I recently had my first experience as an external examiner for a PhD candidate. I entered the process toward the end, got to engage with original research before anyone else, and supported someone’s journey into this quirky world of academia. I loved it. But then I’m also the person who likes every tweet from every rando who is a newly-minted PhD. I gush when so-and-so from random place in random state announces that she left the room, and when she came back in they called her Doctor! Virtual high-fives abound and we all rejoice because: you go girl. However, as these wide-eyed scholars enter the world of academia, I’d like to provide some “soft” advice for negotiating the edgier side of academia.
Who will be your people?
What is the single best part about working at a university? The people (side note: it’s also the worst part, but we’re still upbeat in this paragraph). The ideas, the perspectives, all the stories — they come from people. For your post doctoral defence, you may want to seek out those who you admire for skill and brilliance, and whose shiny names will rub off alongside yours on publications and grant applications. But when you are among the stars, don’t forget about the heart. Shiny names may get you somewhere, but shiny people will get you through. Sometimes people are both (lucky you!) but sometimes you will trade wellness and sanity for a fleeting moment of prestige.
My stars are always the people who lift others up. Many of them are absolutely unseen despite championing others. I haven’t been in this game as long as many, but I’ve been here long enough to see arrogance and ego hurt fine people, many on the margins. Name your margin, and you will see pain emerging from the system, not the margin. Despite the ugliness, there are people who hustle for goodness and truth and justice, rather than power or privilege. Find these people. You may have to look around, or down, to find them. They will be the ones listening, recognizing, and being authentic. They will not be the ones mobbing or silencing (psst… straight up red flags). Don’t underestimate the power of good, kind people. You will need them one day, more than you will need people who can name drop obscure scholars from obscure fields. And if you’re really a Type A overachiever, may I suggest adding “be this person” to your already robust to-do list.
Your values, your boundaries, your hustle
We all hustle. And if you’re on the margins, you will have to hustle more than those fed on a solid diet of privilege and entitlement. But right away, spend some time deciding just how much you are going to hustle, and what you will give up to do it. Geography? Family? Your sanity? This is an endless pit of endless work, much of which can feel unseen. If you have talent, good ideas, and work ethic, you can always do more. If you have imposter syndrome and don’t feel like you measure up, you can always do more. And when you’re both? Well then, you will find yourself on an exhausting hamster wheel where your only treat is a wilted piece of nondescript greenery or a good poop. You had better love that wheel.
As you go along hustling, remind yourself that the rest of your life is carrying on or perhaps even passing you by. There may be babies who turn into high schoolers, parents who die, partners who get sick, roofs that cave in. It’s a precarious balance, with many teetering on the brink of burn out. No amount of HR-sponsored yoga sessions will help you (but bless their hearts for trying). When the roof caves in, where will you be? In the rubble, struggling to see your way out? Or safely in your bunker, counting your insurance money with a cigar and some brandy?
It’s a trick question; always pick the cigar and brandy. To build your bunker, you must define and continually refine your boundaries. You will have to say no sometimes. And it will have to be okay (trust me, it will be okay). To do this, you will need to know yourself deeply, who you are and what are your values. Because if you don’t know who you are or what you value, the system will dictate it to you. And this spells D-O-O-M. Because the system is a little bit broken. Know what you are (and are not) willing to do, and what you are (and are not) willing to put up with, and as much as possible live by that. Honour those values when the system hits hard, and I’ll bring the cigars.
And when they silence you
Because they will. Sometimes it will be subtle, showing up as microaggressions or low-grade hostility. Other times, the silencing will be loud. It may even be violent, gendered, racist. Enabled by various measures of supremacy. In here, some get to feel big by making you feel small. And when it happens, it will hurt. So how will you get through?
Unless they grab your ass, insult your race, colour, religion, or family, or they hate on you so deeply that you have no choice but to fight, be careful here. The world tells us to stand up to ugly people, but we must lift up the curtain and peek backstage at our vulnerability and the caution needed. Some people are dangerous, and in here they often have the weight of power, privilege and hierarchy on their side. You may not. Believe that it can get worse. Seeking respect and fairness may be grossly unsatisfying and ineffectual. Spoiler alert: academia is not always that woke. I’m not saying give up. Never give up. But rather pace yourself.
What you must do is stand up every time they knock you down. Don’t bow your head. Or slink away. Or think for one second any of this is a reflection of who you are or are not. It is only ever a reflection of who they are: scared, threatened and insecure. Don’t be those things. Be all the good, strong things. Be all those things that got you into this mess. You must, despite what they throw at you, carry on being awesome. Determine early on, with a sort of resolve that you may have to fake at first, that you are absolutely worthy and so is your work even if they can’t handle you. With those steely nerves (again, you may have to fake this a little) decide that if they knock you down, you will absolutely get back up. Even if just to annoy them. Trust me, it will annoy them. You may not find peace by confronting ugly people. But you may find peace by transcending them. And you may need this peace while you work alongside your labour union and your human rights office to ensure that you are safe in here.
Remember when they called you Doctor
Finally, don’t forget how it felt that day when they first called you Doctor. The virtual high fives. The phone calls to friends and relatives. That day, you were enough. You were successful. You belonged. Let that be a part of your everyday. Bottle it up and put it on a shelf and take it down on every difficult day that unfolds before you. And when you shrink a little, amid the ugliness, shifting like a shadow among the stacks, remember your people and your brandy stash. Take a swig, carry on, be strong. We need people like you. And we need you in here. That’s why we called you Doctor.
Kathleen Bortolin is a curriculum, teaching and learning specialist in the Centre for Innovation and Excellence in Learning at Vancouver Island University.