Defining Your Academic Career On Your Own Terms

Note: this blog post was originally published on our career advice column on Inside Higher Ed. Sophia Sen (a pseudonym) is a type I diabetic. She is also a woman of color in a doctoral program in the social sciences.


“Externalities And External Validation”

At the end of my first year in graduate school, I had worked myself into the ground and become dangerously sick. Between proctoring an exam and giving an end-of-the-semester presentation, I cried in a study room in our department and then on the floor of a bathroom because I felt terrible.

I thought I felt sick because of how stressed the program was making me and not because my insulin pump was malfunctioning. Sometimes when my blood sugar is too low or too high for too long, I reach a mental status in which I can no longer recognize that my diabetes is making me sick. I did not realize that I should have gone to the hospital. I threw up on the bus home and had to call a nurse for emergency care.

After that scare, I decided that if I had to have external recognition to feel good about myself in this doctoral program, then I should leave. But, if I were to stay, I had to do it on my own terms. Making this decision into a practical reality is a daily struggle that I continue to fight.

Growing up, my father never let me forget that I was worthless, incompetent and stupid. Maybe in a world that did not support his claims about women, money and power, I might have found the strength to believe in my inherent worth. As a girl, I was already a disappointment. As a girl with diabetes, I was assuredly a failure. I had to prove to everyone, especially my father and the rest of my family, that not only did I deserve to exist, but that I was valuable. As long as I could ignore the violence at home, I would be accepted at my expensive prep school. As long as I could win awards at school, I would be accepted at home. Yet, conditional acceptance, like the model minority myth, assumes that you are always at risk of screwing up, or that something is wrong with you before you even started.

For those of us who have a choice, how do we choose our careers? Most of the interactions that I have had in the academy feel like secondary victimization. If I came to the program with some self-esteem, perhaps I would have risen to the challenge of critical training between graduate students and professors. However, self-esteem and body integrity are stratified privileges. The ability to take risks and never question the security of your being is taken for granted by some and a rarity for others. I was not prepared for people with power and authority to train, or rather as Michel Foucault might say, discipline me into the social sciences by telling me that my ideas were not good enough. I did not know that there could be a distinction between mental productivity and self-worth.

People look down on “me-search,” but as Patricia Hill Collins has argued in Black Feminist Thought, research that is personally and practically important to me and the communities with which I work should not be undermined by external elitist demands for greater theoretical import. The usual silences and gaps exist for a structural reason. The population I am studying almost never shows up on syllabi or in statistics, and I could list a plethora of experiences that Derald Wing Sue would code as microaggressions, honest mistakes or both. The gray area between microaggression and mistake remains an undeniable externality of the world we live in; the marginality of that correlation results in systematic harms that keep me up at night and determine my career trajectory.

I question myself every day as I reconcile with a workplace that is toxic for me and glorifies some of the worst lessons of my childhood. All I can think about and feel in my body — as my eyes fill with tears — is how I do not fit in. More important, I do not want to fit in. I am not radical enough to look down on other people because they have privilege or because they lack or do not engage in certain kinds of knowledge. I have not figured out how to convince myself that I am smart enough to be here or smarter than other people, in general. When my father treated me badly, I thought that I needed to be like him so that I would not be a victim. When my program treated me badly, I thought that if I became like the people who had power, then I would not be a victim.

Yet if you do enough internal work, at some point you realize that you need to be the person you want to be no matter what the circumstances. Because if you aren’t the victim you just might be the perpetrator, and the problem with being the perpetrator is that you are also hurting yourself.

Some people may think that disciplines that study inequality and injustice are somehow better at addressing these social problems. Yet, these disciplines are born from an unequal, unjust, racist, sexist, homophobic, all-kinds-of-messed-up world — a world with a history that does not account for externalities in its assumptions of meritocratic competition and productivity. If we listen to what this capitalist and neoliberal society tells us, anyone carrying anything that is not normative — like marital transitions, family problems, health issues, dependents or discrimination — is made to see these parts of their lives as burdens. These externalities are not burdens; they are the consistency of contemporary human life. When I listen to the internal voice that recognizes truth in these externalities and speaks back to external judgment, these externalities become the core strength and motivation for my life and its work.

My advice to graduate students who feel cumulative disadvantage weighing upon you from previous trauma, illness, poverty, discrimination and anything else that has taught you that you are only as valuable as your publications or your eloquence in academic discussions: create the opportunities and a career that you want — and on your own terms. The late activist Grace Lee Boggs said that individual struggle against institutions is not sufficient for a revolution to happen. Rather, revolutions happen when individuals struggle to transform themselves from within into more human humans.

I look to the countless other women of color who have struggled but managed to carve their niche in the system on their own terms. And, in that struggle, they have made a path for others. If you do not like the way people treat each other in your department, be the person you wish your department had.