Reader Query: Tips for new graduate student?

I’m a first year student this year, in an academically-excellent graduate program, just a couple weeks into classes, and I’ve already run into an issue being a woman in the program. As an undergraduate, I was never shy about speaking up, or standing up for myself, but now I find myself in a new environment, unsure of who I could talk to, worried about being labeled a trouble-maker my first year, etc. Might the bloggers at FP, or your readers, have any advice on how students can navigate these issues?

12 thoughts on “Reader Query: Tips for new graduate student?

  1. I’ve found that it’s most important to just find someone to talk to about it. This could be anyone you trust, inside of the department or outside. Often talking over the situation helps you figure out what you want to do about it. If you notice other students in the department who have dealt with/are dealing with the same issue, you could talk to them. I’ve also had very good luck talking one-on-one with the female faculty members about gender-specific issues. Remember, in all likelihood, almost all of them have had to deal with what you’re dealing with (or something similar) and will be in a position not only to offer advice, but possibly help to deal with the problem. Whatever you do, DO NOT allow the issue you’re confronting to affect your judgment of your own philosophical ability—these are two very different things and it’s easy to confuse them as a beginning grad student.

  2. I don’t know, I think there’s some things we can already say might be useful: one suggestion I have is to try to get to know some people outside the philosophy department.

    I’m guessing you’ve moved schools to be there, maybe moved state or even country, so you probably don’t have the same support networks/sanity maintenance people you’ve had in the past. You will need such people in graduate school, and if they are people who can help you get a bit of perspective on the life of academic philosophy, so much the better. (Note that I *don’t* mean people who trash the idea of academic life or think philosophy is a load of meaningless nonsense, I just mean people who do other things and are interested in other things.)

    One way to do this (which might feel like less of a time drain than, say, volunteering off-campus) is to look for short courses run for graduate students. There are often courses on things like academic writing, college teaching, presentation skills, or information technology, and maybe at one of those you’ll meet a geographer or materials scientist or art historian you can have coffee with from time to time. It can’t hurt!

    I think it also helps if you’re able to maintain some other activity that makes you feel competent, whether it’s playing the cello, climbing hills or weaving your bike in and out of traffic. Sometimes you can carry that sense of power and mastery back into the seminar room.

  3. I can’t speak to the gender specific issues involved, and I hope others have good advice here, but one thing I found very helpful in my first year as a graduate student was to have a regular weekly event with the other graduate students. We had (well, still have as far as I know…I now live in a different city) a Wednesday bar night, and we also occasionally did happy hour somewhere after seminars. This was always a great opportunity to talk to some of the elder grad students at dissertation stage, who knew a great deal about department culture and were great practice for bouncing around ideas and arguments. If you don’t have one, consider trying to put one together. You’ll probably meet some of the elder female dissertators who were working through these issues 5 years ago, and you’ll be able to speak up in a more relaxed environment as practice.

  4. I second the suggestion of getting to know grad students outside your department. If your university has a women’s center, that’s a great place to start. If there’s a women/gender/sexuality studies program, look for new-student events, social events, reading groups, etc.

    Also, look up your university’s sexual harassment policies and resources. Learn how your school/state defines a hostile work environment and protected categories. Learn their process.

  5. I third heg’s suggestion. not least because, if you’re new to your department, you don’t know how things work departmental-politics-wise. and, I hate to be pessimistic, but grad students can be very competitive and, well…what do I want to say..,I think if you need advice about, or to vent about problems w the department, you should talk to people who have no connection to the department; people who aren’t going to be worrying about their own standing wrt the department.

  6. I would also suggest reading up a bit on some of what can impact you and thus developing a vocabulary for your experience. reducingstereotypethreat.org is a good resource. Claude Steele’s Whistling Vivaldi is also a really good resource. I’m not sure if stereotype threat is what you’re dealing with, but I expect that if there are already issues then stereotype threat is likely coming into play or will (i.e., once you enter an environment in which your gender is suddenly a matter of uncomfortable conscious awareness, stereotype threat can readily become part of the experience). I think having the conceptual tools to understand this phenomenon can be a big part of preventing it from felling you. I also fourth(?) the suggestion of seeking out companionship external to your department. I assume you’ve only been in the department a matter of weeks. Given that, it may well be difficult to know yet just whom within the department will be helpful and, unfortunately, I think encountering the unhelpful or “bad help” would be worse than none if you choose the wrong confidant.

  7. In my cohort, a few of us started weekly Italian-restaurant nights. Since it was just two or three women, I began to think of it as Ladies’ Night, but of course it eventually grew to include some men as well. This kept me very sane, even happy, and helped my sense of perspective on issues in the department. Even when I thought others were wrong, we could at least cross-check our perceptions.

    But the person who most helped me with a sense of surety as to whom to speak about any issues was my adviser. I don’t know what the OP’s is like, but mine had a healthy respect for my professional life and how best to navigate it.

    I also read and re-read “Getting What you Came For: The Smart Student’s Guide to Earning a Master’s or Ph.D.” That book was my bible, and really saved my ass.

    (Also, I was lucky to have a private life, and a supportive partner who’s not a philosopher! But this is no longer advice anyone can use.)

  8. I just wanted to say thanks for the post, and thanks for the wonderful suggestions! I’ve been working on a few of them this past week, and things already seem better. Or, at least I feel like I’m in a better position to handle it.

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