggestions at an earlier stage as to what I could have done to gain redress for the situation I was in. I persevered and persevered thinking that there would be a way of getting through it. But after years of working on my own and trying to find some way of turning things around, I’ve lost steam and peace of mind and love for a subject that used to matter to me.

    So yes, other people make a difference. They make a real difference. Willingness to acknowledge the problem, gentle advice and help as to how to navigate institutional procedures for redress of problems, encouragement even, would make a huge difference to whether people stay in the discipline or not.

    And please don’t leave the student to try to solve everything on their own. While students are supposed to be learning how to fend for themselves, there is still a tremendous inequality of power between a student and advisor and it’s hard for a student to trust their own instincts in a dispute. Sometimes, just knowing that someone is proactive and prepared to reach out to a student in trouble matters a whole lot more than anything that a faculty member could concretely do — it changes how a person experiences grad school and the people that make up the discipline.

    So whatever you do, don’t let your choice be silence.

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