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The Importance of Female Friendship in Graduate School

In praise of some of the most meaningful relationships you'll forge during the Ph.D.

February 12, 2017
 
 

Heather VanMouwerik is a Ph.D candidate in Russian History at the University of California, Riverside. You can follow her on Twitter or check out her website.

 

 

I cannot remember the context, but sometime in high school, when I was sixteen, living in the suburbs, and hopelessly devoted (obsessed?) with the latest music, I was asked whether I prefer male or female singers. As I was answering--something about how men sang more interesting songs--it dawned on me: I was full of shit! How many female-led bands had I actually heard? When was the last time a radio station had played a song from an all-female band? How many songs by women could I name that were not about men or love? Until I could answer these questions, until I sought out bands that featured women prominently and changed to radio stations that were more inclusive, until I could understand the ridiculousness and the misogyny of the original question, I could not truly love female singers or female-led bands.

 

Being into female singers in the late nineties required work. I had to switch radio stations, go to random concerts, make different friends, and talk often to music shop employees. Nowadays I can more articulately explain the reasons behind the gender inequity in the music industry. But the fact remains that in order to fully appreciate the variety and mind-blowing badassness of women in music, you have to put in the leg work and seek them out.

 

Just like working for your music, in graduate school female friends are not necessarily easy to make or maintain, especially if you are a women in a male-dominated department. Towards the beginning of my second year as a history student in a Ph.D. program, I was overwhelmed, stressed out, lonely, and flailing about for focus and a purpose. I had a couple of great male friends, one of whom I am marrying later this year, but, since most of my professors and classmates were men, I often felt as though my problems were not all that important. And sharing these feelings just wasn’t a normal part of the history department’s culture.

 

Then I started teaching. For the first time, I shared an office with a group of amazing women and TA-ed alongside women who were further along in the program. Throughout the last five years, I have relied on them for validation, strength, and inspiration. It took a while for me to appreciate exactly what their friendships meant, but I know now that I would not have made it this far without them.

 

In general there are a lot of barriers to female friendship in graduate school yet the experience of graduate school is often very gendered. Women in graduate school, for example, are more likely to suffer from paralyzing impostor syndrome, and they are less likely to have same-gender advisors, mentors, and committee members as their male peers. In addition, their course evaluations are unfairly biased, and they are often required to “donate” more time to departmental service. I have had male students try to physically intimidate me into giving them better grades; I have been mansplained repeatedly in class. All of these challenges are difficult to deal with on a daily basis and impossible to do alone.

 

Female friendship, besides being uplifting in its own right, is one way to combat these gendered aspects of graduate school. It creates a community of support, albeit a small one, which helps women navigate the potential pitfalls and celebrate the many successes of graduate school. Although this post was written from my perspective as a straight woman, I believe that everyone benefits when they seek out platonic female friendship, normalizing the presence of women in academia and calling attention to its value.

 

In honor of the holiday, here is a Valentine's Day typography for all of the women whose love and friendship helped me through graduate school and who have made me a better woman and scholar.

 

Close Friends in the Department. Your friends in the department have the potential to turn into the most important friendships you will ever have. They know, for example, exactly what it is like to be an academic woman in your field. So, when you come up against a professional or personal barrier, especially when that barrier involves sexism, someone in your department, or both, they have either been there or know someone who has. I am lucky to have studied alongside two sharp, brilliant, kind, and generous women who I now call my friends. The first I met on the first day of class. As the only two female European-focused graduate students in our cohort, we took almost every class together for two years. We helped each other through the tough courses and laughed our way through the easy ones. We also cried together over negative feedback and partied together over our successes. I know I would have never made it through my master’s defense without her. The second friend I had known for a while, but, since she was a year ahead of me, we didn’t become friends until we started TA-ing together. She was generous with her teaching advice, she let me borrow her reading list when I needed one for a field exam, and she helped me prepare for my first plagiarism-related student conference. I know I can ask her for anything, and she will always be there to help me out.

 

Close Friends NOT in the Department. Although it is great to commiserate over shared experiences and help each other bear the workload, it is equally important to cultivate female friendships outside of your department. During my second year, I happened to take a class with a woman who, though like me was studying Russian theater, was in the dance department. Not only do we talk about our mutual academic interests, we also go to the ballet together, run through different approaches to take with our advisors, pass along grant applications, and complain about Russian bureaucracy, all while maintaining a distance from each other’s department. She inspires me by challenging my resolutely historical approach to academia, and I challenge her right back.

 

A Departmental Mentor. Peer-to-peer friendships are important, because they foster camaraderie and fight isolation. However, there are also benefits to friendships that transcend the hierarchy of graduate school. In particular, I recommend seeking out a female mentor who is a tenured or tenure-track professor in your department. Not only do these friendships allow you to see the department from a different perspective, female mentors can be great models for academic life and allies within the department. My mentor and I bonded over a mutual love of pedagogy and fascination with technology. Not only have we attended conferences together, we get coffee to check-in during the interims. I sometimes borrow her office when I need some quiet writing time. More importantly, she challenges me. When, for example, I was ignoring my research because I was taking on too many departmental service obligations, she called me out on it. Plus, I love geeking out with her about traveling, phone apps, and Zombies.

 

A Departmental Mentee. My role as a mentor to an aspiring archivist and historian was the last piece to fit into my female-friendship puzzle. An undergraduate, she shared an office with me in the library, and we would spend the many boring hours processing a collection talking about anything and everything that we could. She asked for advice on graduate school, possible careers in history, internships, and writing strategies for history papers. We discussed the good and the bad aspects of certain profs, and I would take a look at her fellowship applications. In addition, we would talk through her research projects and geek out on history together. Not only did I love seeing her evolve into an impressive scholar in her own right, I really liked being able to help her. Her success has made me so proud and given me a better understanding of my own talents and knowledge.

 

Galentines—or, a Community of Women. A few years ago, some women in our department, inspired by the estimable Leslie Knope, started a yearly women-only Valentine’s Day party, which celebrated a sort of girliness that is often derided in the field of history. Getting together like this, over the course of just a couple of years, facilitated a sense of camaraderie and reinforced the idea that we are all in this together. In addition to seeking out the women in your department, I also recommend seeking out women’s groups in your field’s professional organizations. If your field is relatively large, then there is most likely a professional organization totally dedicated to connecting and promoting women therein. However, even if your field is small, most of the larger organizations have smaller subgroups dedicated to women.

 

So, this year, I dedicate Valentine’s Day to Jennifer, Leanna, Juliette, Celeste, Lee, and all the ladies in the English and history departments at UCR! Thank you for all you have done, and I love each one of you so very much!

 

Have you benefited from a female friendship? Write them a Valentine’s Day note in our comments section!

 

[Image from Flickr user Amy Gizienski and used under the Creative Commons Licence.]

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