January 23 2018

Female Graduate Students, Power Dynamics, and Work-Life Balance

by Kristy Slominski, University of Mississippi

two women

To contribute to the ongoing discussions initiated by the Committee on the Status of Women in the Profession about power dynamics within academia and the elusive quest for work-life balance, I have been asked to address how these issues intersect with the experiences of female graduate students. Of course, I cannot speak for all of the amazing women and varied experiences within this group, but I did spend considerable time during graduate school looking into these issues and speaking with students as a member of the AAR’s Graduate Student Committee and later as the student director elected to the Board of Directors. I also served as a student representative within the Western Region of the AAR and helped to create their Graduate Student and Professional Development Unit. My own time as an MA/PhD student in religious studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, ended with my graduation in 2015, but I remain passionate about graduate student concerns and the often troubling stories that I continue to hear from the trenches. I am convinced that every scholar has a continuing obligation to care about graduate training, since this is where much of our field is shaped, where biases continue to make their way into understandings about the discipline, and where the trauma of some graduate student experiences impact the future production of knowledge (or the loss thereof). 

Although I do not offer an optimistic perspective on these topics—and I feel like much of this is painfully obvious to anyone who has talked to a graduate student lately—I feel like I must articulate it anyway since we are still failing to address these issues as an academy. One of the main reasons for my pessimism is that the very concept of “work-life balance in academia” is out of reach for the overwhelming number of people who cannot find actual work in academia after graduation, despite many of them being overqualified. For many, the years of training and taking out student loans does not lead to gainful academic employment, so for us to speak of “work-life balance” seems like the wrong approach for this stage (even a cruel joke). I hope that this reality of the overproduction of graduate students, not enough tenure-track jobs, and little protection or wages for non-tenure-track academic jobs is not news to anyone at this point. It has been the reality for a while now. Despite small increases in the number of tenure-track positions in recent years, the number of people on the job market whose primary goal is to become tenure-track professors continues to outpace the availability of those jobs. We are nowhere near close to catching up with the surplus of PhDs floating around out there being told they must now pursue “alternative” positions outside of academia for which they were not trained and for which mainstream academia still seems to have little respect or interest.

This situation of extreme vulnerability for graduate students seems to be the biggest power dynamic at play. It has been systemically set in motion by religious studies departments needing to justify themselves to their universities through graduate programs, by graduate programs pushing to fill their quotas, by funding cuts that have led to fewer tenure-track positions and to more contingent faculty, and many other decisions by those in the security of tenure or upper-administration. Additional layers of power should be acknowledged in this game of who get the golden tickets: graduate students who are not from top-named programs are at a disadvantage from the very start, since they tend to fare worse on the job market. Those who find themselves without well-connected advisors willing to network on behalf of their advisees face additional challenges. Lastly, for financial reasons, family obligations, or health concerns, those who do not have the ability and privilege of being able to stay on the job market for multiple years vastly diminish their chances of pursuing the career goal of someday having a full-time academic position. Many people are not able to live off of meager contingent positions as they wait through multiple job cycles. They somehow “forgot” to make time during the decade of grueling graduate studies to receive bona fide credentials, skills, and experience in a whole other non-academic field that could land them a well-paying position. Some do not have savings or a partner or a family that could support them through this time when there is no end in sight, especially as the debt collectors from student loans start to knock on the door.

This overall depressing state of affairs, characterized by a seeming lack of power and work-life balance, is compounded by other worries that are common for many academics: not knowing where they will have to live if they do land an academic position, not knowing if one’s partner will find a job in that location, not knowing when it is a good time to have a child, not knowing if an academic salary is enough to support a child, and the list goes on.

Now we could discuss how female graduate students find ways to balance their studies with some semblance of a life, even as they worry about their future employment prospects or find a way to stay in denial about the uncertainty of it all. There are, indeed, many enjoyable aspects to graduate life, including having a built in community of others in similar situations, a relatively flexible schedule, and the pleasure of intellectual pursuits. But what I have heard more often than “balance” is stress, anxiety, and depression. Mental health issues are some of the biggest obstacles to student success and work-life balance, and women seem to suffer more frequently than men. The overwhelming mental health needs of female graduate students are exacerbated by poor advising relationships, which I have heard on several occasions described in terms akin to trauma and abuse. While there are things that graduate students can do to improve these relationships, the fact remains that the majority of advisors were never trained in successful advising techniques, most possess all of the power and have nothing to lose in these relationships, some impose their own research visions and biases on their students, and many are not aware of or sympathetic to the terrifying situation of graduate students, with their staggering debt and the need to now publish several articles if not books prior to graduation in order to be competitive on the market. While I do not want advisors to take on the roles of counselors, I do think we can do better to train academics to be effective advisors: to be more aware of graduate student issues, to learn successful advising strategies, to be evaluated within their department and university on the quality of their advising, and to expand their responsibilities to students and alumni on the job market. In order to improve the health of graduate programs and their students—and to avoid the insidious replication of unhealthy mentoring patterns from one generation to the next—dedicating more attention and scrutiny to graduate advising is paramount.

With some of the larger issues now laid out, I want to turn to power dynamics among graduate students. When thinking about the topic of female graduate students and power dynamics, the same scene kept popping into my head: sitting at a seminar table and getting interrupted by male peers. For myself, as a low-income, first-generation college student who was twenty years old when entering graduate school, I found myself in this situation a lot. I was used to the safety of hand-raising, where I waited to be called on and people generally waited for me to finish before moving on. I did not know how to insert my voice into more dynamic, free-flowing exchanges of ideas, and at first I did not know how to recover from being shut down by voices that were louder than mine. Now this is not solely a female problem or an age issue, but I fear that gender socialization still teaches girls to view interruption as aggression and tells us instead to be polite, wait our turn, not raise our voices, and not take up too much space. It took me awhile to find my footing and learn new communication strategies to adapt to this wild west of seminar debates. It would take me longer to learn how to assert myself in other ways needed to succeed in graduate school, including self-promotion and proactively asking for opportunities without them being offered first.

I have since learned that the appearance of confidence goes a long way in academia, from the presentation of ideas to networking to teaching. I first started to realize this when the louder voices of my peers more readily received affirmations, even when their ideas were not superior. I then attended the AAR, and heard a few later-career scholars get widely applauded for papers that would have likely received more negative feedback if presented by a graduate student. Confidence and the confidence conveyed by status go a long way here. Another eye-opening moment occurred for me when I read a study about writing that said that the very same research papers were critiqued more harshly, with significantly more mistakes found, when reviewers assumed graduate student authorship compared to later-career professors. Nothing magical happened in that transition except perception: the assumption that professors must be better writers and researchers. If the same study were done comparing contingent faculty to tenure-track, I am assuming tenure-track authorship would be reviewed more charitably as well. For this reason, I am very grateful for the AAR’s continuing commitment to blind review, because we see many professors get rejected and graduate students accepted based on the merit of their ideas rather than the status of their job titles. It should also be a lesson for those female graduate students dealing with imposter syndrome that their ideas might actually be great, a concept that seems hard to fathom between rounds and rounds of thesis revisions and when praise does not come as readily as it once did in the undergraduate years. To teach female graduate students the confidence to overcome doubt, to get over perfectionism, to embrace critique, to separate the writing product from intrinsic self-worth, and to cultivate a strong sense of their voice would be a big service to the academy and could help rebalance some of the power. I would love to hear us discuss concrete strategies for teaching and nurturing this type of confidence in academia. Now, will this get them an academic position with enough wages and stability to achieve work-life balance? Maybe not, but it will definitely help women to compete for those goals on more equal footing.

Image: "_GDM9659" (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) by European Biomass Conference and Exhibition