• GradHacker

    A Blog from GradHacker and MATRIX: The Center for Humane Arts, Letters and Social Sciences Online


The Grad Activist

Staying involved in what you care about, when you have very little time. 

March 24, 2017

DeWitt Scott received his doctorate in Educational Leadership from Chicago State University.  You can follow him on Twitter at @dscotthighered.



As a graduate student, it is normal to feel you have no time to do anything but read, write, study and bathe, and even that last one becomes optional from time to time. The demands of rigorous coursework, reading bundles of scholarly articles, writing and rewriting papers, and searching for future jobs can leave you with little time to focus on anything else.  Meanwhile, the world around us continues to change, develop, and evolve.  Societal leaders proceed to make decisions for which they should to be held accountable, vulnerable populations remain in need of help, and injustices continue to require attention and protest.


Even with the significant demands of our graduate school lives, some of us never lose sight of the larger issues that plague our society.  The spirit of social justice, although subjacent to our graduate work, stays with us, forcing us to think about ways to adequately to do our scholarly work and activist work at the same time.  How can we balance the requirements of both duties?  Is it even possible to do both at the same time?  What does activism as a busy graduate student look like?


Below are a few tips for busy graduate students who have a passion for activism, social justice, and public service, and who desire to balance it with their graduate school obligations.


1.   Center your focus.  Before we entered graduate school we may have had the luxury of spreading our activist energies throughout a number of causes and mediums.  Marching for women’s equality, working with prison literacy projects, volunteering at after-school programs, and coordinating water donations to Flint may have, at one time, been all in a week’s work.  Now that we have graduate classes and papers, comp exams, and dissertation writing we will be forced to make adjustments.  Streamline your activist acts by focusing on one or two areas where you believe you can provide value most efficiently.  Rather than marching in three rallies within a week, it may be best if you participate in one and send needed supplies to the other two.  Instead of leading the reading group at the after-school program every week, maybe you can send books through other participants.  Time management in graduate school is pivotal, so you will need to center your activism in order to have the greatest impact and still get your graduate work done.


2.   Find creative ways to incorporate your activism into your graduate work.  Considering all the papers, presentations, and teaching you will do in your doctoral program, there may be ways you can include your social justice lens to further an argument, substantiate a claim, or sustain your work.  Students studying economics can highlight the financial drain the nation bears as a result of the prison-industrial complex.  Education majors can research the barriers to women pursuing leadership positions in academia.   Divinity doctoral students can give presentations on the spiritual aspect of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  Finding ways to include your activism in your scholarly work can provide a newer, more refreshing approach to activism and increase your scholarly output and quality. For you the topic is much more than just another assignment, it is a potential ministry.


3.   Utilize social media.  Some people try to delegitimize what is often referred to as “hashtag activism,” but make no mistake, spreading information and supporting movements via social media has and will continue to be effective.  While you may not be able to devote as much time to being physically or mentally present in a particular cause, using your social media outlets as a vehicle to spread the word and get others involved can be valuable.  Tweet, Instagram, and share on Facebook substantive issues that you believe need to be seen and heard by others.  Using social media can be a way to initiate or further a cause in a way that does not take up a lot of time.


4.  Send positive messages to other activists.  Justice work on behalf of the vulnerable or marginalized can be extremely taxing.  One never really understands what an emotional, psychological, physical, and spiritual toll activism can have on an individual until he/she experiences it themselves.  Activists are in need of uplift, love, support, and positivity, often just to sustain their work.  Be someone who sends a short, thoughtful email, note, message, or tweet to someone immersed in resistance work.  Your uplifting words could be the inspiration that individual needs to keep going or get through a tough moment.  By helping them you may help a movement and help the world.


These are just a few ideas that activists currently swamped in graduate school life can employ to maintain both their social justice work and graduate duties at the same time.  Moving into academia does not mean that you have to give up your action for change in larger society.  There are plenty of scholars in academia who move through both worlds efficiently and effectively.  You too can do the same with a bit of creativity and thoughtfulness.


What are some other ways to balance academic work and activism?  How can we create more spaces for the convergence of these two worlds?

[Image provided by Google Images user Blue Diamond Gallery and used under  a Creative Commons license]


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