In my last piece, I shared that I had started sorting and distributing the mail in the absence of a program admin. I am no longer distributing the mail because, holy hell, I thought seven years had prepared me for how to navigate academic egos, but I was wrong. That, however, is a story for another time.
Even so, my brief stint as back-up mail delivery person got me thinking about the differences between myself as a MA student and a PhD candidate. If you follow this blog you know that one of my goals as a professor is to work with working-class and first-generation students.
One thing I hope to work with my advisees on is abolishing the myth of the academy as a meritocracy and an internalized boot-strap myth. These are things that, even now, near the end of my PhD, I have to consistently and conscientiously work against in myself.
During my MA I was *all-in* on the idea that the academy was a meritocracy. After all, working hard had gotten me into an MA program in one of the top 100 universities in the world which was a pretty impressive place for a girl from a trailer park to wind up. I frequently worked twelve hour days at least six days a week. I thought that if I excelled in my course work I would be a shoe-in to transition to the PhD program. I skipped almost all program events in lieu of working on research or teaching. Did I get excellent teaching reviews? Yes. Did I turn in some pretty good papers? Sure. Did I get into that PhD program? Hell no.
It wasn’t until I was rejected from the program that several people finally bothered to clue me into the fact that my time would have been better spent going to those events because people needed to see *me* and not my work if they were going to consider me for the PhD program.
When I got into a PhD program at another school I drastically overcorrected. I still did 12 hour days but I spent my time going to every event that came through my inbox and signing up to serve on any committee that would have me. I was determined to not miss out on any opportunities because people couldn’t put a face to my work.
Can you guess what happened? I mean, other than exhaustion, which definitely happened.
Let me put it this way, I was recently marveling at how fast some people I know have moved through their PhD programs when I realized all of the people that seemed to move at warp speed had one thing in common: they didn’t serve on committees. ever.
At this point, you might be asking yourself what any of this has to do with the mail?
Well, before I started my brief career as program mail courier, I asked myself three questions:
- Why was I delivering the mail?
- How long was I willing to do this?
- What was my plan for disengaging when that time period was up?
I realized that I was delivering the mail to make the life of the campus mail staff easier for the summer and would abdicate duties to faculty when the summer was over. For me, this was a breakthrough moment. I realized for the first time that I was doing service because it was related to my personal interests (making sure the hourly workers don’t get screwed) and not because of some vague, internalized idea that if I’m useful and work hard then the institution will keep me around.
This is one of the things I most want my first-gen advisees to know: service should serve you. Don’t skip all aervice but make sure that service aligns with your goals and always have an exit plan for when service becomes a barrier to your work.
P.S.: Let us take a collective moment of silence to honor my future advisees who will have to sit through my verbal rambling all to get to my one sentence point at the end.