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.

Academic Versus Actual Definitions Of Bisexuality, Part I

Dr. J. SumerauDr. J. Sumerau is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of Tampa.  Zir teaching, research, and activism focuses on intersections of sexualities, gender, religion, and health in the experiences of sexual, religious, and gender minorities. In this first part of a two-part essay, Dr. Sumerau reflects on how bisexuality is defined and understood in academia (particularly by heterosexual, lesbian, and gay scholars), which differs greatly from how it is defined and experienced by bisexuals in the real world.


Academic or Actual Bisexuality, Part I

Actual Bisexuality

I have identified as bisexual since the first time I heard the term at a political rally in the late 1990s. Although I have experienced bisexual attractions and sexual engagements for as long as I can remember, I will never forget the moment an intersex bisexual activist took the stage and provided a sexual definition and label that finally seemed to make sense in relation to my own experiences.

I had driven the hour plus with my boyfriend and best friend (at the time, ze identified as gay and I identified as “heterogay” for lack of a better term). We were there to learn more about transgender and intersex issues because I was considering transitioning and ze had recently learned ze was born intersex, but neither of these things were discussed in the small town where we grew up and neither of us knew much about these issues. We were holding hands under a banner (happy enough just to feel safe holding hands) with the words bisexual, transgender, and intersex printed in purple, and we both felt proud that we knew at least two of the three words when the speaker began zir commentary. In the middle of the definition, we each turned at almost the same moment and ze said, “hey cool, that’s you,” and I said, “wow, that’s me.” I remember feeling an almost immediate sense of relief that at least I was not totally alone in my sexual attractions and desires.

I share versions of this story with students in every course that I teach. I do this for three interrelated reasons. First, after much time spent in communities and libraries learning about the erasure and marginalization of bisexuality by heterosexual and gay/lesbian communities as well as the broader social marginalization of minority groups of all types, I see coming out as both a necessity for (me) living an authentic, honest, and healthy life, and as part of the process whereby such marginalization may be reversed and undone. I come out automatically in classes to raise the issue of taken-for-granted assumptions that benefit some at the expense of others. Second, I can’t forget what it felt like to not know there were other people like me, to believe (as heterosexual and lesbian/gay people often told me and some still do) that I had to “pick a side” as if monosexism (i.e., the systematic elevation of beliefs that one is necessarily only attracted to one sex) would be any better than heterosexism (i.e., the systematic elevation of heterosexual norms and perspectives). I share this story in case there are others in these classrooms who have yet to learn that bisexuality exists in the world around them.

Third and finally, after years experiencing an academy where bisexuality is defined (usually by cisgender heterosexual and gay/lesbian scholars) much differently than I’ve seen in bisexual communities without academic access, I share my experiences to give students a concrete example of the ways minority experience is socially constructed in mainstream institutions. While I believe each of these three reasons are important for me personally, for students educationally, and for minority communities politically, I would like to focus for a moment on the third reason because it is an ever present experience that I encounter as an openly bisexual teacher and scholar that I rarely hear mentioned outside of hushed conversations in hallways.

I remember very clearly how bisexuality was defined the first time I heard the term, and I’ve heard the same definition throughout my life in non-academic bisexual, intersex, transgender, and queer settings and communities (i.e., settings and communities not affiliated with academic institutions and/or composed primarily of people who never had access to college education). In this tradition of knowledge, bisexuality refers to attraction, desire and/or sexual engagement preferences for (1) one’s own sex and other sexes, (2) cisgender and transgender people, and/or (3) people regardless of genitalia. In each case, the “bi” refers to two distinct possibilities of sexual engagement along a spectrum of bodily and presentational options. Specifically, one may identify as male, but experience attraction to males, females, and intersex people; one may identify as transgender or cisgender but experience attraction to both cisgender and transgender people; or, one may have a clitoris but experience attraction to others regardless of whether they have a clitoris.

As it did in the 1990s, this definition resonates with me and is the one I come across most outside of the academy (and in private within the academy) to this day. No matter whom I have had sexual relations with – intersex, female, or male people, cisgender or transgender people, bisexual (or fluid, queer, pansexual, or other terms more frequently used in academic communities) people, asexual people, gay/lesbian or heterosexual people – the similarities among people in each of these groups (for me) outweigh the differences by a wide margin.

In fact, as I often tell my students, I consider myself lucky to have had romantic experiences with all of these groups because they allowed me to recognize just how similar we all are in terms of dating, relationships, sexual desires, and needs. These experiences also helped me to figure out what differences are important for my own sexual and romantic satisfaction (for me these differences are mostly personality based). While I have met bisexual people who are only attracted to males and females, who only date gay, lesbian, heterosexual, asexual or bisexual others, and who only desire cisgender or transgender lovers, the variations in these patterns (both between people and in the life course of individual persons) speak to the multifaceted elements of the definition and direct attention to the variation and complexity embedded within other seemingly static sex, gender, sexual identities.

Academic Bisexuality

When I entered the academy ten years after first learning of the term bisexual, I encountered a very different definition of bisexuality. In academic settings and communities (i.e., settings and communities affiliated with the academy and/or composed primarily of people who have had the privilege of access to college education), I’ve generally read and heard bisexuality defined (mostly by cisgender heterosexual and lesbian/gay scholars) as attraction, desire and/or sexual engagement to males and females. In this tradition of knowledge, the “bi” refers to the sex/gender binary initially established by cisgender heterosexual scientists and religious elites in the 1800s, which was meant to grant science religious legitimacy by matching the origin story of Judeo-Christian-Western theological traditions.

This definition of bisexuality automatically erases intersex and trans experiences, and provides the foundation for the heterosexual/homosexual binary constructed by the same scientific and religious traditions. Further, it reduces sexual attraction, desire, and engagement to the genital properties of a given being, which provides support for interpretations of sexualities predicated upon reproduction rather than pleasure. From what I can tell, this definition seems to comfort some people who identify within sexual binaries (homosexuality/heterosexuality), sex binaries (female/male), and cisgender binaries (man/woman), and has even been adopted by some intersex, transgender, and bisexual academics (at least in public). Yet, it was completely foreign to me before I entered the academy and did not fit any bisexual I had met at that point in my life.

Beyond the fact that this definition does not resonate with me or capture the bulk of bisexual experience that I’ve witnessed in my life, it is often used as a weapon against bisexual people within and beyond the academy. Academic people use their own definition of bisexuality to then argue that it reinforces the same binary they used to define it; I’ve encountered this mostly by cisgender heterosexuals and lesbian/gay people, but even by some intersex, transgender, and bisexual or people claiming other fluid sexual identities. Such efforts, echoing patterns of bi, trans, and intersex erasure in heterosexual and lesbian/gay communities, define bisexuality as problematic based on definitions of this identity created and repeated by people who rarely have personal experience in this area or who only learn about it within academic settings and communities.

This practice is eerily similar to the ways cisgender heterosexual scholars defined homosexuality as pathological sex inversion, then used their own definition to argue that homosexuality was a disease or perversion of nature. It is also reminiscent of the ways white scholars (usually heterosexual and cisgender) defined people of color as a separate species before using this definition to justify systematic marginalization of, and discrimination and violence against people of color. Another example can be found in the ways medical science defined intersex people as abnormal and then used this definition to justify the mutilation of these people to fit into rigid sex binaries.

Since academic his-her-our-story is littered with examples of minority groups defined by privileged groups in ways that justify marginalization (i.e., transgender communities, differently-bodied communities, working and lower class communities, cis-trans-intersex women, etc.), I could offer plenty of other examples of the ways current academic definitions of bisexuality that are used to justify the marginalization of bisexual people mirror long standing patterns in academic gatekeeping and social control. In each case, the beliefs of the ruling academic class remain salient at least until voices from [insert minority community here] are granted access to the academy and disrupt the dominant narrative.

I would like to end this post by simply asking readers to think about definitions of bisexuality (and other marginalized statuses). Do you subscribe to or assume academic definitions of bisexuality predicated on binaries rather than two ends of a spectrum? If you occupy marginalized statuses yourself, do you currently define them in ways that come from your own communities or do you harken back to the ways privileged groups defined your people once upon a time? When you hear “bi,” do you think of binaries constructed by cisgender and monosex norms, or do you here two ends of a spectrum? By thinking about these questions, you can take the first step to figuring where you stand in relation to bisexual marginalization within the academy and the broader social world.

In the second part of this essay (posted here), in which I explore ways to resist or counter biphobia brought upon via academic definitions of bisexuality.  And, see Dr. Sumerau’s reflection on writing this essay at Write Where It Hurts.

25 Lessons From Grad School That Weren’t (Totally) True

Source: PhD Comics

Halfway through my second-year on the tenure-track, I see that I am faced with another important moment in shaping my career.  Though I effectively proved that I am an independent scholar through the grueling process of completing a dissertation, I still face the challenge of defining my career for myself.  The training wheels are off.  It seems, however, that the task of professional self-definition is a more salient and intense process for me because I intend to carve out my own path — one that prioritizes difference-making, health, happiness, and authenticity.

Just after one year in my job, I have stumbled across lessons I learned in graduate school that were exaggerated, completely false, or overly-simplistic.  It appears one necessary step of my journey toward a self-defined career as a teacher-scholar-advocate is to unlearn, or at least contexualize, such lessons.  Here are 25 lessons that I have identified as problematic or untrue.

  1. The only fulfilling career path in academia is a tenure-track (and eventually tenured) faculty position at a research I university.
  2. One goes where the job isPeriod.
  3. All new (qualified) PhDs get (and want) tenure-track jobs.
  4. People who do not complete graduate school are weak, stupid, or uncommitted.
  5. You must attend the big, national, and/or mainstream conference in your discipline in order to succeed.
  6. Academia and activism do not mix.
  7. Service should be avoided, and never includes community service.
  8. One only becomes relevant through publishing a lot in the top journal of one’s field.
  9. Teaching is not as important as research.  Really, we do it just to get paid.
  10. Academia is an equal opportunity institution.
  11. Higher education is filled with liberal-minded, social justice-oriented people.
  12. Objectivity exists and is the ideal approach for research and teaching.
  13. The rankings of universities are an ideal indicator for quality of training.
  14. Quantitative methods are better than qualitative methods.  Can the latter even be trusted?
  15. One should wait until they are an “expert” to blog or advance other forms of public scholarship.
  16. Homophobia no longer exists in academia.
  17. Black people are more likely than white people to get tenure-track jobs — because they’re Black.
  18. Graduate programs are concerned with the health and well-being of their students.
  19. If you do not love graduate school, you will hate being a professor.
  20. Race, gender, and sexuality are narrow areas of research.
  21. Peer-review is 100% anonymous.
  22. No one will get mad at you for blogging.
  23. Breaks during the academic year are just opportunities to get ahead on research.
  24. Grad students’ opinions matter in the major functions of the department.
  25. Sexual harassment does not occur in academia.

Focus, Focus, Focus!

During my days in the Meyerhoff Scholars Program, the early years of college at UMBC, I always appreciated visits from Dr. Freeman Hrabowski — the university’s president, and Meyerhoff’s co-founder.  Obviously, we did not see him daily because of his busy schedule, but his time with us was significant.  It is funny, though some students criticized his emphasis on academics and leadership over other things like athletics (which is dominant at bigger campuses), Dr. Hrabowski was in some ways a coach.  He would always conclude his visits by having us recite “Dreams” by Harlem Renaissance poet Langston Hughes:


By Langston Hughes

Hold fast to dreams
For if dreams die
Life is a broken-winged bird
That cannot fly.
Hold fast to dreams
For when dreams go
Life is a barren field
Frozen with snow.

Then, together, we would say, “focus, focus, focus,” while moving our hands up and down in unison with each “focus.”  Maybe reciting poetry is not typical in basketball locker rooms, but the sentiment to “get our head in the game” parallels a coach’s pep talk.

I left the Meyerhoff program after a year and a half, finishing out the remaining 3.5 years on a general scholarship and pursuing sociology as my major.  But, this kind of mentoring, the emphasis on holding fast to dreams and staying focused, has stayed with me all of these years.  Previously, I have reflected on how Dr. Hrabowksi’s mentorship and leadership has touched my life; and, I wrote about the support and encouragement I received from the late Meyerhoff director LaMont Toliver (who passed in 2012).  I credit Anika Green, a former assistant director (and my advisor at the time) of the Meyerhoff program, with forcing me to get my act together after a first, very disappointing year in college.  (I promised I would do better my second year, to which she said matter-of-factly: “prove it.”  And, so I did.)

The Philosophy of “Focus, Focus, Focus”

I take from their guidance during this key developmental period in my pursuit of higher education the mantra to “focus, focus, focus.”  Certainly, there are times when we cannot focus because something is off or amiss.

To an outsider, I likely seemed uncommitted to academics during my first year, and maybe even trying to “pull a fast one” during the beginning of my sophomore year in taking introductory classes in sociology, psychology, and women’s studies (my major was mathematics at the time!).  But, I struggled to focus because my heart was not in what I was doing/studying.  What I realized later was that my advisors in the Meyerhoff program were committed to my success, even if that path fell outside of the program’s focus on science, mathematics, and engineering.  For all of my growth since I start college 10 years ago (wow…), now with a PhD in sociology and headed to start my tenure-track job at a top liberal arts college, I cannot imagine that they are anything but happy and proud.

Beyond resolving any fundamental barriers to focusing, I understand the “focus, focus, focus” philosophy as one that suggests staying true to an internally defined path.  Certainly, we should be open to changes and detours, to learned lessons from mistakes and failures, and the support and encouragement from others.  But, our calling in life comes from within; it cannot and should not be given to us from others.  Focusing also means staying strong against hostile, external threats that aim to knock us down or block us from excelling.  We have to resist the challenges that aim to undermine our success.

Renewed Relevance

I am generally self-aware, spending a fair amount of time reflecting on where I am in life and how things are going.  Sadly, this tilts a little more towards worrying about the future, getting work done, and staying on top of and (ideally) ahead of things.  But, there is just enough reflection on my past and present to appreciate growth, learn from my mistakes, reassess and reevaluate, and recognize others’ impact in my life.

Sometimes, that feeling that things are off arises.  I have felt it a few times this past year as I went on the academic job market, completed and defended my dissertation, and peeled some of the figurative tape across my mouth to begin breaking silence around important, urgent issues in academia.  I have had to navigate what I feel is right and important, others’ expectations and advice, and some supportive, as well as unsupportive, responses from others.  In doing so, I have felt, at times, as though I may not being going about things the right way, making a mistake, saying or doing something that is unpopular, etc.

So, I have found it useful to seriously, intentionally focus, to ask myself — “okay, what is my path right now?  what are the most important things I need to be pursuing?”  No matter my concerns about what colleagues are saying in the blog world, speaking with other academics is not a priority for me.  So, in stepping back (a second time), I have reminded myself that the purpose of my blogging is, first, to educate, to offer a perspective on current events that I do not see otherwise offered.  A second purpose is to offer advice, resources, opportunities, and insights to colleagues in similar or the same fields and/or of similar backgrounds.

But, beyond blogging, I have reflected on my overarching focus as an academic: to educate as a means of social justice and liberation.  That includes creating new knowledge and correcting/extending existing knowledge (i.e., research) and teaching.  To further the reach of these activities, given the paywalls that restrict research and college education, I blog and work with community groups.

As some of my friends and I joke, “you can’t hug every cat.”  In other words, while I may be concerned about so many varied issues that ultimately stem from inequality and discrimination, I should not spread myself thin trying to blog about every ongoing current event, and keep up with others’  blogs, and participate in blog wars with colleagues, and so forth.  I have to “focus, focus, focus.”

In fact, I am beginning to see the value of focusing on doing a lot on fewer things.  I, metaphorically, have to plant my flag in some spot on the earth and expand outward from there.  And, that all starts from the internal — I am that flagpost.  By having a strong sense of who I am, what I value, and what my goals are, I can be more efficient in making incremental changes around me, starting small and getting bigger over time.

Maybe I can encourage others to do the same, to “use their powers for good” rather than waste it or even use it for bad reasons.  Thus, I conclude with an overly simplified characterization of Gandhian philosophy: be the change you wish to see in the world.

So, here’s to a renewed focus on matters most in my pursuit to improve the world!

PS: Two sociology bloggers, who I admire, inspired this post: Tressie McMillan Cottom who has a clear perspective and educational agenda, and Dr. Crystal Fleming, who regularly self-reflects on her blogAware of Awareness.