A Field in Which the Old Devours the Young is a Field that is Dying: A Post about Graduate Student Empowerment


If you missed it, please read "Why I left Academia: Part I" first, followed by Parts II and Parts III in order to understand the context of this post. 

When I was in graduate school during course work, a fellow grad student told me this anecdote: Just as their seminar had finished up, and the 10 or so students were mulling around and packing their things, the professor, who was nearing retirement, turned to them and said: you have no idea how much the faculty is afraid of you graduate students.

Intimidated by our enthusiasm, our youth, and our ideas. The paradox of advising is that they are essentially training their replacements, who, most likely, will over-turn and repudiate much of what they have spent their entire career building. I’m talking about ideas here. I’m also talking about methodologies, epistemologies, and pedagogies.

This has never been truer than it is now—facing increasing pressure from the administration to produce, to address a more global and racially diverse student body, and to educate them, the old guard is overwhelmed. The calls coming from postcolonial studies and gender studies articulate a radical paradigm shift within academia. This paradigm shift necessarily entails an entirely new epistemology that is, in many ways, completely foreign to our incredibly smart and hard-working professors.

This is terrifying (for them).

Graduate students and recent PhDs are the future-- you are hungry, you are competitive, and above all, your ideas represent the new frontier. Is it really any wonder then that many advisors and professors are eager to eat their young? To appropriate our work and then to ensure that we do not succeed?

A field in which the old devours the young is a field that is dying.

Here is what I have learned this week as your comments have flooded every social media platform I am on as well as my inbox: the lifting of graduate student ideas from professors is the norm. Before I posted my experience, I suspected this was true. We have all heard rumors of such, whispered in hallways, during frank conversations with professors, and over drinks. Professors misappropriating graduate student work is academia’s equivalent of camp fire ghost stories: everyone has one, or has heard one.

Numerous tenured professors, some of whom are well-established in their careers with incredible respect and multiple books, reached out to me over the past four days to tell me that the same thing happened to them during their graduate studies. Every single one of them still expressed fear of that information getting out, of their advisors finding out. Even though, for several of them, their advisors retired long ago. This, for me, speaks to the omnipresent fear that works to maintain the status-quo.

But not all of their stories are as horrific as mine: in many cases their professors gave them credit in a footnote, saving their sanity and their career. In others, they fought back, continued publishing and eventually landed their own tenure track jobs. No one ever reported it.

I have heard from many graduate students and recent PhDs, both inside academia as well as from those who have left. They have told me they either went through something similar, or experienced abuse from their professors and advisors in a different way.  Many of these people are traumatized, paralyzed, and have no idea what to do.

When I first discovered what was happening to me, I scoured the internet for anything. I found one small article in which the PhD who reported it was quoted as saying their legal battle had not been worth it, and they ultimately wished they had not reported it. I also found one anonymous blog post, with an anonymous email mentioned at the bottom. I emailed this person, described my situation, and said that I had read their similar account, and that I had no idea what to do. This person told me that it would be in no way worth it to report it. They told me everything that “Wrong Dean” had told me: it would ruin my career, I would not get the outcome I desired, and I, most likely, would be steamrolled by the bureaucratic machine of higher education. I’m telling you this because they were right. I absolutely did.

But that is precisely why I decided to tell my story, this should not be happening. I urge you, if you are a current graduate student, look up, on your school’s website, the handbook of faculty responsibilities in general, and the handbook of faculty responsibilities towards graduate students. In my school’s case, it clearly states that professors should wait no longer than one week to give feedback on a student’s submitted work. When I informed Dr. Hortense of this, they were not even aware that this was written.

That’s part of the problem: everyone has their head in the sand, and does not even know what their responsibilities are, or, in the case of graduate students, what they are owed by their professors and advisors. My school’s handbook also clearly stated that it was the advisor’s responsibility towards their advisees to assist them with publishing opportunities, internships, and other professional networking opportunities.

Know your rights. Know what you are owed. I say this because you are powerful: you are the future of academia, and much like the millennials inheriting the mess of our parent’s generation, you are inheriting a mess. But you are also inheriting the power, ability, and responsibility to change things. I also say this because if professors knew your power, and knew that you were willing to speak out, there would be a de-facto system of checks and balances. No one wants to be Dr. Mao or Dr. Hortense.

I wanted to get this post out here immediately so that if you are reading this and went through a graduate student trauma: know you are not alone. You have rights. You have recourse. Your story does not and should not be mine.  What I have discovered is that this is no longer about me and my story. In many ways, it was never about my experience. This has immediately become something bigger than me, and something much more important.

Send me your stories, send me feedback, if you are afraid, make up an email address that is anonymous and contact me through my website. I am listening. And I am dedicated to moving this conversation forward.

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