It’s me again, your favorite shouty princess. Or you know, the thing that shouts back when you shout into the void on the internet. Regardless, I’m here to talk to you today about a very sore topic: how to figure out that you’ve picked the wrong place for yourself. I am going to focus on graduate school because I’m a grad student, but I hope this will be pretty uniform across life history stages.
To preface this, I started graduate school with really high hopes. I thought from how I remembered my interview process with my department at (insert big R1), that things would be okay. I was sure that graduate school courses would be rigorous, that the literature would envelop me in new ideas, and that my project-presented to me as already on solid ground, with the only thing needed was a willing pair of hands-would proceed smoothly.
Instead, I have an advisor who volunteers me to present places without telling me, who I constantly fight with, and who tells me that I am not fulfilling my job as a student. I have a department where both professors and other graduate students tell me they’re afraid of professional judgement by their peers over their personal leanings, and where people openly admit that relationships between faculty, staff, and students are inherently inauthentic. Graduate classes are not what I expected, and much of what happens in the department is based more on the idea that we must get along to get along. The literature is dense, but it also wouldn’t be so hard to stay focused on reading 30 page research articles if I wasn’t constantly crying in my office. I currently don’t feel like I have any guidance, or any support outside the other graduate students in my cohort. Of course, in real life I turn to social media to connect with mentors outside my institution: but I feel like it’s inherently dangerous for me to be surviving on outside counsel alone. You join a department and lab because they are supposed to be your support network for you to embark on a successful career; not because they give you the spite you need to best them.
So, to summarize, there’s a few key signs that you’ve arrived in the wrong place:
- People openly admit the reason your department is peaceful is because you all hardly interact.
- Professors complain about the lack of graduate student engagement, but do little to foster relationships between themselves and students
- Related to 2, is if faculty ask for grad student opinions (on non-research topics) only to get angry when you don’t immediately acquiesce to their opinions or feelings
- Advisors feel entitled to volunteering their students for projects, papers, presentations or conferences without asking the student for permission.
- Postdocs/adjuncts/assistant faculty feel as if they cannot profess to deeply-held values, either in non-classroom settings or online, for fear of retribution by senior members of the department.
- People, especially older students, tell you to expect relationships between you and faculty/staff to be inherently inauthentic.
- Hierarchies within the department translate to non-departmental settings, and are used to silence dissent.
- Former students, faculty, or both warn you about various department members, department practices, and traditions.
- Students or techs from other labs find you in secret to warn you about your advisor; or tell you that you match the behavioral profile of students who have left in the past.
- You and your other lab members feel as if your project(s) are going stagnant, getting stonewalled, or otherwise failing due to lack of communication or guidance between you and your advisor(s).
I know this isn’t an exhaustive list, but these were the 10 warning signs for me as I’ve traversed the department. I feel like it is an indictment of the inherently toxic nature of today’s academia that I was actually shocked when a faculty member spoke to me about how they wished they could be their authentic selves. If grown adults in academia don’t feel like they can be themselves and still be allowed to do good science, how on earth can we expect minoritized students to traverse academia? If you hit any or all of these warning signs, please do what it best for you and leave: leave that lab, or department, or even academia itself. Go where you will feel safest to do the work you love.
As for me, I don’t really know what I will do. I want things to get better between my advisor and I, but I don’t even feel safe enough talking to them to try and establish communication boundaries and issues. I want my lab mates to feel more confident on our shared advisor, but that’s really hard when we go into weekly meetings begging for guidance only to be met with “read the literature more”. We can’t go to other department members for help, because everyone telegraphs that they are only interested if they get something for their H index out of talking to you. I can’t personally go to other people in the department, because the few “allies” I had trusted have shown to be more invested in the status quo than in helping me. I spend a lot of time in my office crying, or instant messaging with outside faculty I met through social media and crying.
My last ditch effort before totally dropping out will probably involve making one (1) confidante out of someone in the department who shows committment to equity in STEM, and hopefully having a deep heart-to-heart (or whatever academia chooses to call this) with my advisor. For both of these things, I have to pick my words as carefully as possible, present as assimilated as I can, and seem as grateful as humanly possible–because that will be the only way I make any headway. I have to use every emotional and social trick in the big book of assimilation politics to get people who should be my allies anyway, to help me. And if they don’t, then I will be forced to admit that academia is too inhospitable for someone like me. I won’t transfer to another department or school, because it’s overwhelmingly unlikely that other places won’t have the same lack of accountability and authenticity as here. If people care more about gatekeeping me for my lack of assimilation than for the good science that I can do, then I don’t really need to stay in a broken system. Academia is invested heavily in this facade where the doublespeak between faculty is worth more than the students who power their research. (Un)fortunately for academia, I am not.
I’ll see you all on the other side, if I make it.