Talking to (other) Grad Students

Posted on August 7, 2018 by

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Thanks to Justin Caouette, I’ve been on Twitter for a little over a year and there’s something I’ve noticed about the way we talk to other early career researchers/teachers or the way advice is given to early career people: everyone assumes the structures and terminology are roughly the same as they are in their own field and/or in their own country. I’ll explain more in a second. But although this is something that annoys me, I think there are good reasons to talk about academia across disciplines in ways that are easily understandable to people in other corners of the academy.

The sort of thing I’m thinking of are articles, blog posts or threads that with topics like “things I wish I know when applying for grad school”, or “what do you wish you were told about publishing/grant writing/job hunting” (these are just examples, there’s a wide range of writing for academics that suffer from the problem I’m trying to highlight).

One thing I’ve seen a number of times is advice along the lines of “talk to the other students in the lab without the PI (principle investigator) around”. This is good advice — it’s important to give yourself the best chance at working in a safe and supportive environment — but it only applies for people work in certain sciences. If you’re framing your advice as advice for prospective grad students in general, you may not be getting your point across to much of your intended audience. Research in the humanities rarely requires lab work, and although some large grants, particularly in Europe (in my experience) are run by “PIs”, potential supervisors/advisors may not have grants. So, if you’re hoping to engage a broad audience, it might be better to say something along the lines of “speak to current grad students, and especially your potential supervisors’ advisees, without faculty around”.

More generally, there is a lot of variation in how funding works, how exams work, what duties are required of teaching assistants, and so on. A few examples (with the caveat that my experience is with philosophy):

  • It’s much more common to do a terminal MA before a PhD in Canada and Europe than in the US
  • In Canada and the US, it’s common to have to do preliminary exams (comprehensive exams, field of study exams, etc.) before you start your dissertation/thesis. Not so in the UK. But the nature of those exams varies wildly from institution to institution and even department to department.
  • Humanities PhDs are less likely to be funded by grants than scientists.
  • TAs might do some grading and teach tutorials, or just grading, or just tutorials, and there might be multiple TAs for a single course.
  • Some programs will allow or require you to teach a significant number of courses, while in others there may be very little opportunity to gain teaching experience.
  • Tuition waivers are fairly common in the US, but not in Canada.
  • PhD students in many European countries are considered full time employees of the university.

There are obviously a lot more, including massive variation in norms surrounding research methodology, writing, and publishing, but you get the idea.

There are a few ways to avoid talking past each other when we’re discussing grad school or academia. The easiest is just to mention briefly what field(s) you’re familiar with, and what countries you work(ed) in. That’s often all that’s necessary in, say, a Twitter thread. In many cases though, I think we ought to go beyond that.

Making sure that we’re communicating effectively with people in other disciplines, especially when we’re ostensibly talking about academia/grad school in general, will help build community among early career researchers across fields. There are a lot of structural problems effecting early career people across the academy, but understanding the variations in the specifics of those structures will help us support each other more effectively. It will also help us avoid giving advice that is well meaning, but misguided given someones particular situation. In philosophy, where single authored papers are the norm and the publishing process moves slightly slower than death, it’s rather unhelpful to suggest someone “publish a few papers over summer”. (Ok, I know this is an extreme example, but I’m annoyed about a paper that’s been under review for 6 months, and you get the idea.)

In some disciplines, the norm is still that a book should be at least accepted before you apply for tenure, so suggesting a dissertation be written with discrete, publishable chapters might not be the best way forward.

There’s a lot more I could say here, and perhaps I’ll build on this post in the future. Until then, I’ll leave you with the recommendation that we all make ourselves aware of the academic bubbles we find ourselves in, and learn to communicate with people in other bubbles.