A Poverty-Class Academic’s Guide To Success In Academia

Grace Cale photoGrace Cale is a PhD student in sociology.  Having gained her undergraduate degree from a college that specifically accepts marginalized and impoverished students, she is a passionate ally to many causes of social justice. Her research interests focus on political participation, social movements, neoliberalism, markets, and financialization. In the second part of this two-part essay (see Part I), Grace offers specific tips to working- and poverty-class for self-care and success in academia.

A Poverty-Class Academic’s Guide to Getting It Done … Whatever “It” Is

In my previous article, I shared a little bit about the experience of poverty, and how that background can produce unique challenges in one’s graduate school experience. In this second part, I would like to take some time to translate these experiences as I follow my own call to action: to begin a process of resource sharing among poverty- and working-class academics.

One thing that has surprised me is that, while I often feel fairly capable, I have occasionally had the difficulty of not realizing when I needed help, or even realized when or where I could seek help. I was so used to having to do everything myself that I never knew help existed for some problems. Because these experiences are not limited to my own story, I hope that some of the lessons that I’ve learned will be useful to other early grad students, from variously marginalized background, but especially those from working- or poverty-class backgrounds.

As many of us know, the graduate educational process involves a intense socialization into the academic culture. For scholars from underprivileged backgrounds (especially those of us whose parents never attended or graduated from college), this is a powerful, sometimes overwhelming change. It truly epitomizes the concept of academia being its own world!

One lesson that I was amazed to discover was that my working-class peers and I sometimes experienced some of the same types of microaggressions, barriers, and frustrations as people marginalized on other dimensions – a discovery which, while fantastic for building inter-group solidarity, is always difficult. Some class-based marginalizations were institutionally-oriented, and thus sometimes more financially problematic. For example, the nearly mandatory need for a summer scholarship, which might require substantial research output, but pays less than 25% of one’s basic living expenses. I must say that I love my department, which, I imagine, is more understanding and accepting than many. Deciding to stay at my present university was actually a great decision in many ways. But, studying marginalization and oppression does not necessarily mean that people regularly and effectively check their own privileges or hidden biases.

If these stories are familiar to you, you are so not alone. I nearly failed out of my first year in graduate school, not because the classes or readings were too difficult, but because I did not have the skills to juggle other social, departmental, and research demands of graduate life and culture. Instead, I attempted to over-prepare for graduate school by reading the plethora of preparatory articles, and was painfully aware of concepts like “publish or perish,” “network, network, network,” or the implied mandate that, to be hired, one must be seen, must attend major conferences, and must present, present, present. So, I had on my plate a huge, unsustainable list of things that “must” be done, and no idea how people did it all. I assumed that you “buck up” and knuckle down, no matter how many times you break down.

Tips For Surviving And Thriving In Academia

This is the context from which we come, and the situation that I suspect is familiar to some readers. So, here are my recommendations to the ambitious, the driven, and those lacking the many types of capital demanded of the predominantly middle-class world of academia. I cannot promise that any or all of these these tips will work for you, but they got me through my Master’s degree and my pre-qualifying exam semester.

  • You will be told that you MUST do it all, or you will fail. Don’t. You won’t, you can’t, and trying could literally kill you.
  • Instead, explore related articles and resources on Conditionally Accepted and similar blogs, and find a mentor. Ideally, find a few mentors. Realistically, it is unlikely that one person will fulfill all of your mentoring needs as a graduate student. And that is okay. But latch onto those who fill some of your checkboxes, and don’t be afraid to take advantage of their expertise. It’s literally their job. This is a service the more privileged colleagues have learned to take advantage of and thus benefit from without giving it a second thought. You are just as worthy to do so, and it can be invaluable to your career and well-being.
  • At times, I did not realize that I needed help when I did, or that I had taken on too full of a load of projects. It may be good to periodically inform your advisor or mentor when or before you take on a new project, especially if you’re still taking classes or working as a teaching, graduate, or research assistant. If you are new to this world, you may not realize the load a seemingly simple project or co-authored paper will add to your term. Use your mentor’s experience to help assess the work involved with those opportunities before you pursue them.
  • Explore the various academic advice blogs about topics such as productivity and time management as needed, but avoid becoming oversaturated with allegedly vital tips for success. I often explored sites such as Conditionally Accepted, Presumed Incompetent’s Facebook page, The Professor Is In, and other blogs for marginalized scholars, but social class is not consistently considered in these resources. Find a couple of things that work for you and stick to them. You don’t need to fit into someone else’s mold for how to become a fully functional academic. Indeed, much advice may come from a different privileged status, or else be meant for an audience facing a different axis of oppression. But you do need to find your own method, and that sometimes may mean adapting or reinterpreting advice to help your unique situation. Experiment, keep doing what is successful, and be kind to yourself when you fail. Know that past behavior is the best predictor of future behavior. Try to twist your habits (good or bad) into something that serves your needs. Try to find other scholars from similar backgrounds, or perhaps try to find or form a community where scholars can share their struggles, trials, and tribulations.
  • Find a few methods of self-care that work, and stick to them. Eat nutritious food (if you can secure the funding to afford it), try to get at least 6 hours of sleep nightly (7-9 hours ideally), engage in some form of physical activity, and find a way to give yourself even ten minutes without thinking of work. I have always hated yoga and mindfulness meditation, but those things worked for me, and helped me recover from some effects of burnout.
  • It may be counter to the way you were taught to behave, but be aggressive in finding ways to take care of your financial and personal needs. One can be tactful, but nobody can advocate for you unless you advocate for yourself to even a small extent. People often do their best, but they cannot know your needs unless you tell them. This is especially true in the heavily middle- and upper-middle class world of academia, where even those who try to be helpful may have no idea what your needs are. They may not realize that they have a resource that you need. Further, it will quickly become very easy to ignore your personal needs or shove them aside in favor of your seemingly more vital academic goals. Don’t. This brings me to the final point….
  • No academic goal is more important than your ability to be a functioning human being. Graduate school culture is a place that is perfectly situated to encourage overworking, and we normalize the huge mental, physical, and emotional health sacrifices made to achieve our academic goals. But attending conferences or publishing are pointless, and may be impossible, if you’re so overworked and stressed that you can barely function. Take care of yourself first, and the quality of your work will benefit. Even if self-care feels like a waste of time that could be spent working, you must do it to survive in the long-run.

Never forget: The struggle is real, and so are your experiences. Try to find allies; love them, and love yourself. You and I will get through this.

Confessions Of a Poverty-Class Academic-In-Training

Grace Cale photoGrace Cale is a PhD student in sociology.  Having gained her undergraduate degree from a college that specifically accepts marginalized and impoverished students, she is a passionate ally to many causes of social justice. Her research interests focus on political participation, social movements, neoliberalism, markets, and financialization. In the first part of this two-part essay, Grace reflects on the invisibility of scholars from working-class and  poor families, and the struggles these scholars face in academia; to rectify this, she calls for community-building among working-class scholars in academia.

Confessions Of A Poverty-Class Academic-In-Training

When I set out to write this essay, I had little concrete idea of what I sought to achieve. I knew that there was something unique about becoming an academic from a situation of clear poverty, and that I needed to make a case for this experience as existing along a real line of marginalization. Or at least call for recognition of the unique difficulties with which poverty-class academics struggle. While we certainly exist as a group, poverty-class academics seem curiously quiet about our origins, compared to academics of color and the LGBT academics, who fought (and still fight) long and hard for their visibility. The question I am left with is, what can we do to better advocate for similar recognition, and why is this important?

There is certainly a need for communal resource-sharing. It seems likely that we are all haunted by the threat of “Ph.D Poverty”, or the possibility of becoming bright, well-trained victims of the adjunctification crisis. And many of us know that we can look forward to heavy bills to pay from ballooning student debt, whether or not we are able to get a job matching our qualifications in an increasingly break-neck, competitive market. I hope that by coming clean about a history some of us actively hide, others might do so as well, and we might share our experiences and expertise regarding how to live in this academic environment which for so long had been quite happy to retain its white-middle-class, homogeneity.

Having frequently struggled with gaps in social, cultural, or human capital, and in struggling to access vital resources, I came to desperately seek social class-based advice for making it through graduate school. Given the few working-class folk in my own department, and knowing my poverty-born friends in other departments were having the same struggles, I called upon the surely endless fount of Internet wisdom available. Spoiler alert: the pickings were scarce. How could this be? Surely there are others besides me and a few peers who wrestle with class-based marginalization in academe. Surely there are others who have felt keenly a lack of resources and solidarity. Yet, despite a few out-of-date websites that attempted to address this gap, there was nothing with the scale, specificity, and upkeep as with those for communal resources aligned to other social equity movements (race, gender, sexuality, etc.).

Growing Up In Poverty

To clarify, let me return to the personal context: growing up, my family of four had an annual income between $8,000 and $12,000. We lived in a rural county in Appalachia, in which, as of the 2010 US Census, there was a 25% poverty rate. Without even needing to ask, all students in all levels of district schools were enrolled for the income-based program for government-subsidized breakfasts and lunches. It was common for our high school classes to have more students than textbooks. Very few of my classmates attended or graduated from college. As a child and teenager, I struggled to understand why every minute expenditure, even for our $1 lunch meat or an occasional $1.25 soda was such a difficult, stress-fraught decision. It was difficult to deal with seldom being able to visit friends from school or try high school sports, not because of time commitments, but because we couldn’t afford to use that much gas for the car. A computer left on overnight was a grave offense in our household, as there was legitimate doubt we could pay for the extra electricity.

Multiple studies support the claim that experiences of childhood poverty follow us well into adulthood, yielding not only socially observable effects, but even effects upon our physiology and genetics.1 In keeping with the findings of other researchers, I have certainly felt that as a young adult, such moments had deeply affected my development as an adult. My sister and I still battle powerful guilt for any purchase that is not materially necessary for our survival or basic health – even when we have had the disposable income. The process of paying bills, a generally unpleasant task for any person, is a viscerally fearful task which each month leaves me trembling and taking deep breaths to force a return to calm – even when I can cover each cost. There is always a nagging fear that no matter how careful and organized I’ve been, a bill has been forgotten, or an overdraft has occurred. We avoid most routine medical care, and only seek medical attention when our bodies cannot function, because we are so used to not being able to afford office visits or medication. Experience tells us that it is nearly impossible to get an invoice for medical services in advance of receiving care; it is usually easier to go without and hope for the best. I had my first-ever eye exam at 23 years old, upon discovering my graduate health insurance covered one annual exam. Turns out I need glasses. Might even get them someday.

Class-Based Struggles In Academia

I do not recite this tale to earn pity-points; despite these issues, I actually had a very happy childhood. But as my sister and I entered adulthood, and as I entered graduate school, these uncertainties and anxieties took on new, more powerful forms. Little differences began to creep into my graduate experience in small, subtly alienating ways, and I suspect that many of these examples will be familiar to readers. Some of these are issues that are generally just a nuisance for many academics, but could be damaging to the career prospects of someone with no savings account or trust fund, no credit, or no experience in which questions to ask their mentors.

  • I learned that people have different definitions of being “broke.” For some, it means “not much spending money”; for me, it meant the money does not exist. I literally have no money. Bank balance: $3. No cash. No credit. I no longer use the term in conversation; it has become too frustrating to continue doing so.
  • Some might have the feeling that other students somehow knew something that they didn’t. We have no summer funding in our program, but somehow I felt like the only one in a genuine panic about how to pay my rent for three months, let alone conduct the expected research and study. The possibility of having to beg to stay with my sister in her one-bedroom apartment was a dangerously imminent reality after one summer job, without notice, put all employees on two-plus-week leave due to lack of work to give us. This, after the hard realization that this job did not offer the full-time hours I was promised in the first place. How do so many other students appear to flawlessly “make it work” for these months?
  • Some may struggle to articulate why many departments’ reimbursement-style travel funding would not allow them to attend conferences for the so-vital-to-success networking experiences. In my case, it was because I did not have any money or credit with which to pay up-front. It wasn’t that it was committed elsewhere – it did not exist. To lay down over $500 worth of registration fees, airfare, and hostel reservations after struggling to buy food, with a possibly six-month wait for reimbursement was tragically laughable. Unfortunately, this funding style is not at all unique to our fairly average university; I see stories of such funding style splattered across various websites, blogs, and forums created as common spaces for academics.
  • It is also difficult to explain to others in a meaningful way why I did not simply take out loans to bolster my available funds. For people from backgrounds of poverty, debt is a tricky beast. Some have embraced it all too easily, only to suffer afterwards, and others struggle to get access to even small loans. My family lives with a vague, ever-present fear of debt – a fear I inherited as a child. To us, debt is something that can ruin lives. Whether these views are technically correct, they constitute an aspect of socialization with which poverty-class academics must struggle every time we see a need we have which cannot be fulfilled on our stipends or summer jobs. The decision to use credit is seldom a light one.

A Call For Community Among Poverty-Class Academics

These are just a handful of the starker experiences one may struggle with, and yet other subtle day-to-day moments may also reinforce socialized and lifestyle differences. The interesting thing about these experiences and the insidiousness of class-based gaps in cultural, social, and human capital is that I believed these struggles were due solely to my own shortcomings and lack of sufficient efforts and dedication. I felt underserving of the right to complain, feeling that, endlessly, I could have exerted more effort in depriving myself of small joys in order to save money. Really, nobody needs to visit a café. Ever.

It wasn’t until recently that I realized many of these issues were not unique or limited to personal shortcomings. There are many of us, quietly working our way through the graduate socialization process, atomizing ourselves in an attempt to narrow the capital gap; we believe these to be private missions. We have all labored to produce our own solutions, possibly failing to realize that we can benefit from finding each other and pooling our resources and experiences, with the hope that we and others can avoid having to learn every lesson the hard way. In some ways, it makes the most sense for us to band together and take advantage of the resources that we can offer ourselves; our more equipped peers certainly are.

That, I suppose, is my call, and the purpose of this piece. I find it rather surprising that a group of people as resourceful as we are have failed to truly gather those resources. I think we need to better advocate for ourselves. We need to be unafraid to admit our own existence, come out of the poverty “closet,” and share our stories. What lessons did we learn the hard way? What recommendations would we make to new graduate students and new faculty from the same backgrounds, to help lift each other up? Which tips and tricks have we developed to get through our theses, dissertations, and grant deadlines; tips that don’t assume we have the money to attend a retreat, get noise-canceling headphones, or even barricade ourselves in a café? I know that together, we are a veritable fount of knowledge. As researchers, teachers, and scholars more generally, we’ve dedicated ourselves to sharing it with the world. How about we share some of it with each other, too?

See the second part of my essay, “Getting It Done – Whatever ‘It’ Is,” in which I offer my own tips and tricks for surviving and thriving in academia as a poverty-class scholar.

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Notes

1 Sandoval, D. A., Rank, M. R., & Hirschl, T. A. (2009). The Increasing Risk of Poverty Across the American Life Course. Demography, 46(4), 717–737.

 

An Important Caveat About Self-Care For Academics

Grace CaleGrace Cale is a PhD student in sociology (full biography at the end). In this guest post, Grace makes an important distinction between “self-care” and “soothing” activities, where the difference is long-term versus short-term benefit, respectively, to our health and well-being. Are your usual self-care strategies just momentary distractions? Or, do they promote long-term wellness and balance?  Read on to find out!

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“Self-Care” vs. “Soothing”:

Not Necessarily So Warm And Fuzzy

Folks, it’s no secret: academia is not an easy world to inhabit. For many of us, while learning to navigate this unique place for the first time (or experiencing new difficulties), we often find that our usual mechanisms for coping with extreme stress cease to function effectively. This is the time where we give up trying to work for the day (or week), sit in an armchair cocooned in a blanket, and read articles on self-care. Self-care is important. It is a thing, which, to put it simply, allows us to keep going. Stress and work drain our little metaphorical bucket of energy, and self-care is supposed fill that bucket back up. This can be read on nearly any article on the topic. But, that is not why I am writing to you today.

Instead, today, I take issue with the content of many of these articles. For metaphorical-bucket-recovery, those who give self-care advice often recommend things like:

  • Bubble baths
  • Wine and a good book
  • Going for a walk in nature
  • Dinner with friends
  • Seeing a movie
  • Chilling at home with some Netflix

Some of these things work for some people, and that’s great. My long-time escape? Minecraft and comic-book-based movies and TV shows. But after a while of using this self-care strategy, I noticed something. These things served as a great distraction, but after several desperately-self-caring hours of such activities, I felt no more prepared to tackle the endless pile of work. As stress levels grew high enough to affect my physical health, I explored our university counseling services, where I discovered the difference between self-care and soothing.

Clearly these things won’t fit all readers. But if I have had this issue, I imagine some others may have, as well. I discovered that the activities that I enjoyed, while pleasant, served almost as a security blanket. They soothed my anxieties in those moments, but did nothing to alleviate the problem of overwork. When a therapist first told me this, I panicked. Self-care has to solve my problem? My problem is too much work! The only way to make it go away is to work, but it never ends, and I can’t work 24/7, and and and … and figurative hyperventilation ensued. Luckily, eternal work was not the solution. Instead, to make a long story short, through various programs and meetings, I learned a valuable lesson: Self-care is vital, but is not always soothing, nor must it be.

So, what does soothing actually refer to? When my therapist mentioned it, I was somehow mildly offended, as if someone had told me that I rely on a security blanket to get by as an adult. However, the metaphor is somewhat apt. Soothing behaviors, in this case, tend to be those things that, in the moment, calm your anxiety or worry. So, in my case, I was relying on distractions and entertainment to make me feel better, but these things did not actually provide any long-term healing, and did not strengthen my ability to cope with stress. It traded long-term growth in resilience for temporary soothing of discomfort.

What we are left with, then, is the imperative to find some way of taking care of ourselves, which may or may not also soothe our stresses and anxieties, which actually provides for our longer-term health, well-being, personal growth, and so on. As academics who may or may not have these skills, we need to have methods of self-care which serve us and the careers and lives for which we aspire. But these necessary means of self-care may not provide momentary relief.

Now, of course, if you find something that you enjoy and it actually refills your metaphorical energy bucket, by all means, do that. And it is certainly unwise to engage in “self-care” behaviors that are necessarily dangerous, painful, or so stressful that they are counterproductive. But I had believed that self-care must be something distinctly pleasant, enjoyable, or fun. For me, the magical solution ended up being two things I flatly disliked, and one thing I liked: yoga and mindfulness meditations, and studying a language (which happened to help my dissertation). These things may not work for everyone, but they did for me. Yoga provided low-social-pressure physical exercise (good for the bucket, and health in general), and required focus because of its difficulty (which helped keep me from expending energy thinking about work that I should be doing). For 10-20 minutes at a time, I would do guided meditations, which also helped me to divert my mind away from the energy-waste of constant work-oriented thoughts. It also turns out I loved studying a language, and the joy of learning helped remind me (in part) why I decided upon a career in research. It didn’t fix everything, but I did experience some improvement in my ability to function, and came down from the ledge of an overwhelmed breakdown.

However, as we consume the nearly countless offerings of articles on how to be kind to ourselves in our lives and careers, let us not forget that while self-care might sooth our stresses in the moment, many soothing activities do not necessarily constitute real self-care. I write this long, winding story to remind folks of two key things: if you have a self-care routine that works for you and you enjoy it, by all means, do that. But if you’re still struggling to fill your little perseverance pail, try out some of those things people say you should do, even if you don’t love them. If you can stand it, give it a thought. Exercise. It doesn’t have to be public, easy or hard. But do anything that you can actually keep up regularly. I do yoga video podcasts in my home office. Try meditation (some of the benefits are supported by research), or creative writing, or whatever you feel gives your brain a break from its constant processing.

We all signed up for this academic life. While we sometimes question those decisions, three things are for sure. It’s a ton of work, it’s exhausting, and we’ve got to keep our wells of energy full. We have to prioritize self-care in order to give our best to our communities, our departments, our students, and our allies in activism. We must, nay, we deserve to be well!

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Biography

Grace Cale is a PhD student in sociology.  Having gained her undergraduate degree from a college that specifically accepts marginalized and impoverished students, she is a passionate ally to many causes of social justice. Her research interests focus on political participation, social movements, neoliberalism, markets, and financialization. She can be reached at cale [dot] grace [at] uky [dot] edu.