Reflections On Failure In Academia

eric-anthony-grollmanNote: I recently contributed to Dr. Veronika Cheplygina‘s blog series, “How I Fail,” to offer my own reflections on failure in academia.  See the original blog post here.  And, be sure to check out Dr. Cheplygina’s earlier writing on failure in the academy (here and here).

How I Fail

Veronika Cheplygina [VC]: Thanks for joining the How I Fail series! Please introduce yourself and if you already have any “failure statistics” you would like to share.

Eric Anthony Grollman [EAG]: I am an Assistant Professor at the University of Richmond in Virginia. I am a scholar, broadly defined, placing importance on research, teaching, and service, as well as the connections among these domains of the academy.

I am currently on a yearlong research leave following a successful mid-course review. While remaining productive, submitting 4 papers to journals, I felt set back by the rejection of every manuscript by 1 if not 2 journals. Rejection after rejection set the stage for me to feel as though I was failing all around, and that I would have nothing to show for a year’s leave.

Though so much rejection at once is new for me, I am no stranger to journal rejections. One article was rejected five times before receiving a favorable revise and resubmit decisions from the journal in which it is now published. One of my forthcoming articles was previously rejected after an R&R at one journal, and desk-rejected from two other journals. I’d say I have an equal number of articles that were published in the first journals to which I sent them and that were rejected from multiple journals before they were finally accepted. Overall, it still feels like a crapshoot, not knowing whether a manuscript fits in an article, will be liked by reviewers, will pique the interest of the editor, will overlap too much with a recently accepted piece or fill a gap in the journal, and so forth.

VC: Do you keep track of your failures (rejected papers, grants, job applications…)? Why/why not?

EAG: I’m no different than the average academic here, at least until recently. That is, I try to avoid dwelling on my failures – because they feel exactly like that, rather than minor setbacks or growing pains or lessons in living. It’s much easier to see how failure fits into the larger narrative in hindsight. I do believe I differ from others, however, in intentionally celebrating my successes. Specifically, at each year’s end, I make a list of all that I have accomplished in both the personal and professional domains. For, just as I tend to numb myself to by losses, I also tend to overlook or downplay my wins. So, this end-of-year reflection helps to remind myself that I accomplish quite a bit – and probably can stand to recognize that more so I stop pursuing project after project and service opportunity after service opportunity to prove to myself that I am worthy.

This past year’s end, I experimented with reflecting on failures alongside my successes. I even shared it publicly, though I acknowledge I was more generous with my wins that my losses. (I’m only human, and an imperfect one at that.) I doubt this will occur outside of new year’s resolution and old year’s reflection activities, as reflecting on how I’ve failed isn’t something I’d like to do often. But, there is an overall sense of growth, overcoming, and hope that comes from directly engaging with lessons I’ve had to learn by screwing up.

VC: What do you think about sharing failures online? Are there disadvantages for researchers who do it?

EAG: I appreciate the failure-CV idea – it’s a rather brave and noble act. It helps to normalize failure in academia. The reality is rejection is the norm. If a journal touts a 8% acceptance rate, that means the overwhelming majority of papers will be rejected immediately, after the first review, or even after subsequent reviews. Grants, jobs, positions, and other milestones in academia likely carry similar odds of success. Being the best, beating out your competitors, is a bizarre feature of our profession. So, sharing those wounds publicly is pretty courageous.

But… I think it’s cute when privileged folks do something to prove a point, but ignore that the stakes are much higher and the rewards are much lower for those who are disadvantaged. I actually never read the failure-CV that went viral because I (correctly) assumed its author was a white man, probably senior level faculty at an ivy league school. (Well, apparently he’s an assistant professor, but even a tenure-track position is a pretty cushy gig considering the majority of PhDs are in exploited contingent faculty positions.) After it was first published, I began seeing critiques of his efforts as nothing more than an exercise of privilege, or that he’d only be able to get away with airing his failures because he was incredibly successful. So, that confirmed that I didn’t need to bother reading it. And, I didn’t until recently.

I have a reputation for being outspoken and sharing potentially professionally damaging information online. But, I would probably never make a concise list of all of the ways in which I have failed in my career. In a year, I will be applying for tenure; as an assistant professor, I do not want to make it easier for my colleagues to pinpoint my failures. Academics are hypercritical people; while airing my failures would be a noble act, it opens me up to be further judged and criticized. “Oh, they only published that in that journal because it was rejected from four other journals.” “Wow, they applied for that three times before they got it? I got it on the first try.” I suffer from playing the same comparison game. So, as someone who currently lacks job security, and is additionally vulnerable by virtue of being Black, queer, and outspoken, I’d rather not play with fire (or failure) anymore than I need to. Sharing my failures won’t help me professionally (and actually could hurt me) and it does nothing to liberate fellow marginalized people.

VC: What do you do when you receive a rejection? Do you have some process/ritual of dealing with failure? Has this process changed throughout your career?

EAG: When I receive rejections from journals, I read the reviews immediately. I curse the reviewers for being idiots, for not realizing I couldn’t do the things they wanted to see in the paper. I curse the editor(s) for not giving the paper a second chance with a perhaps harsh R&R. I make an impulsive plan to submit the paper elsewhere without changing a thing, because those reviewers didn’t know what they were talking about. Then, I put the reviews away for at least a week, or perhaps more if I was in the middle of working on another manuscript. Rejection stings, but over time I have come to see them as just part of the long process of peer-review and publishing. While it is never my plan to get rejected, reviewers typically offer advice that will increase the likelihood of success at the next journal. It still frustrates me that over half of the comments are useless (anger may be exaggerating my estimate here…), but I recognize that the reviewers have identified one or more fatal flaws – at least for publishing in that journal. And even that sentiment – it’s just a rejection from this journal – reflects an evolving, more balanced reaction to failure; often they have nothing to do with the content or quality of my paper and, instead, may be any number of other factors that I cannot control.

VC: What about when you receive good news? Who do you share the news with, do you have some rewards for yourself?

EAG: Good news is immediately shared online, with my partner, and with anyone who supported me in achieving that win. Successful outcomes require a lot of work and patience, so they indeed warrant celebration when they happen. And, then I update my CV – personal copy, on my website, and on And, I stare at the new line on my vita for a minute or two to let it sink in. Then, the critical voice in my head gets louder and I go on to do something else.

VC: Can you share some examples of failures which hurt the most, and why that was?

EAG: As I reflect, no specific rejection comes to mind as particularly hurtful. Some have temporarily made me mad because they felt unfair, and rejection closes the line of communication so I am unable to defend or explain myself. But, I just improve what I can and submit elsewhere. One journal’s rejection is another journal’s acceptance.

But, thinking of failure on a broader sense, not simply as concrete outcomes, failing myself by not being authentic has hurt the most. In getting swept up in the elitist, competitive, impact-factor-obsessed game of academia, I am embarrassed to admit that I have made many decisions to excel that went against my sense of self, my identities, my politics, my values, and my goals as a scholar-activist. I have failed myself (and my communities) by conforming or “souling out” because the normative or mainstream path in academia demands it. This has left me doubting every decision that I have made (like working at a liberal arts college) and feeling disconnected from my work. I am making strides toward getting back on the path of authenticity in my career, but only after years of struggling and distress. Conforming was the worst thing I’ve done in my career.

VC: Can you think of something you accomplished that felt like a success, but you wouldn’t normally add to a CV?

EAG: Breaking ties with my grad school mentors was a hard, yet inevitable step in pursuing a self-defined career as a scholar-activist. I was literally traumatized by my graduate training. The constant microaggressions, efforts to “beat the activist out” of me, and the questioning of my career choices left me weepy and filled with doubt in my first year on the tenure-track. I had to suck the poison out of my life in order to define this new chapter of my life for myself. This was a huge success for me; but, of course, I’d never list “broke up with my grad school advisors” on my CV!

VC: Is there something we can all do to improve how failure affects others in academia?

EAG: Given that failure is as common, if not more so, in academia, it should be normalized. A positive first step would be to openly share the ways in which we fail, and not only when we are successful enough to “compensate” for those failures or when we are privileged enough to weather the risks of such vulnerability. Rather than regularly celebrating our long lists of achievements, we could talk about our careers as journeys with wins and losses. We only fuel perfectionism-induced anxiety in others when we introduce invited speakers by reading an obnoxiously long bio that is just their CV disguised as prose. (Though, I’m sure that is the point.) Sharing failures tells others how you overcame them and finally became successful; failures are a part of the story of success. It is much more inspiring, in my opinion, to hear how you got knocked down over and over but kept getting back up. I can learn something from the person who had to cope with and overcome failure, not much from those who (supposedly) succeeded on the first try.

But, we can’t ask academics to become vulnerable if the risks of doing so remain high. We can’t ask others to share how they screwed up if we’re only going to judge them and, worse, allow those judgments to influence formal evaluations of them. I suppose one way to change the hypercritical, competitive, judgmental climate would be to celebrate scholars’ journeys rather than just their wins. Maybe we could celebrate that it took 5 years to publish an article because it kept getting desk-rejected and not just the impact factor of the journal in which it is published. Or, celebrate the personal backstory of an article, like persevering despite a neglectful, abusive former co-author, and not just that it was published and will be widely cited. What I’m suggesting here is a fundamental shift from celebrating our journeys, perhaps in a qualitative sense, and not just quantifying success, contribution, and impact. Indeed, these quantitative assessments fail to acknowledge stark disparities in academia.

VC: What is the best piece of advice you could give to your past self?

EAG: To my past self, I think that one piece of advice would have spared me a lot of stress and heartache: live your truth, tell your truth. Success by someone else’s terms is not nearly as satisfying as failure on my own terms.

How To Support Grad Students Who Become Parents

whitney-pirtleNote: this blog post was originally published on our career advice column on Inside Higher Ed. Dr. Whitney N. Laster Pirtle is an assistant professor of sociology at the University of California, Merced. Her research is on race, identity and health. She often shares other stories and advice on her blog, The Sociology Ph.D. and Me.

Creating Space for Academic Babies

In my first essay, I reflected on the barriers I faced as a black mother in graduate school. Given the biases I had to confront, I attempted to hide my status as a mother when I went on the academic job market. I created a professional presence on social media that disclosed little about my personal life. I explicitly asked my letter writers not to mention that I was a mother. On campus visits, I asked vague questions about schools near the university.

I already carried job-market anxiety and impostor syndrome feelings as a student of color. On top of that, I worried that if word got out I was a parent, I might have worse chances of landing a job.

I did, however, keep an ear to the ground for how, or if, potential departments talked about work-life balance. When I arrived at my current institution, the University of California, Merced, I was pleasantly surprised. It seemed that work and life (including life with children) were not separate entities but rather two sides of the same coin. It was a place that valued the whole person, and I knew I wanted to be a part of it.

Support for Faculty With Children

My initial impressions were not misleading. Most of our faculty events are family friendly or scheduled at a time that is consistent with our child care schedules. Colleagues often ask about one another’s kids, and it is not rare to see children on campus. This family-friendly climate made my decision to have a second baby while on the tenure track seem feasible. Indeed, I have had a positive experience so far.

For instance, shortly into my maternity leave, two colleagues invited my infant son and me to a nearby town for a morning writing session and walk by the creek. That was actually the first day since I had my son that I took out my laptop to work on an unfinished writing project.

More recently, I participated in a family-friendly overnight retreat for our faculty working group in Yosemite National Park. We worked during the day while the older children and nonacademic spouses were able to watch the younger children. Then we came together for family activities in the afternoon and evenings.

When the inclusion and support of parents and their children is purposeful, it increases both productivity and cohesion among faculty members. Ample research provides evidence that paid leave is good for everyone — the children, parents and organizations. For instance, a report by President Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers revealed that more than 90 percent of the employers surveyed that had implemented California’s paid family-leave initiative reported either positive or null effects on profitability, turnover and morale.

It is important to note that the family-friendly climate on my campus is conditioned by relatively generous institutional parental-leave policies — mothers and fathers on the faculty are able to receive relief from teaching and other modified duties after the birth or adoption of a child.

Limited Support for Grad Students With Children

Unfortunately, however, support of our graduate students is currently less institutionalized. My university has put in place a few policies that aid grad student parents, including designing buildings with lactation rooms and charging students at reduced rate for the on-campus day care.

But graduate student who are new parents are not released from their duties as teaching or research assistants, leaving faculty to make accommodations in the classroom or research teams on a (nonideal) case-by-case basis. In those scenarios I encourage faculty to be creative and empathetic.

I was put to the test in that regard at the start of my first semester of teaching. Shortly before classes began, I received an email from a student informing me that she would miss the first few sessions of my graduate statistics class because she was scheduled to give birth in a nearby city. I took this opportunity to share my own experience as a mother and to work with her to jointly craft expectations and modifications for the class. Although I told her it would be beneficial to attend class as soon as she was able, I did not want to require her to “work” for at least six weeks. Therefore, I told her I would excuse her absences for those six weeks, give extended deadlines and accept email submissions of assignments, and forward her all my lecture slides.

In reality, she showed up to class by the third week and turned in assignments at a steady pace, but she appreciated the safety net I made available. As most mothers do, she showed strength and determination to pull through that semester. In the end, I still held her to the set standards but gave her a bit more flexibility in how and when she mastered the skills.

Making Universities Family Friendly for Everyone

Colleges and universities, as spaces known for shaping the future and creating change, should be at the forefront of implementing leave policies for faculty members, grad students and staff members. Change is needed not only at the structural level but also the ideological level. Academics must rid themselves of outdated gendered and racialized perceptions of working parents. Only then will there be more equity in graduate and faculty outcomes.

If you are wondering what you can do about creating space for academic babies, I encourage you first to look into Do Babies Matter as an important text that offers astounding statistics of the setbacks that parents face and also provides innovative solutions for institutions. Here are some additional tips for making one’s department family friendly.

  • Institute student leave policies that are applied consistently and equally to all students.
  • Do not assume a student has chosen an alternative career or that they will drop out of grad school because they have children.
  • Allow students to articulate their chosen career path and give them the tools to achieve success in whatever route they choose.
  • When mentoring students, ask about their whole lives, children and family included.
  • Discuss strategies for work-life balance.
  • Ask students which positions work within their child care schedule.
  • Include student parents on research jobs and publications; do not assume they do not have time.
  • Plan departmentwide events that are family friendly. A noisy bar is not an ideal place for a child.
  • Respect when a student declines an opportunity, but do not take that no as indefinite.
  • Work with your institution to put in place affordable child care, lactation rooms, family health care subsidies and the like.

And for the grad student, if you have a child while in grad school, here are some tips for navigating your training as a parent.

  • Decide the career path you want to take and make it clear to all parties involved.
  • Ask for what you need. Need time to pump in between classes? Ask. Need to take time off from classes? Ask. Need additional research positions? Ask. Need to decrease research? Ask.
  • Don’t be afraid to say no. Your time is no longer only yours. Choose commitments wisely.
  • Find an academic mother (or father) mentor. No one mentor can do it all for you. I sought out a woman who was a mother as a mentor at another university. Her advice was pertinent to my success and well-being.
  • Schedule your time wisely; share your schedule with your family and your advisers so everyone can be on the same page.
  • Reject the idea of being a supermom or superdad. Protect your sanity. Take breaks if needed.

Do you have other recommendations? Suggest them in the comments section below.

Planning To March For Science? Bring A Mirror.

Photo credit: Susan Melkisethian

Photo credit: Susan Melkisethian

On Earth Day – April 22nd – droves of scientists are scheduled to march in Washington, DC, with satellite marches scheduled around the world. Many organizers and possible attendees have clearly stated that there is nothing political or partisan about the march. (They are just scientists after all!) Rather, they are taking to the streets to challenge the current presidential regime’s threat to scientific advancements, funding, and academic freedom.

As one of my tweeps (Twitter peeps), @DrCBurton asked, “if science isn’t political why the hell march?!?

Figuring out whether the very act of a political march is… well… political is perhaps a secondary concern to the longstanding debate over whether science itself is political. If science supposedly stays out of politics, and vice versa, why go political now?

Another tweep of mine, Dr. Zuleyka Zevallos (@OtherSociology), pulled back an important layer to these debates. “Why are they marching? Oh ‘Science is under attack.’ Read: now White male scientists affected, let’s march.”  (Dr. Zevallos has continued to offer important critiques online.)  Now the scientific profession is taking to political action – namely, against political interference – because the most privileged scientists (i.e., white men) are affected for the first time.

I should be clear that the concerns to be addressed by the upcoming March for Science are important, urgent, and noble. From the march’s main website: “Recent policy changes have caused heightened worry among scientists, and the incredible and immediate outpouring of support has made clear that these concerns are also shared by hundreds of thousands of people around the world.”

Scientists are unifying to emphasize the benefits of scientific advancement to all of society, of science education, of accessible scientific research, of public policy informed by science. The future of our nation – particularly in these tense and uncertain times – rests upon inclusive, accessible, and well-funded scientific research and teaching.

“The mischaracterization of science as a partisan issue,” that same website continues, “which has given policymakers permission to reject overwhelming evidence, is a critical and urgent matter.” They are neither politicians nor activists. Heck, they don’t even bring their values, ideologies, identities, or subjective experiences into their labs. They are objective!

And, that is where many academics of marginalized backgrounds roll their eyes. Being able to see science as an apolitical enterprise is either the product of social privilege or naiveté (or both). To its core, science is an inherently political affair. The systemic exclusion and marginalization of women, people of color, queer and trans people, and working-class and poor people from the profession is a prime example of the political workings of science. Let me cite just a few examples.

Let’s reflect on who gets to become a scientist in the first place. Of course, we must note active, intentional efforts to keep marginalized students out, namely interpersonal discrimination and sexual violence. But, we must also note other factors that contribute to what is known as a “leaky pipeline” – the systemic “leaking out,” particularly of women and racial and ethnic minorities, at each stage in the scientific career pipeline. They are not equally encouraged to take the harder classes, to pursue lab assistantships and internships, to apply for graduate schools (especially the most prestigious programs), to apply for postdocs or present at conferences or any other opportunity that will advance their career.

Even outside of withheld support, marginalized students and scholars face the burdens of lack of role models like themselves, of stereotype threat, which undermines their confidence and, ultimately, their performance. Later, women who have children will be undermined by the “motherhood penalty” – being viewed as less competent and committed than women without children and men without or even with children. I would be remiss to gloss over the rampant sexual harassment that occurs in the sciences and other academic disciplines, with serial predators getting a free pass from universities and academic societies.

Besides getting in the door in the first place, politics are at play in awarding grant funding and citations. Researchers have documented racist and sexist biases in both domains, with women scholars and scholars of color being penalized compared to white men scholars. Women scientists are also penalized in co-authorships, which further hinders their careers. You can’t dismiss these facts as anything other than the curse of not being a white man in a racist and sexist profession.

So, suffice to say, my fellow feminist, queer, trans, and Black and brown scholars in the sciences were well aware of the politics at play within science well before Trump. I cannot help but see the parallels with the recent women’s march, widely attended by white heterosexual cis women who were surprised by the harsh reality of oppression as indicated by this new regime. Women of color, queer and trans women, and poor and working-class women already knew what was up in Amerikkka. Trump has picked a fight with the scientific community, and suddenly white heterosexual cis men scientists know what censuring is, what fear is, what suppression is.

I’m sorry to say that your march is too little and too late. But, if you’re going to march, be sure to bring a mirror. I implore you to take a hard look at the politics within your supposedly apolitical, objective science. These barriers to scientific advancement existed well before the Trump era.

I will close with a few items desperately needed for the March for Science agenda:

  • Address bias in hiring, tenure, promotion, course evaluations, funding, citation rates, and other formal evaluations and opportunities for advancement.
  • Eliminate sexual violence in the classroom, lab, department, and at conferences.
  • Actively promote marginalized students and scholars in the sciences. Yes, that means diversity (numbers), and yes that means inclusion (climate); but, it also means real structural and cultural change.
  • Stand up against political and public interference in the work of your colleagues in the arts, humanities, and social sciences. Perhaps Trump’s threat to the natural sciences is new, but, as a sociologist, I’ve long known threats to eliminate government funding.
  • Commit to reversing the adjunctification of academia and ending the exploitation of contingent faculty.
  • Actively resist new and ongoing threats to academic freedom, including the Right’s new war against tenure. Even if you do not teach seemingly controversial subjects, your colleagues in the arts, humanities, and social sciences are all too familiar with political and public interference in their curricula and scholarship.
  • Make peace with the death of the myths of meritocracy and objectivity in academia. Y’all are scientists; if you are too grown to believe in Santa Clause, then you are certainly too grown to believe that you leave your biases at home and that every scientist has a fair shot at succeeding.
  • Even though you just teach science (not sociology), take note that the majority of white college educated voters cast their votes for Trump – the very threat against which you are now marching. These were students you educated, trained, and mentored and who, in turn, basically voted against science, truth, and critical thinking.  Maybe you could take a little more responsibility in preparing the next generation for living in a diverse, increasingly global society?
  • Next time you march, march for all academics – not just your damn selves.

Birthing Both A Baby And Ph.D. As A Woman Of Color

whitney-pirtleNote: this blog post was originally published on our career advice column on Inside Higher Ed. Dr. Whitney N. Laster Pirtle (@thePhDandMe) is an assistant professor of sociology at the University of California at Merced. Her research is on race, identity and health. She often shares other stories and advice on her blog, The Sociology Ph.D. and Me.

I freaked out when I learned that I was pregnant during my second year of graduate school. My reaction was not abnormal; neurologists link the flood of hormones to a women’s brain as the reason for increased anxiety among expectant mothers. And while I was indeed overwhelmed by the typical things pregnant moms worry about — Would I be a good mother? Was I eating the right foods? Could my body endure childbirth? — the majority of my concerns centered around graduate school.

How was I going to tell my adviser? When do I have to tell the department? What will they think of me? How was I going to finish my master’s thesis at the same time that my baby was due? Was my graduate stipend enough to support a family?

I did not really have any one to turn to in my program. No current students had children (though one black mother had recently left), and the only two mothers on the department’s faculty had waited until they earned tenure to have their children. No one discussed parenthood, so I wasn’t sure how to do it or even if it could be done.

In desperation, I reached out to my undergrad mentor, who did not have children but always had sound advice. Her words almost became a mantra to me: women are fully capable of birthing babies and Ph.D.s — you got this.

I cut down on my coffee intake, became the queen of catnaps, asked for a few extensions on assignments when needed and raided my partner’s closet for loose sweatshirts. Aside from my adviser and one confidant, I did not announce the pregnancy until I almost five months pregnant. I thought I was on the right track.

What I naïvely did not expect, however, were the additional layers of burden that I faced as a woman of color. You see, I was only 23 and unmarried to my partner at the time I gave birth to my first son. That meant I was young, black, unwed, relatively broke and a new mother. And I found that shaped some people’s perception of me in my graduate school program.

It did not seem to matter much that I had a loving partner with a good job. Or that my mother relocated just to help me out. Many people seemed to ignore or were unaware of my background — of being raised by a young single mother myself — and that I was used to jumping through hoops to find academic success. Despite my persistence, I began to feel left out.

For instance, that year after my son was born, I was not asked to rejoin research projects that I had previously been involved with. I did not receive additional incentives to travel to conferences as I had before. I could not attend department happy hours as often and began to be left out of the grad student social scene, as well. By the end of my third year, I felt more alienated, stressed and unsure of my path than I did in my first year of the program.

The neglect could have been the result of positive intentions: to give me fewer responsibilities and allow for more time to give to my son. But, it seemed that many people assumed that my choosing motherhood meant I was not as serious about my profession. Not unlike Trump’s comments that motherhood is an inconvenience to businesses, if felt as though motherhood was an inconvenience to the Ph.D.

Research shows this is something that mothers have to deal with more than fathers. For instance, Mary Ann Mason and colleagues investigated whether babies matter for academic success. They found that mothers with young children are 21 percent less likely to land a tenure-track job than women without children, as well as that mothers are 16 percent less likely to end up on the tenure track than fathers. Women scholars’ online discussions further illustrate their findings.

Not only did I face preconceptions about parenthood as a woman, but I also believe implicit biases about black mothers created additional burdens. In itself, graduate school can be a source of trauma for students of color. And Patricia Hill Collins has written about the damaging Eurocentric views of black motherhood that moms inside and outside of academe have to combat. My position as a black mother and student intersected to pattern my experiences.

My differential treatment became even more obvious when two other students had children after me. One white woman opted to defer her dissertation fellowship for a year so that she could focus on raising her child. Rather than pushing her out (when she had asked to be temporarily “out”), she was actually offered a part-time administrative position during that time. Another white man student became the primary childcare provider after his wife returned to work. Despite his constant working from home, he was suggested to me as a model for being serious about publishing. I do not fault either of those white students for making the right choices for their family, but I did find it troubling that I was treated as less serious, despite my decision to remain embedded in the department and my work.

After one honest conversation that I initiated, a professor actually admitted to me: “I thought you would have dropped out and had more babies by now.” I was shocked. What about me suggested that? I had never mentioned a desire to drop out or to have more children. I had not taken any time off from academe. I had met appropriate deadlines. I showed up on the campus nearly every day. Really, nothing I did suggested that; rather, I believe their perceptions of black women incorrectly painted their assumptions about me.

This was bias, implicit or not, and it was wrong. I attempted to correct their perceptions by delving into my work and confronting misconceptions head-on when I could muster up the courage. I would be remiss not to share my gratitude for the supportive peers and faculty who encouraged my success and bravery — like the grad students who stepped in as babysitters or the professors who invited me over their houses for dinner. I would not have made it through that sometimes toxic space without allies that served as positive antidotes. But even so, it was a struggle to get out of grad school with my Ph.D. and my baby.

Mothers of color should not have to battle in the trenches just to save their babies and degrees. More work needs to be done, and at a larger scale, to create safe space for babies and parents in academe. I share my experiences to shed light on the mistreatment I experienced so students can recognize they are not alone and so that faculty members might reflect on their roles. To this end, I will offer advice and policy solutions in my next post.

Advice For Securing Funding During Graduate School

victor-rayNote: this blog post was originally published on our weekly career advice column for marginalized scholars on Inside Higher Ed.  Dr. Victor Ray is an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. You can follow him on Twitter @victorerikray.


In my previous post, I argued that research funding is racialized and that disparities in funding exacerbate racial inequities in academe. Although nothing short of institutional change can significantly reverse those patterns, below I offer advice to help students successfully apply for funding during their graduate training.

Early in my graduate career, I felt insecure and worried about my place in the department. It was clear that my political and intellectual commitments were, to put it mildly, somewhat out of place in my chosen graduate program. Although I was funded, I felt that the support was precarious. In retrospect, perhaps that feeling was overstated. But it was nonetheless real, and I needed a way to combat it.

As a person of color from a working- to lower-middle-class background, funding was extremely important to me. It influenced my decision about which graduate school to attend. When I received my acceptance letter informing me that I would be funded for five years as long as I maintained adequate progress in the program, that was the most economic security I had experienced in my life.

Of course, funding was partially freeing. And given what I felt was my precarious position in the program, the external validation was instrumental in my continuing in graduate school. The freedom that funding brings is particularly important for radical scholars of color whose work may make some (white) colleagues uncomfortable.

When I talk about funding opportunities, graduate students and some faculty members often tell me that applying for funding is a waste of time, that it requires too much work or that agencies are not interested in their type of work. Below, I address each of these concerns with practical advice. Although I am mainly talking about sociology departments, some of these strategies may resonate beyond my discipline.

Understanding the structure of funding. The structure of funding is often a bit confusing. Although there is occasional overlap, grants are typically for expenses related to research, while fellowships pay for living expenses. Federal and private sources of support tend to have considerably different application procedures and expectations attached to their funding. Those applications can be complicated, so I advise you to start them early. Make yourself familiar with a given funding agency’s reporting requirements and make sure you are willing to meet them.

How to find funding. I identified funding opportunities primarily in two places: university databases and the CVs of more senior colleagues whose work I admired. The latter strategy allowed me to see how people were funded at different points in their career and what opportunities I should be looking for down the line.

Many undergraduate institutions have grants and fellowships that are reserved for alumni who are in graduate school. Those are prime places to look for funding, as the applicant pool tends to be smaller. Search your institution’s website, write to the program officers and apply. Although the funding from such sources may be lower than national competitions, they are great places to find seed support for projects.

Once I found opportunities for which I qualified and that were related to my work, my strategy was to apply for everything. Applying for funding, like working in academe in general, is largely about learning to manage rejection. I made a spreadsheet that covered the next three to four years of graduate school and systematically applied every year. Early on, I got a lot of rejections. They were an opportunity to revise and refine my ideas. One success can make those rejections recede from your consciousness pretty quickly.

Another strategy (to use sparingly) is to contact program officers at funding agencies. Make sure you find out the policy regarding contact so as to not violate protocol. However, if the officers are open to talking, send an email briefly outlining the most important aspects of your project and ask whether they are willing to set up a phone conversation. I have had program officers give me information that I think was central to eventually being funded.

Before you contact a program officer, make sure your project description is far along and perhaps even reviewed by a colleague or two. You do not want to antagonize a program officer with a proposal that is not well thought out, as that may ultimately hurt your chances.

Writing the application. If you have colleagues who have successfully received grants or fellowships for which you are interested in applying, ask if you may look over their applications. Many people are flattered by the request and happy to share; others, not so much. Remember, however, that they are in no way obligated to help you and may consider the request inappropriate for any number of reasons. They could be shy about sharing work, view you as competition or resent your success. But while the academy often still functions on an outdated notion that intellectual work is the result of heroic individuals, ideas — and your personal success in deploying those ideas — are the result of a community.

If someone is willing to help you, remember you owe them. Write a thank-you note, take them out for coffee or a drink at a conference, or just generally show that you appreciate their help. Also, never pass along an application someone has shared with you without permission. They agreed to share it with you, not the entire applicant pool.

Grant and fellowship writing is not an exercise in creativity. Grant and fellowship writing in sociology is different from composing papers. Papers can be somewhat meandering because of their standard format. For grants, the punch line needs to hit the reviewer within the first few sentences. They need to know the purpose of the proposed research, the theoretical tradition from which you are drawing and a little about what you expect to find. If you have been fortunate enough to get successful examples of the particular grant or fellowship for which you are applying, make sure you look over them and mirror their outlines.

Tailoring your work to the call. This is a tricky one. Foundations and federal grant agencies issue calls because they are looking for specific niches, have political leanings or are chartered to further research in particular areas. You should never do violence to your own research interests and commitments to land a grant. However, you should look at calls for applications with the widest possible lens when it comes to applicability to your work. This isn’t just pragmatic; it is also an exercise in intellectual growth, as it forces you to think about your work in the widest possible context.

Reusing your work. Writing a funding proposal is ideally the first step one makes on a new project. Agency deadlines can help to force you to write your ideas down. These drafts are then recycled, becoming the first draft of research papers. One of the most useful things that a trusted and brilliant adviser in grad school told me was, “Everything you write has to count for more than one thing.” You should never use a piece of writing that you have spent a considerable amount of time or thought on for just one class or conference. The same is true for fellowship and grant writing. Revise your applications according to the call, but if you had a successful application in a prior round, it indicates that you’ve hit the sweet spot. Use that as the template to apply to subsequent grants and fellowships. It is also a good indication that your proposed research is a potential contribution to the discipline, as the reviewers were likely drawn from a pool of experts in your area. Getting this feedback at an early stage can be extremely useful for shaping your subsequent projects.

Victor Ray On “The Racialization Of Academic Funding”

victor-rayNote: this blog post was originally published on our career advice column on Inside Higher Ed. Dr. Victor Ray is an assistant professor at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. You can follow him on Twitter at @victorerikray.


This essay is the first of two in which I will provide advice on getting research funding in graduate school. Here, I outline how disparities in graduate funding are deeply racialized and how that connects to racial issues in higher education more generally.

Let’s first take a brief look at the history of higher education in the United States. American colleges and universities were founded as white organizations. Part of their intellectual mission was to further the ideology and material practices of white supremacy. Profits from slavery, the exclusion of people of color and complicity in scientific racism were much more than unfortunate footnotes to an otherwise noble system.

As Craig Steven Wilder shows in the remarkable Ebony and Ivy: Race, Slavery and the Troubled History of America’s Universities, higher education in the United States was founded on racial exclusion and explicitly designed to further white privilege. The life of the mind was underwritten by the cut of the whip. Although the civil rights movement and tepid diversity programming have reconfigured the racial relations central to higher education, they have by no means erased them. Colleges and universities attempt to project the illusion of a level playing field, yet racial disparities in funding, admittance and graduation rates remain deeply unequal.

Research funding is a racial issue in ways both easily apparent and occasionally hidden. Race shapes funding most obviously through the fact that the bulk of institutional resources remain firmly in white hands. Racial stratification is a defining feature of higher education at all levels of the hierarchy. For example, despite hand-wringing over supposedly “reverse racist” policies, whites are overrepresented relative to their proportion of the population when it comes to scholarships.

According to recent research by Louise Seamster and Raphaël Charron-Chénier, black students graduate with higher debt burdens. This bias extends to national funding agencies like the National Institutes of Health. After accounting for a host of factors that influence funding decisions — essentially, to statistically compare equally qualified white candidates and candidates of color — researchers found that black scholars were still 10 percent less likely than white scholars to receive NIH research funding. Such funding inequalities can make it less likely for students of color to be able to support their schooling and research, furthering racial inequity in higher education more generally.

Wider social factors also influence the ability of people of color to self-fund their education. As William Darity Jr., Darrick Hamilton and their colleagues have shown, deep racial differences in family wealth persist. Black and Latino families have fallen farther behind since the Great Recession, such that the “median black family has $7,113 in wealth, while the median white family has $111,740 in wealth.” The numbers are similarly stark for Latina/os. Those disparities are directly traceable to racist social policies like redlining, subprime lending and educational segregation, and they may make self-funding more difficult for nonwhite students.

Historical inequalities that can influence research opportunities and educational trajectories do not always show up in obvious ways. For instance, most legacy admittances can easily be construed as white racial preferences, given that many colleges and universities were only integrated in the 1960s. Similarly, the bias in so-called aptitude tests — which are excellent measures of inherited wealth — create the illusion of meritocracy while legitimizing educational inequality. Those historical inequalities influence current research realities. For instance, a dustup at New York University, in which the director of graduate admissions told a black student that perhaps he should rethink his application if he could not afford the fee, is a particularly blatant example of this racialized dynamic.

Because people of color are more likely to come from families without an ample and reliable store of wealth, they may not have the economic resources needed to support some basics of research. In my own discipline (sociology), necessary tools of the trade — such as laptops, digital tape recorders, data analysis software and money for transcription — may be unaffordable. A lack of funds for this basic equipment can put you behind your peers. And, psychologically, the very real sense of shame that comes from lacking resources in a society that measures your worth by your wealth can also constrain productivity. As a critical sociologist interested in racial inequality, I see how unequal funding holds implications for who gets to tell the stories of people of color.

Racial inequalities have real implications for conducting research. Sociologists have long argued that early disparities in funding create a Matthew effect that advantages scholars over the course of their careers. Based on the scripture “to them that has, more shall be given,” sociologist Robert K. Merton observed that scholars who found early success in securing funding were likely to have higher career productivity. Early funding provides vital resources — research assistants, course releases, money for travel — that scholars can use to extend their advantages. Those resources are then turned into the capital of academe: visibility, publications and access to social networks. Like compound interest, the productivity of scholars who achieve funding early in their careers is boosted, and that early advantage opens up subsequent opportunities. Racial disparities in funding thus create a cycle of cumulative disadvantage.

Beyond these reasons, the ability to acquire funding is becoming more important on the job market. Increasingly, departments in the social sciences are looking to hire scholars with a proven record of acquiring funding. Given the well-substantiated racial differences in rates of funding, this is yet another hurdle that scholars of color face — one that sets many of us behind.

Although personal action can never serve as a full substitute for institutional change, some strategies may make receiving funding more likely. In my next essay, I will offer practical advice on how students of color can increase their chances of getting funded and why they should apply for everything.

The Unbearable Whiteness Of Mesearch

Note: this blog post was originally published on our career advice column on Inside Higher Ed. Dr. Victor Ray is an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Tennessee Knoxville.

victor-rayI recently heard of a patronizing slander directed against scholars of color. Research that examines discrimination, racism or simply focuses on communities of color has been dismissed as “me studies” or “mesearch.”

The claim is that we are provincial, our problems are particular and we are stuck navel-gazing at nonuniversal issues. The neologism has roots in deeply held ideas about the inability of people of color to study their communities objectively. That is especially the case if the scholarship locates the problems of nonwhite communities in discrimination or racism as opposed to alleged cultural deficiencies.

Calling the research of nonwhites mesearch locates scholars of color as academic special interest groups that get in the way of the real, rigorous work performed by unnamed white academics. Mesearch, as epithet, simultaneously highlights people of color as incapable of objectivity while certifying the objectivity of the speaker.

My colleagues Phillip Ayoub and Deondra Rose have defended the utility and necessity of scholars of color studying their own groups. I thank them for this and regret that we work in an environment where such types of interventions remain necessary. (And if the comments on their article are any indication, we still need these interventions.) My concern is related to theirs yet distinct.

White scholars do mesearch all the time. In many disciplines, that is simply called the canon. Claiming that mesearch is a particular issue for scholars of color demonstrates a profound lack of self-awareness on the part of researchers in the social sciences and humanities. As scholars of whiteness such as Amanda Lewis have more than amply shown, whiteness maintains its power partially through its relative invisibility. White norms and culture are projected as universal standards, but it’s only whites’ socially dominant position that allows this work to be considered universal. Relations of dominance are built into what we think of as legitimate topics of study.

Take, for instance, psychology. Many people have criticized the discipline for drawing heavily from nonrepresentative college-age populations that are overwhelmingly European American. People of color tend to be such a small proportion of the sample that researchers have routinely dropped them from analyses. Yet, when such findings are presented, they are not usually discussed as the psychological dispositions of a dominant racial group — rather they are projected as general, universal psychological processes.

Or take the discipline of philosophy. As my undergrad philosophy professor Brian Van Norden and his colleague recently pointed out in The New York Times, in America, the discipline of philosophy has a deep Eurocentric bias. They argue that we should highlight this white bias by renaming the departments “European and American Philosophy” or “Anglo-European Philosophical Studies.” Such euphemisms sound slightly less abrasive than “White Philosophical Mesearch.” Of course, philosophers of color such as Charles Mills have been pointing out the bias in the discipline for years, showing that it impoverishes and distorts our basic understanding of the contemporary world.

These are important areas of study. I have taken courses in psychology and philosophy, and they have enriched my thinking and my life. The problem arises when people claim that they are a universal representation of the human condition. These areas of study are no more universal than African or ethnic studies programs. In fact, outsiders often criticize academe for studying topics that they may see as trivial, irrelevant or too specialized for “real world” application.

Some right-wing federal and state legislators regularly lampoon and deride research they don’t understand. We academics, as a group, usually rally to the defense of colleagues whose work is attacked as trivial. A core belief of liberal arts education is that insights can often arise from arcane knowledge or unpredictable connections between disciplines. Thus, scholars who claim that people of color are especially prone to conducting mesearch undermine a central principle of scholarship. That is, scholars have the autonomy and expertise to pursue questions they find interesting and relevant.

Ultimately, the relative invisibility of white normativity creates the illusion that white subject matter is universal and universally interesting. Ironically, scholars who locate the genesis of mesearch in the work of people of color would do well to adopt a technique forwarded by black feminists: reflexivity. As Patricia Hill Collins argues, all researchers, regardless of background, should be aware of and open about how their social position or personal biography might influence their assumptions.