unsolicited advice: a commencement speech-ish primer for women in grad school

As an academic, this term it’s been my privilege/challenge/paycheck to prepare first year graduate students for future work as teaching assistants. I don’t pretend that I am some sort of expert in this field, or that what I have to tell them is applicable to every graduate student in every department. But what I do know is that when I started to write down some notes about balancing TA work with graduate school requirements with being a human, I started something that sounded like it belonged in a commencement speech—broad, sweeping advice on work and life. And  this particular group of graduate students is overwhelming female, a factor that worked its way into my little speech.


I haven’t  said any of this to them—and I haven’t decided yet if I will. But I wanted to post it here, because it distills a few lesson I have learned over the years, and if it helps anyone even a little, that would mean a lot to me. At the very least, writing it has helped me.


On being a TA, a graduate student, and a human: unsolicited advice for women in academia

Let’s be frank: Rarely will anyone in this department (or any other for that matter) tell you to work less or, to go easier on yourself, or to take a break for goodness sake. But if you don’t do those things, and regularly, you risk burn out. So since I have this pseudo authoritative position from the department from which to tell you things, I am going to use it to say this to you now: Don’t be so hard on yourself.

The most obvious truth that no one really wants to admit about graduate school is that we all need a life, and we all need to make time for things outside of academic work, and we all need to acknowledge that even if you are employed as a TA, leading discussions/ going to lecture/grading assigments just can’t always be your top  priority. And the ironic thing about this is that the better you take care of yourself, the better your teaching can be. But no one is going to remind of this.  Few people you meet in these halls are going to tell  you that you should take care of yourself. Instead, they are going to (un)intentionally make you feel bad about taking care of yourself . They will say things like “how do you have time for [insert non academic activity here]?” Or, “I totally want to do [non-academic activity] but I’ve just got so much work to do.” And you are going to feel like everyone around you is working harder and better than you, and that if you just dropped a few of those frivolous activities from your schedule, you  might be able to work that much too.

So here is my counter response. We are not a bunch of disembodied brains. We are all bodies. We don’t have bodies—we are bodies. And bodies do weird, bad things when placed under too much stress. Your years in this program will likely put your brain AND  your body to the test.  So if I were you, I would prepare for this experience by figuring out what makes you feel your best, and then doing what you have to do to maintain it over the next few years. I don’t know if that’s exercising or hanging out with friends or playing with your pets or going on a trip, but whatever it is, defend your ability to keep doing it  as if your life depended on it. Hold onto it even when all of your academic responsibilities seem much more pressing. Don’t let TA work or any other part of grad school take over your time, because it will. It will expand to fill the time you give it. And it will exact its toll on your body-the only body you’ve got.

As women, there’s one additional aspect of this work/life balance that we often face: the small requests. In short, people at this university—undergrads, grad students, professors, staff— are going to ask you to do more things for themselves, or for others. They are going to ask that you help out in ways that seem small — a bit of mentoring here, a little (unpaid) service there, just a quick favor every now and again. They are not going to single you out for your gender on purpose— for the most part, they are going to do it subconsciously. These will  seem so small, and you will want to be the person who always helps out when asked. But these requests will add up.And if you let them, all the requests will eat away at the time you have for your own work and your own life. So make a decision now to be protective of your time. Don’t let anyone or anything have too much of you. Find your boundaries, hold on to them, and don’t anyone make you feel bad for enforcing them.

It can be the difference between shining bright and burning out.


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