Push Back (A Little)

Sometimes, graduate students looking for their first jobs need to ignore what their faculty advisers think is best, writes Eric Anthony Grollman.

May 14, 2014

In my 29 years, I have made three very difficult decisions for the sake of defining my life on my terms. Three months shy of my 18th birthday, I publicly came out, refusing to hide my queer sexual identity any longer. Two years later, I walked away from a prestigious scholarship for minority students in STEM fields in hopes that I would secure another that would allow me to study sociology (fortunately, I did). Most recently, I accepted my current position at a liberal arts university, despite being groomed for a Research I job.

What these three events had in common was rejecting intense pressure to conform, or even sacrifice my happiness for status, from people who are invested in my future. My parents feared that I would die young from AIDS, a hate crime, or suicide, or at least face a lifetime of discrimination. Then, they feared I was foolish to give up a scholarship with nothing concrete lined up in its place; no longer being miserable in my math classes was not worth the risk in their eyes. In graduate school, it was my department’s prioritizing of research over teaching, which means, without question, that students who are strong researchers should “go R1.” These three events also have in common that I ended up taking the leap of faith in spite of others’ pressures not to.

Certainly, being independent is a virtue, particularly for advanced graduate students. In fact, I would suggest that it is crucial to getting out of grad school. And, from my grad school observations of multiple job searches -- the behind-the-scenes conversations about potential job candidates -- it seems being an expert in one’s own right (i.e., not merely a clone of one’s adviser) is key to success on the job market.

Some of us, though, also have to engage in a bit of resistance in order to balance our success and our well-being. With hierarchies upon hierarchies within academe – disciplines, subdisciplines, theories, methodologies, journals, universities, types of institutions – there is a pressure to fit within a narrow definition of “successful scholar.” Those who dare to pursue something other than the golden R1 tenure-track job may have to push back against advisers’ expectations. And, particularly for marginalized scholars – women, people of color, LGBTQ people, working-class people, people with disabilities – one must navigate the professional socialization of Ph.D. programs that push up against (or even contradict) our core identities and values.

This kind of conformity took a toll on my health, sense of purpose in life, and authenticity. I entered graduate school eager to pursue a joint Ph.D. in sociology and gender studies, with a graduate minor in sexuality studies, with the goal of conducting qualitative research on the lives of black LGBTQ people. I left with a Ph.D. in sociology, with a minor in quantitative research methods, and a focus on medical sociology that just happens to look at the intersections among race, gender and sexuality. Becoming a good little grad student brought me a prestigious fellowship, a solo-authored publication in the top journal in my subfield, and generalized anxiety disorder.

It took seeing this pattern starting over each year after year for new incoming marginalized students in my program for me to name it. I decided to start defining my career for myself. That included going on the job market in my sixth year (most people finish in seven or eight years). That included pushing my advisers to “let” me even apply to liberal arts jobs.  And then it meant pushing back against their pressure to pass up on the offer for my current position in hopes something “better” (i.e., an R1 job offer) would come along. It seemed that we all simply agreed to disagree because, ultimately, it is my life. I emphasized to them that I would accept blame if taking this job was a mistake; I would rather proactively make mistakes than let someone else decide what is best for me.  After a great first year, I am pleased with the rewards of a yet another leap of faith.

On a broader scale, pushing back against my advisers’ expectations was necessary to create my own self-defined career as an intellectual activist. Like many marginalized people, I pursued a career in academe to empower and improve the conditions of disadvantaged communities; unfortunately, graduate training is designed to “beat the activist out of you,” as one of my professors put it. Those beatings sparked my efforts to use activism to empower and improve the conditions of disadvantaged scholars in academia.

But I recognize that I am fortunate to have had an involved, hands-on committee, that had members who believed in me, to push back against. Certainly, pushing back is risky business. I was able to convey perseverance, commitment, and self-assurance; one must be careful not to come across as stubborn, uncooperative, or even unmentorable. I have considered that pushing back (or even “leaning in,” for that matter) may be more harshly penalized for women scholars. So, one must uncover where the limit exists in their own training.

I want to conclude by noting that we are overdue in recognizing that training most Ph.D. students for tenure-track jobs at Research I universities is out of sync with the availability of those jobs. Actually, training students exclusively for tenure-track faculty positions does the next generation of new Ph.D.s a disservice, and misses the plurality of interests and strengths they hold. Since those who are responsible for training Ph.D. students are primarily at research universities, I do not see training for teaching positions, applied jobs, and other alternative careers expanding any time soon. 

Short of that, I strongly encourage all current and future Ph.D. students to push back a little: expand your training; hone your unique interests, strengths, and perspective; and proactively define your own career to maximize your happiness, well-being, and authenticity. Take a leap of faith.

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Eric Anthony Grollman is assistant professor of sociology at the University of Richmond.  He is the editor of ConditionallyAccepted.com, a blog for scholars on the margins of academe.


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