Dr. Angie L. Miller is an Assistant Research Scientist for the Center for Postsecondary Research at Indiana University, where she studies creativity, student engagement, and arts training in higher education. In this guest post, Dr. Miller reflects on her experiences of being mistaken for a graduate student at academic conferences, and the social, intellectual, and gendered power undertones of these interactions.
I would like to be able to attend just ONE conference and not be mistaken for a graduate student. I completed my Ph.D. 6 years ago. At first when people did this, I wasn’t all that bothered by it. I realize that I do look young. I went right from undergrad to my master’s program, and then right into my doctoral program. I took more than full course loads every semester, and was able to finish before I turned 27. Coupled with the blessing (and curse?) of having no grey hair and also skin that break outs like a teenager’s, many people assume that I am much younger than 32. Although this is not just limited to professional situations (given the countless times I have been carded in bars and restaurants), it is usually where it is the most disconcerting. I’ve been addressed in meetings as a “girl” and been questioned about my dissertation progress during interactions with grant funders.
Because I am fortunate enough to have a research faculty appointment in a well-funded research center at a large university, I present at more conferences than most faculty with more traditional teaching positions. Usually averaging between 4 and 6 per year, I have had ample opportunity to do the “networking” dance of academic conferences. It never fails that at some point during the conference, someone I don’t know will assume that I am a graduate student. People will ask “So what doc program are you in?” or “Who is your advisor?” or “Have you finished your coursework yet?” or “What is the topic of your dissertation?” And then I am faced with the task of correcting them, which in such a forced and awkward social situation usually ends up being an apology on my part for looking so young.
At a recent conference during one of the various university-sponsored receptions, while standing in line for the cash bar a man (who couldn’t have been more than 15 years older than I am) politely said hello, looked at the name and institution on my badge, and said “So you’re a grad student at IU? What program?” From there I began my standard “Actually, I have a faculty position…” explanation. Having the first thing I say to someone come out as a correction, pointing out that he/she is wrong about something, is never ideal.
I have tried several different things, little social experiments with an n of 1, to see whether there is some specific aspect of my appearance that is sending off a “grad student” vibe. I’ve tried wearing my long hair up or pulled back. I’ve tried wearing minimal makeup, and I’ve tried wearing more deliberate eye and lip colors. Skirts and dresses and pants, heels and flats – all at varying levels of “dressiness.” Nothing that I can control seems to make a difference. Perhaps I need to start dyeing my hair grey or drawing wrinkles and age spots onto my face.
When I complain about this, that I find it condescending (or at the very least annoying simply because it happens with such frequency), some people tell me that I should take it as a compliment. I should be elated that I still look young, and that I can pass for a woman in her mid-20s. But the rationale behind telling me to take it as a compliment suggests that as a female, I should value a youthful appearance over everything else, including any of my intellectual accomplishments. I take major issue with that. I worked very hard to complete my degrees and garner all of my publications and presentations since, whereas I did absolutely nothing outside of regular sunscreen use to achieve a young physical appearance. Call me crazy, but I take more pride in the things for which I have actually had to work. So, no, mistaking me for a graduate student is NOT actually a compliment.
Getting To The Root Of It
I’ve given this quite a bit of thought recently, as it continues to regularly occur even as I begin the process of going up for promotion. I sometimes wonder if I am bothered so much by this because I come from a place of privilege in so many other aspects of my life and don’t really have a strategy for dealing with this sort of thing. And this, in turn, makes me feel kind of bratty and obnoxious for caring about it so much in the first place. As a white middle-class heterosexual cisgender woman with well-educated parents, there are a lot of privileges to which I have access, and from which I have certainly benefitted over the course of my life. I am fully aware that if I were a person of color, or in a male-dominated STEM field rather than education, I would probably face many more challenges in my career. But I still think that gender does, at least in part, play a role. In comparing notes with my other coworkers who are approximately the same age, it happens rarely, if at all, to my male colleagues. Conversely, it is a much more frequent occurrence for my female colleagues, one of whom I often travel and present with, thus having witnessed it firsthand. There never seems to be a good way to respond. Is not addressing the microaggression equivalent to tacit acceptance of it?
The assumption that age is equivalent to experience and seniority (also conditional on gender) is not limited to academia. However, considering the varied career trajectories of many who end up with advanced degrees and continue to work in higher education, it makes even less sense. Many people (of any gender) begin work on their Ph.Ds. in their 30’s, 40’s or even 50’s, so simply being older should not necessarily mean that a person is more established. Perhaps the exemplar of the middle-aged woman “going back” for a graduate degree after she has gotten married and had children plays a role in the development of these assumptions of age, gender, and expertise as well.
But regardless of its origins, the bottom line is when you make the assumption that I’m a graduate student, you undermine my intellectual authority. When I actually WAS a graduate student, I never experienced any sort of imposter syndrome. I knew that I was smart and capable and motivated to succeed, and I never questioned whether I deserved my place in the program. It wasn’t until after I finished my Ph.D. that I began to feel diminished and out of place in academia. When you assume that I am a graduate student, especially if you are a white middle-aged man, you implicitly send the message that you are superior to me in accomplishments and intellect, that you are the more valuable asset to the field. In one single sentence of one single interaction, you take away everything I have worked so hard to accomplish. Not just my Ph.D., but also the 14 peer-reviewed publications and nearly 70 conference presentations, workshops, and webinars I have completed since finishing my doctoral degree.
So please, stop.