A Poverty-Class Academic’s Guide to Getting It Done

... whatever "it" is, writes Grace Cale

November 3, 2015
 

In my previous article, I shared a little bit about the experience of poverty, and how that background can produce unique challenges in one’s graduate school experience. In this second part, I would like to take some time to translate these experiences as I follow my own call to action: to begin a process of resource sharing among poverty- and working-class academics.

One thing that has surprised me is that, while I often feel fairly capable, I have occasionally had the difficulty of not realizing when I needed help, or even realized when or where I could seek help. I was so used to having to do everything myself that I never knew help existed for some problems. Because these experiences are not limited to my own story, I hope that some of the lessons that I’ve learned will be useful to other early grad students, from variously marginalized background, but especially those from working- or poverty-class backgrounds.

As many of us know, the graduate educational process involves a intense socialization into the academic culture. For scholars from underprivileged backgrounds (especially those of us whose parents never attended or graduated from college), this is a powerful, sometimes overwhelming change. It truly epitomizes the concept of academia being its own world!

One lesson that I was amazed to discover was that my working-class peers and I sometimes experienced some of the same types of microaggressions, barriers, and frustrations as people marginalized on other dimensions – a discovery which, while fantastic for building inter-group solidarity, is always difficult. Some class-based marginalizations were institutionally-oriented, and thus sometimes more financially problematic. For example, the nearly mandatory need for a summer scholarship, which might require substantial research output, but pays less than 25% of one’s basic living expenses. I must say that I love my department, which, I imagine, is more understanding and accepting than many. Deciding to stay at my present university was actually a great decision in many ways. But, studying marginalization and oppression does not necessarily mean that people regularly and effectively check their own privileges or hidden biases.

If these stories are familiar to you, you are so not alone. I nearly failed out of my first year in graduate school, not because the classes or readings were too difficult, but because I did not have the skills to juggle other social, departmental, and research demands of graduate life and culture. Instead, I attempted to over-prepare for graduate school by reading the plethora of preparatory articles, and was painfully aware of concepts like “publish or perish,” “network, network, network,” or the implied mandate that, to be hired, one must be seen, must attend major conferences, and must present, present, present. So, I had on my plate a huge, unsustainable list of things that “must” be done, and no idea how people did it all. I assumed that you “buck up” and knuckle down, no matter how many times you break down.

Tips For Surviving And Thriving In Academia

This is the context from which we come, and the situation that I suspect is familiar to some readers. So, here are my recommendations to the ambitious, the driven, and those lacking the many types of capital demanded of the predominantly middle-class world of academia. I cannot promise that any or all of these these tips will work for you, but they got me through my Master’s degree and my pre-qualifying exam semester.

  • You will be told that you MUST do it all, or you will fail. Don’t. You won’t, you can’t, and trying could literally kill you.
  • Instead, explore related articles and resources on Conditionally Accepted and similar blogs, and find a mentor. Ideally, find a few mentors. Realistically, it is unlikely that one person will fulfill all of your mentoring needs as a graduate student. And that is okay. But latch onto those who fill some of your checkboxes, and don’t be afraid to take advantage of their expertise. It’s literally their job. This is a service the more privileged colleagues have learned to take advantage of and thus benefit from without giving it a second thought. You are just as worthy to do so, and it can be invaluable to your career and well-being.
  • At times, I did not realize that I needed help when I did, or that I had taken on too full of a load of projects. It may be good to periodically inform your advisor or mentor when or before you take on a new project, especially if you’re still taking classes or working as a teaching, graduate, or research assistant. If you are new to this world, you may not realize the load a seemingly simple project or co-authored paper will add to your term. Use your mentor’s experience to help assess the work involved with those opportunities before you pursue them.
  • Explore the various academic advice blogs about topics such as productivity and time management as needed, but avoid becoming oversaturated with allegedly vital tips for success. I often explored sites such as Conditionally Accepted, Presumed Incompetent’s Facebook page, The Professor Is In, and other blogs for marginalized scholars, but social class is not consistently considered in these resources. Find a couple of things that work for you and stick to them. You don’t need to fit into someone else’s mold for how to become a fully functional academic. Indeed, much advice may come from a different privileged status, or else be meant for an audience facing a different axis of oppression. But you do need to find your own method, and that sometimes may mean adapting or reinterpreting advice to help your unique situation. Experiment, keep doing what is successful, and be kind to yourself when you fail. Know that past behavior is the best predictor of future behavior. Try to twist your habits (good or bad) into something that serves your needs. Try to find other scholars from similar backgrounds, or perhaps try to find or form a community where scholars can share their struggles, trials, and tribulations.
  • Find a few methods of self-care that work, and stick to them. Eat nutritious food (if you can secure the funding to afford it), try to get at least 6 hours of sleep nightly (7-9 hours ideally), engage in some form of physical activity, and find a way to give yourself even ten minutes without thinking of work. I have always hated yoga and mindfulness meditation, but those things worked for me, and helped me recover from some effects of burnout.
  • It may be counter to the way you were taught to behave, but be aggressive in finding ways to take care of your financial and personal needs. One can be tactful, but nobody can advocate for you unless you advocate for yourself to even a small extent. People often do their best, but they cannot know your needs unless you tell them. This is especially true in the heavily middle- and upper-middle class world of academia, where even those who try to be helpful may have no idea what your needs are. They may not realize that they have a resource that you need. Further, it will quickly become very easy to ignore your personal needs or shove them aside in favor of your seemingly more vital academic goals. Don’t. This brings me to the final point….
  • No academic goal is more important than your ability to be a functioning human being. Graduate school culture is a place that is perfectly situated to encourage overworking, and we normalize the huge mental, physical, and emotional health sacrifices made to achieve our academic goals. But attending conferences or publishing are pointless, and may be impossible, if you’re so overworked and stressed that you can barely function. Take care of yourself first, and the quality of your work will benefit. Even if self-care feels like a waste of time that could be spent working, you must do it to survive in the long-run.

Never forget: The struggle is real, and so are your experiences. Try to find allies; love them, and love yourself. You and I will get through this.

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