Reader query: transitioning and applying to grad school

A reader writes:

I’m a transgender woman who is in both the process of transitioning and applying to graduate school in philosophy. I have a few questions that I hope you could pass on to your readers so that I can handle my situation as well as possible. My situation is that of someone finishing their degree in one gender, starting their PhD in another, and hoping to move between all of that as smoothly as possible.

(1) I don’t want my time at my PhD school to be contaminated by my old ID, how can I work with the admissions committee or whoever in order to make sure that my status as a trans person is not shared and that information regarding the ID I applied with is kept under wraps?

(2) How can I communicate to graduate schools that I am transgender in order to make sure that they know what to expect and to make sure that that won’t be an issue for their department (and me)?

(3) I’d like to come out to my own department (or at least to people within it) in order to enlist their help with my applications, but I’m terrified of taking a wrong step and tossing all of my letters out the window. Any tips on coming out discreetly and carefully within my current department?

21 thoughts on “Reader query: transitioning and applying to grad school

  1. First things first: Welcome, anonymous applicant!! My name is Zee and I think trans women are pretty much the best kind of person (and that’s only partly because I am one)! If you have any questions about anything (trans related or not) or need to talk or vent in an anonymous way with someone who understands being a trans woman in a Philosophy PhD program, please feel free to email me!! I can be reached at zee.perry@nyu.edu and zpkeister@gmail.com most readily.

    (1) Some schools have systems by which trans students can get the names on their diplomas and transcripts changed, even if you haven’t procured a legal name change. Investigate your school’s policies on this matter.

    [[Also, here is a less-than-totally-responsible suggestion: when in doubt, write your new name on any application-related form regardless of whether it asks you for your legal name or not (unless it’s also asking for your SSN). The people filing most of these forms don’t really give a hoot what’s on your birth certificate, and if they do, they’re never gonna check. ;) ]]

    For the parts of the application that an admissions committee will see, I would include an attachment to your personal statement that looks kinda like this “Some of my application materials will employ a different name ([your old name]) and pronoun ([he/him/his]) than I use here. This name is not my name and those pronouns are not accurate for me. I am a transgender woman, my name and pronouns are [your name], she/her/hers. Trans people are often the targets of intense discrimination, so I ask that you NOT disclose my trans status to ANYONE outside the admissions committee, unless it is strictly necessary for the official processing of my application. I thank you in advance for your cooperation in this matter.”

    This will only work to the extent that your name and pronouns are gender-accurate on the materials they pass around to interested/qualified faculty outside the committee to evaluate. I’m just a lowly angry trans graduate student so I can’t weigh in too much on what admissions committees pass around to faculty. I’ve heard that some places do the whole file on the applicant, while others only pass around the writing sample and/or the letters. Question for more knowledgeable folks: How common is either practice?

    Also, some real talk, the admissions committee members are almost guaranteed to not abide by this request. You will, unfortunately, likely have to be willing (once you’re accepted/enrolled somewhere) to repeatedly engage with faculty in private (or, if you would be more comfortable doing so, by way of a faculty ally) to reiterate your demand that they not disclose your status. The best bet you have to minimize disclosure is to make sure that everyone who knows or who you suspect knows is made full aware that you do NOT want them disclosing to anyone else.

    (2) Most of this is covered in (1). For assessing what “fit”, I would wait until you are given an offer somewhere. Then seek out the DGS or a faculty member that was on the admissions committee and ask them one-on-one about the situation at that department.

    (3) If your letter writers are people you feel safe around, coming out to them in person is a good way to make sure that you are in control of the information. If one or more of them aren’t people you’re sure you feel safe being alone in a room with while sharing sensitive information, seek out the Director of Undergraduate Studies or a professor you *do* feel personally comfortable with and trust to disclose for you, even if they’re not one of your letter writers. You can then enlist them to corner your letter writers and disclose for you. This person can also clearly and forcefully make your requests that they be discreet, so that you don’t have to worry about communicating that tone in an email. I really suggest going this route over email if your goal is discreetness.

    I don’t know what the best thing to do is if you are genuinely worried that one of your letter writers will refuse to support you if you come out to them. I’d like to say that, at least, this is not a very likely outcome (but I do not know your situation). Does anybody else have suggestions here?

    I hope this helps a little bit. I’ll post more as it comes to me.

  2. Oh my gosh! I can’t believe I forgot to say “good luck”!

    Good Luck!!

    (Also, I can’t change everywhere but I can work on here. I’m on NYU’s climate committee and one of the areas we’re looking into and potentially working on is our admissions system. I’ll do what I can make sure that applicant privacy and security, especially in matters like these, is a priority. I can’t make any promises, and it’s only one school, but every little something is something.)

    ~Z

  3. Zee’s suggestions are fantastic. As a director of graduate admissions who is a trans ally, I can offer some insight from the other side of the process. In our department, materials are typically reviewed only by the graduate studies committee. We occasionally request that a colleague read over a writing sample. However, our grad studies committee is pretty big, so that might still mean that 6 or 7 faculty members review your materials.

    I second Zee’s suggestion that you attempt to get the university(ies) you have studied at to change the name on your transcripts. This will help to avoid confusion when your applications materials are submitted. Many universities, including ours, have online application processes in which your transcripts are sent to a university-wide graduate admissions department that the matches the transcript up with your application. If the transcript is under a different name than you’re applying under, you’ll need to make sure the admissions department is aware of the situation so they can reunite your materials.

    Regarding coming out in your current department: obviously, it would be great if you could get your recommendation writers to use your correct name and pronouns. I wonder if there is a faculty member in the department you trust and have confidence in, whom you could come out to and then ask for confidential advice about the likely reactions of your letter writers. Faculty members often have insight into the characters of their colleagues that could shed light on the matter. If even one of your letter writers could just note that you used to be called “J” and are now called “K,” this could help reassure any doubters that the applicant and the person who secured the grades, GRE scores and letters of recommendation are one and the same.

    I also suggest that you directly phone or e-mail the director of graduate studies (DGS) in the departments you’re considering applying to, especially if it is clear that not all of your application materials will come in under the same name. I regularly, and happily, respond to all manner of inquiries about our program and application process. Let the DGS know about the situation and ask for advice about how to ensure that your application materials end up together. Also let the DGS know that you want to keep your trans status confidential. (Zee’s suggestion about how to word this, with reference to “intense discrimination,” is great: even cis people who intend to be allies may be rather clueless about this.)

    E-mailing first, and requesting that the DGS call you (or offering to call them), might be ideal. The e-mail gives the DGS a little time to reflect on a situation they may not have faced before, and perhaps even to do a little research on how the university tracks application materials. The phone call may give you an opportunity to gauge the tone of the interaction (though a good DGS should be able to convey a helpful and supportive tone through e-mail). Is the DGS going to be an ally for you in this process, and does the DGS convey that other people in the department are likely to be supportive and willing to keep your trans status confidential? If not, you may want to allocate your application fee elsewhere.

    Good luck! Feel free to contact me if I can help: sirvin@ou.edu.

  4. A comment and a question:

    1. Re the recommendation to wait to see where one is accepted for study: it seems to be getting more and more the fashion that one visits places before making offers is decided. Many of the issues and problems will arise then.

    2. I am not clear why people aren’t worried about one’s status being found out independently of transcripts, records, etc. This has actually happened to someone living in an apartment house I often go to. I think that the assumptions and explanations people bring to such a situation can be very bad. Since she isn’t speaking of it openly, there is an assumption that she is ashamed or embarrassed. I think there have been pretty robust discussions about how one could ‘tell’. And so on. What happens is that a pretty developed picture of one gets into circulation and one has had no control at all over it – maybe even no access to it. Much of this picture may be wrong and even detrimental.

  5. I want to add my voice to Zee’s, Rachel’s, Sherri’s and Anne’s in offering affirmation and support, and to let you and others know that the Yale department of Philosophy is both trans-friendly and trans-informed. As a faculty member and parent of a transgender girl (age 10), I have encountered nothing but support from my colleagues both within the department and throughout the wider university in the face of my daughter’s recent (MtF) transition.

    (I realize, of course, that this response does not address the detailed concerns that you raise in your letter; on that,I defer to Zee and the others above, whose responses seem to me right on the mark.)

  6. All this seems like great advice. One other, small thing occurs to me. You might see if the university to which you’d apply has a LGBT student support office. Someone there might be able to help in a number of ways: speaking to how friendly the campus in general is, pointing you to helpful staff in graduate admissions who will be maximally supportive, and maybe even identifying allies in the Phil Dept. with whom you might speak for help. It might at least be worth asking about all the above and, if the university has no such LGBT resource for students, that might also say something important.

  7. Tamar’s comment has me thinking that it would help this student and others out there if they had an ally who could ask on their behalf (behalves?), “Is your department trans-friendly and trans-informed?” I think that we should figure out a way to collect such departmental testimony in a more general way, even if it was just an open call for comments here at Feminist Philosophers. I think some ways of requesting this information could succeed better than others. (And I don’t know how much I’d trust all the results equally, since I can already think of one or two places where a philosopher might likely say, ‘Yes, my department is awesome for this,’ and that philosopher would be mistaken. In saying this, I am not referring to Yale, and I trust Tamar’s assessment.) Hm. Let me consult with the other bloggers. Hmm.

  8. Unrelated to PhD applications, but when I was visiting a school I was considering for my MA, the professor showing me around campus stopped to point out the LGBT resource centre (just as a matter of course, without knowing how I identified). He mentioned that they’d been a friendly and useful source of information when a relative of his had transitioned. This was a very small thing, but it did make me feel welcome, and it was a good way for that professor to identify himself as an LGBT ally on the faculty without his needing to ask about or imply any knowledge of my identity.

  9. beta: I don’t want to scare our student, but it might be time for some unfortunate truth: if someone asks a department who’s *never had a trans student* “Are you trans-friendly?” the answer will be almost certainly uninformative. At most, it will allow us to identify the obviously unfriendly departments (where people are, for example, openly hostile), but it won’t allow us to identify the departments that are hostile, but think highly of themselves viz. equality and inclusivity. I should know, I experienced one of these departments first hand.

    (In all fairness, you note this possibility in a parenthetical comment.) My point here is to suggest that the problem is far more widespread. Very few people and departments have had exposure to trans students (especially grad students) and just don’t know how they would react to such a person. People who might otherwise hold neutral or positive attitudes towards cis queer people (even if true) are likely to think that they will similarly hold such neutral or positive attitudes towards trans (and trans queer) people, but my experiences has made me a skeptic. And this is true even for people who consider themselves (ugh) “allies.”

  10. (I wish we could edit comments!)

    To finish the thought: the only testimony I’ll trust is that *of* trans students who are at or were at a department. “Ally” testimony isn’t worth much of anything, I don’t think.

  11. Rachel: Only trans students, not trans faculty? I understand that the student and faculty perspectives are importantly different, but that seems harsh, especially when one is casting about for decent information.

  12. Having been on both sides? Students. Faculty tend to show *way* more respect for trans faculty than for students.

  13. But hopefully, Rachel, you’d also trust the perspective of those who’ve, like you, been on both sides of that power relationship. I mean, you’re now a faculty and not a student person, yourself.

  14. Trans people, you mean? Sure, but I honestly wouldn’t use my experiences as a faculty member in a particular department to be super confident that a student’s experience would be equally positive. I would treat my own experiences as some evidence (and, frankly, better evidence than asking an ‘ally’ about climate for trans people), but I’d treat students’ experiences as stronger evidence.

  15. (By the way, Rachel, I love that gravatar. I associate it with a watering can for flowers; this is a good thing.)

  16. Naomi Zack has done some wonderful work on faculty cronies. When there’s a group of cronies operating in a department, there probably will be very considerable difference in the way insiders and outsiders are treated. Further, the cronies may not be very aware that they practice such discriminatory action; for them, the difference is between the good and the bad.

    From the fact that one trans person becomes an insider, little follows about any others. What one may have in stead is a trans person who is willing to pay the price for membership, and that may well involve dumping on new trans people.

  17. Very good point, Anne. This happens with alarming regularity in trans support groups. A sort of hegemony develops and people often buy into it just in order to gain membership (and often access to support and resources) but the cost is generally turning around and oppressing out-member trans people.

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