Natascha Chtena is a PhD student in Information Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles. You can follow her on Twitter @nataschachtena.
A while ago, a friend of mine started working on an oral history podcast documenting the experiences of graduate students at different stages in their PhD. One of the project’s goals is to articulate struggle and survival in grad school without ironing out all the imperfections or making up the stories of linear progress and transformation that we’re all - more or less - guilty of perpetuating.
When the first segment was released earlier this year, I was blown away by how brutally honest and beautifully true those featured accounts of graduate life were. But I also realized how rare it is that we hear stories like that: raw rather than glorified accounts of struggle, perseverance and tenacity in grad school.
Maybe it’s my training as an anthropologist, but I find that oftentimes firsthand accounts and oral histories hold more wisdom than many self-help and how-to books. And yet, biographies of graduate life (and academic life more broadly) – whether books, podcasts or movies – remain scarce.
So after listening to my friend’s podcast, I set out to find other testimonials of graduate and early academic life and slowly fell upon a number of written works that I found at once comforting and instructive, realistic and inspiring, infuriating and necessary. Luckily, around that time I was also taking a course about academic life and work, which exposed me to some wonderful books about academia, some of which I’ve included in this list (I do encourage you to check out the full syllabus, however):
by Mari Castañeda and Kirsten Isgro
There are many great resources about the perils of juggling motherhood and academia out there, including the well-known and well-loved Mama PhD: Mothers Write about Motherhood and Academic Life. The reason I’ve opted to highlight Mothers in Academia specifically, is for its diversity of voices and writing styles, and because I think the collection does a great job of illustrating how race, ethnicity, age, class, sexuality and ability are intertwined into the lived experience of motherhood in academia. There are also a number of contributions by doctoral candidates that I think many will find relevant (I particularly enjoyed the chapter by Summer R. Cunningham). I should, however, mention that the collection strongly represents the humanities and social sciences as well as higher ed administration, leaving out the physical and natural sciences. If you’re in the “hard” sciences, Motherhood, the Elephant in the Laboratory: Women Scientists Speak Out is a nice (and witty) alternative, though its focus isn’t academia but science more broadly.
by C.L. Dews
Whether or not you’re from a working-class background, this is a fantastic read. It features 24 essays by faculty and graduate students from working-class families who gracefully expose the middle-class bias in academic settings. Some of the stories are deeply emotional, others more polemical, situating academic work in a socioeconomic context, but all of them share an anguish over living in two irreconcilable worlds. If you’re interested in the experiences of working-class women in particular, I also enjoyed the anthology Working-Class Women in the Academy: Laborers in the Knowledge Factory, which is organized around four themes: belonging, individual experiences, teaching and language/cultural politics. I really wish everyone in academia would read at least some of these essays, especially those of us who are very teaching-oriented and who work with diverse groups of students.
by James M. Lang
This doesn’t touch much on graduate life, but if you’re thinking about the tenure track this is a must-read. Life on the Tenure Track is a memoir of Lang’s first year as an Assistant Professor of English at Assumption College, a Catholic liberal arts college in Massachusetts. From his experience as a “newbie” at faculty meetings and bonding with new colleagues to his honest discussion of departmental politics and the frustrations of student advising, Lang really delves into the nitty-gritty of academia here. He’s an elegant writer and his prose is witty but poised, while his attitude is that of a caring mentor trying to coach you to avoid some of the confusion, frustration and pain he experienced along the way. This is by far my favorite book about the workings of academia and his advice (albeit indirect) about people management and social etiquette is both delightful and urgent.
by Chauntelle Tibbals
This one’s an odd one, perhaps. Yes, it is partly about the adult industry, but it is also about the challenges and perils of pursuing a controversial (and to some perhaps offensive) research topic. As a PhD student in sociology at the University of Texas at Austin, Chauntelle Tibbals set out to study porn, or, as she fancily puts it, "the sociocultural significance of adult entertainment as it relates to law, media, and gender," and was shunned by her advisor, her department and her colleagues as a result. Rendered invisible and marginalized as a scholar, Tibbals worked multiple jobs to fund her degree, while pursuing a full-time course load and dissertation research without any guidance (though she did eventually switch advisors), to emerge ultimately as an adult industry expert. Unlike the title suggests, Exposure does not just expose (pun intended) our society’s hypocrisy in regards to porn but also that of academia in regards to groundbreaking research. It is also a lesson in writing about one’s research free of scientific jargon (take a look at those footnotes, seriously), which is invaluable whether you’re interested in porn or not.
by Annette Lareau and Jeffrey Schultz
While not as eloquent or elegant as Clifford Geertz’s “Balinese Cockfight”, this collection is gold for the budding ethnographer and qualitative social researcher (sorry quantitative folks).
Whether you’re just getting started on your project and you’re feeling overwhelmed by the complexity of ethnography or you’re “just” interested in the discrepancy between narratives of linear progress - which have traditionally dominated ethnographic monographs - and the messy realities of fieldwork, this is book is for you. It’s a collection of real-life experiences of fieldwork, written by a number of well-known scholars (incl. Alma Gottlieb, Philip Graham, William F. Whyte and Jay MacLeod), who write about being beginners in some way. Most of them reflect on their dissertation projects and show how they learned to do research while doing it; how they struggled defining their research questions, working with uncooperative interviewees, organizing their data, managing friendships in the field etc. Sure, there are plenty of textbooks out there that address those issues but there’s something about the types of narratives that show rather than tell, which can’t be matched by dry, prescriptive research manuals.
I have not included here anthologies purely about teaching, mainly because I felt that they are more common and easier to come by, but if that’s something that interests you, you may want to check out Moments of Clarity: Anthology of Stories from Faculty Who Teach For Success. I have also avoided memoirs that span entire academic careers in an attempt to keep this post focused on graduate and early academic life, but Eagleton’s The Gatekeeper: A Memoir or Kermode’s Not Entitled: A Memoir are good places to start if you’re interested.
What are your favorite books about graduate life and work? Please share your recommendations in the comment section below!
[Image by Flickr User Kate Ter Haar and used under Creative Commons license]
Read more by
Opinions on Inside Higher Ed
Inside Higher Ed’s Blog U
What Others Are Reading