Sunday, September 29, 2013

The Socialization of Professional Behavior: A gender dichotomy?

So, as I am very ill and post-comps, I am blogging about my reading.  I plan to finish Lean In in the next couple of days, Sheryl Sandberg's well-written manifesto about taking charge of the workforce as a woman.  Why did I buy it this summer?  My advisor told me to buy it and so did my mother.  As these two women are the most influential female role models in my life, I tend to pay attention to anything both of them tell me to do.  Rarely do I ever buy new hardcovers out of my own impoverished need to eat before read but I did this once.

Lean In talks about being a professional success which is something my advisor is always on us about - especially her female students.  I had a bit of a fit over comps around the start of July, a time when I was about 3/4 through studying, in all reality.  I had the WORST case of imposter syndrome I've probably ever had in graduate school.  Seriously, I thought "I'm going to fail comps, I can't possibly do this".  She knows me better than this.  She acknowledged seeing me every day, asked me all what I was doing, and said, "This is not your Waterloo.  Well, it won't be unless you let it."  She also told me to read Lean In as I moved forward to help me understand what was really going on.

Where did this feeling come from?  Well, part of it is normal.  All academics have imposter syndrome, a condition that makes you feel inferior.  I say it's kind of like feeling that you are just WAITING for them to find out you don't belong in your program or aren't deserving of your PhD.  It feels like you aren't worthy and it's all a facade.  My advisor agrees we all have it.  I've yet to find someone who denies that it is a HUGE problem for academics like me.  My advisor says it is twice as bad for her sometimes because she feels like because she is female she often feels the need to check if it is "okay" for her to do something.  She now realizes a lot of these things are normal things that men will do.  She stated, specifically, that she had a huge case of anxiety concerning a very important speech (probably one of the most important you can give in our subfield) she had to make this Spring. She read Lean In and actually learned a lot about what she could do to quell her anxiety, take charge, and thought the book would help professional women like myself.

While some may dispute that graduate students such as myself are "professionals", I do not agree with this.  First of all, professionalism comes from discipline, a set of rules and norms, and a guide to what is ethical and acceptable behavior.  I can think of a million reasons why expectations for me academia, teaching, and research qualify me as "professional".  Second, at this stage in my career, I need to gear myself towards being seen as professional.  This helped me recently with my Fulbright application and will serve me on the job market.  This is why Lean In fits in.  I believe this is a key thing to point out.  Ladies, as grad students, you are professionals whether you like it or not.

Another reason I feel like Lean In, thus far, has been so pertinent is it's highlighting of socializing behaviors.  As my advisor stated, women feel that they often don't belong at the table and that they can't do certain things.  Think of your grad school classroom.  What is the gender parity like?  In my discipline, it is sorely lacking.  While we have actually hired mostly female researchers and professors in the past 4 years, women are far less represented in the grad student population and a large chunk of those women are PhD students.  This year's cohort has two women out of 13 people and has only 1 female PhD student.  I also look around and see a difference in the way that women feel about speaking up and demanding things and the way that men so easily taking on those roles.

I have been known to be a rather ambitious and demanding student.  I rarely roll over.  One of the male members of my cohort characterized me as a "bulldog" once.  I didn't take kindly to that.  I got rather offended.  Why?  Well, it seemed like he was calling me a whiny bitch rather than a respectable woman.  I felt like I was overreaching or something.

And that is why, when during a seminar about a year ago, I put up with another student - a male student - making all sorts of rude gestures while I talked.  This student has, in the past, has called me spoiled, rich, and demanded that I was "out of my league".  A large basis for his problems with me came from my choice of baseball team.  Yes, it's a very petty thing.  But it went WELL above that when one time he said, "you'd be attractive if you never opened my mouth".  That was said at a professionalization event held by the department.  I never talked about it again.  I slunk back and ignored him.  No one else who heard it ever spoke of it again.  There was an awkward pause and then a topic switch.

But here we were in another seminar talking about the importance of feminist movements in interest group formation and he was eye rolling, making talking mouths with his hands as I spoke, and I lost it.  I didn't have time to think.  I was at the end of my rope.  So, he did it one time too many and I turned to stare directly at him and said something to the tune of, "I would really love to talk about the representation of working class women which is often-neglected from this dialogue but someone is making it really difficult for me to contribute.  This isn't the first time, either. So, I will continue but it needs to stop.  The person knows who they are."

The class was silent and I continued but while I view this as a triumphant moment in my development as a women in my professional world, I didn't immediately see it this way.  I stopped talking a few seconds later only to have everyone staring at me nondescriptly.  The professor soon wrapped up our class and the person responsible for my outburst ran out QUICKLY.  The professor invited me to talk directly to him.  I now know that he was merely concerned about academic freedom and the importance of other points of view but at the time I felt as though I must have overstepped my role as being a meek female student.

So, I got in my car, called my mother crying, and relayed all of the details to her.  She told me that I did the right thing and that the person in question needed a wake up call if our professor wasn't going to step in.  She told me not to feel ashamed and that while I felt judged, the other women in that room would thank me later if not sooner.  My mother, who works in engineering and is the only woman in her department, has pretty much seen it all at this point.  I had to trust her a bit.  I talked to older female colleagues that were very supportive, as well.  My roommate said she hoped I would go talk to the professor and give him the backstory because he was trying to help and how would he know to help if someone didn't say anything.

The truth is, I don't think this guy is a menace just for the sake of being one.  He only seemed to have a problem with me when I tried to argue with him over points in seminar respectfully.  I believe, at times, he feels female authority isn't okay.  Let's face it, that's not just on him, that's on socialization at large.  So, for this, he acts out and gets all huffy.  I told the professor about our past history but didn't tell him about what had been said over drinks the year before.  I now wish I would have but it felt like gossip.  The truth is, it was sexual harassment whether he knew it or not.  I shouldn't be ashamed of that.

I told the prof everything and he actually admitted he was GLAD I had felt comfortable to say something and was happy I was participating.  He noted a big lack of female participation in that class.  Part of this is because of the way that male participants in that room tended to cut you off in a way they didn't cut off fellow men.  I noted this to him.  He did a better job of controlling the seminar after this.  And, while, for a bit I felt nervous, I got over it and came back even stronger in another seminar with one of the guys who cuts girls off on the regular.  I talked to another female student at the time, a first year, and encouraged her never to step down as older female graduate students had told me as a first and second year.  She admitted to feeling nervous about talking over him when he cut her off.  She was worried for the same reasons I had been.  I didn't want to be seen as a "bitch" or to make too many waves and she was similarly concerned about such characterizations.

I took charge of my professional abilities to speak freely, learn, and participate in an environment I felt was rather hostile at the time.  In doing so, I did make it easier for women to participate.  But I could have done the opposite. I am glad I got a bit hot under the collar that night and did something "risky" because it led to things being better for the women around me.  I am sure now that no one else was thinking the same but after my outburst, the offender in question never did what he was doing that night ever again in my presence.  There were jokes made by members of his cohort about me "busting balls" but I simply ignored them.  It was all an attempt by patriarchy to shame me into be subordinated and I wasn't falling for it.

So, when approaching comps, I believe being the only chick taking them and having a bigger chip on my shoulders did play into this.  Having my advisor tell me to deal with it was important and I'm glad I started reading.  Sandberg says:
Would I do it if I weren't afraid?  And then go do it. (26)
This is a piece of advice I think women should take into consideration. It's a simplified version of the things my mother, advisor, and older and wiser colleagues have told me for years but it makes sense.  If I was mentoring a female PhD student, I would probably express this to her specifically.

Women aren't socialized to be go-getters by most of the people they encounter.  Think about the toys girls are supposed to like (dolls, princess outfits, quiet things) and the toys boys are socialized to desire (cars, trucks, active things).  I was a tomboy who rolled in the dirt and hated pink.  My parents never impressed upon me the need to play with dolls.  It was my choice and whatever choice I made was fine.  I didn't have to censor myself because I was simply female.  I was allowed a seat at the table.

I feel like sometimes men in my discipline find me threatening because I don't often subscribe to this mentality.  I have had members of my own cohort be nasty about it when I was in the right.  Other women taught me to ignore the eye rolls.  But I see a lot of young women falling for the trap.  Hell, even I did at times.  I admit it isn't always perfect but socialization is a hard chip to grapple with.  Not everyone was raised by a very liberal feminist mother in a male-dominated field, either.  My sister and I weren't treated any "differently" by our parents at home.  It's why maybe I don't see myself as limited by gender all that often.  I like sports, swearing, beer, and my career.  I'm unapologetic about it.  But sometimes people get offended and act like assholes and I end up feeling guilty as if I was in the wrong for doing the same thing.  It's not always easy, Sandberg says that, but if you can, you should.  Don't feel guilty.  Be a professional but don't be limited.

If there is one thing I could say to a female PhD student at the start of her career, it would be what Sandberg says.  Don't let people scare you off.  By ignoring the obvious misogyny in place in certain academic circles, you not only do yourself a disservice but also hurt the women who come behind you.  It's a collective action problem of epic proportions and I think something should be done.

One thing we always worry about that still worries me is the ramifications that come with being a female go-getter who is ambitious, outspoken, and demanding.  I worry that people will treat me poorly or be offended.  After all, this IS an old boys club.  I did encounter some of this sentiment from an old-guard faculty member who believed that it wasn't "becoming" to speak as strongly as I did.  However, he is in the minority.  I have had professors say that I am an exemplary student, a competent researcher, and have managed to secure awards within the department above a mostly-male-dominated field of competition.  So, there aren't many ramifications.  The benefits outweigh the detriments.

I will also check my privilege, however.  I'm white and a heterosexual.  Things are simply easier for me than a woman of color. I'm not facing all of the challenges of intersectionality that trans-women, lesbian or bisexual,  or women of color are.  I can't be labeled the "angry black lady" of the department or a "dyke" - two things others  have said have happened in their workplaces.  I won't say every department is the same or every woman faces the same obstacles or has the same opportunities.  However, I believe it is critical that we get to know our fellow women, find mentors, and stand up to patriarchy.  It can't hurt to have an open dialogue with older and wiser people.  Dialogue and demanding better representation is the only way we will make this better.

Friday, September 27, 2013

General Tips For Passing Comps and Saving Your Sanity

So, I passed my comps.  I did so with surprisingly little fanfare on behalf of my bipolar disorder or OCD - two things that have, typically, made me feel shitty for every finals week in history minus the last two.  Comps is the juncture when most of my friends have ended up seeing a therapist and shrink and/or getting put on meds.  I fared ok, though, thanks to their advice.  Had I not had an immense amount of support from my family, friends, and therapist, I would have been fucked.

I think our department, historically, is pretty open with advice and support of those of us suffering through this exercise.  It's not seen as a competition between members of cohort or a cutthroat situation.  We all help one another.

But, not every department is similar.  And not every situation works out this way.  The cohorts before mine were rather large and studied together.  My cohort has 4 people - only 2 of which were taking comps this time around.  So, we were really too small to do anything together.  It felt lonely but I made my own support network and worked it.

Here are some general tips that may be helpful...

1. It's a marathon and not a sprint.  There is a good reason for this.  I had all summer to study.  In reality, you can probably take a month off of everything and study your ass off and pass but you will lose your life and mind in the process.  Make it easy on yourself, give yourself time to adjust, give yourself time to get confident and feel comfortable rather than cram.

2. You can't read everything or prepare everything.  You just can't.  You will feel like, even on the last day of studying, that you still have SO much to do but you can't do anymore.  It is time-dependent and, yes, you could study for all eternity.  While it is tempting to study for another semester, you are better off just to take your exam.  It's key that you do as much as you can and then let it go.  This was excellent advice I was given by friends.

3. Making comps a "job" is much better than freaking out and trying to cram it into every hour of every day.  I'm a sucker for a schedule and when I go into "work" to get things done, I generally do them.  If I stay at home, nothing gets done.  I took a summer class mainly to ensure I was in the office every day.  It was the best decision I made.  I went into class in the AM, did a bit of work for that, and then studied from 1-5 PM for comps daily while doing that scheduled.  Then, it was a 9-5.  It worked.

4. You need days off - plenty of them.  This a million times over.  Again, if you make it into a marathon pace, you can afford to take the time.  Take your time and finish strong.  I told friends and family that their job was to distract me when I was off the clock.  Yes, you will still wake up and have a full on conversation about Street Level Bureaucrats at 3 AM with your SO but, for the most part, you can get them to help you ignore comps and start fresh the next time you pick up a book.  Weekends were KEY for me.

5. Talk to your advisor - he or she will most likely be helpful.  My advisor was awesome during the entire process and so were other committee members.  Everyone gave me good advice and I was talked off the ledge a couple of times by faculty members.  It was good.  Don't be afraid to reach out.  They have all been through this and talked a number of students through it before.

6. Talk to friends that did it before you and take their advice seriously.  My friends were really helpful.  I found an officemate and friend who was much like myself in terms of stress behavior, OCD, and past experiences with school to be particularly helpful.  Even if they have no clue what you are preparing, how much they are preparing, etc. even a strong word of encouragement will help you keep pushing.  Hang out with these people, listen to their stories, it will help.

7. Ask for past comps notes.  Either study with your cohort and trade notes or ask for them from the people that have come before you.  I just handed my stash of notes off to the people in my cohort taking comps next semester. I am sure some of what I did will be useless to them but a lot of what I was given was helpful so use it!  People aren't generally shy about sharing.  After all, you just took a shit ton of notes that you won't use again until you need to make a syllabus, right?

8. Read over past questions before you get too involved in studying to help you figure out what matters and what doesn't.  Before you freak out, it may be helpful to look at past questions just so you can say "yes I can answer this".  When my roommate was taking comps the semester before I did, I read over past questions with her and found that I felt a lot better about my own chances of passing after reading them.  She said they helped her as well.  We have very different approaches to studying but that was one thing that worked for us both.

9. Stop studying well ahead of when you need to take your comps or defend them.  I stopped almost a week before I took my writtens to go swim in a pool.  I couldn't feasibly do anymore.  I didn't do any prepping after that point.  I focused on getting sleep, hung out with my boyfriend, and didn't do a whole lot more.  It was good.  I went away the weekend before my defense and brewed beer.  Believe it or not, there isn't much you can do but take them.  About 2-3 weeks before you take your comps, you will feel like there isn't much more you can REALLY do. You are probably ready at that point to take them even though you would like to prep indefinitely.

10. Get mental health support and get it often if you need it.  Almost every department has a stress or panic attack nightmare to do with comps in recent history.  My advisor told me REPEATEDLY over the course of comps that the only real fear she had about me was my stress derailing me about 4 weeks before my written exams.  I took 4 days off, started fresh, and calmed the fuck down.  I also upped my dosage of valium, something I take for sleep.  My shrink and therapist were there every step of the way.  I impressed them in the end with my ability to stay on target but it really was just doing all of the things I'd been doing before.  If you are feeling completely out of control, go see someone!  Honestly, I slept 8 hours before my writtens AND orals because of life-saving meds that kept me from being manic.  I felt like I was cheating in one way but the reality was, I would have failed without regular behavioral modification and medication.

I didn't experience true hypomania at ANY point on my comps journey past the initial stress of trying to study while taking care of a very sick roommate.  This is the longest I've been stable.  I didn't let that first experience color my ability to pass, either.  I listened to my gut, went home for a couple days, studied there, and then got back on track.  Take care of yourself and be kind to yourself (as my therapist tells me).

Feel free to include your rec's in the comments....

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Some opinions on Comps...

I've been a really bad author and haven't updated this blog as much as I would have liked but I'm trying.  As much as I didn't want them to, comps kind of took over my life for about a month and a half.  Well, they took over my entire summer, but I mean, I couldn't really even THINK about anything else without feeling guilty about neglecting comps for the last 6 weeks.  People told me this but none of it really resonated THAT much until I actually buckled down and studied a lot.  I passed, though!  And now, I'm back with thoughts on the process.

I will be coming back with a helpful "tips for comps" post later on but I am hoping that this makes sense to those of you who have taken them or who will take them.  I feel like a lot of us lose out on the process after we do it.  It's so unholy, so vile, so stressful that we ignore the process and what it actually means to us, basically.  We may forget why we do it if we don't dialogue about it.

So, my questions are as follows (maybe we can have a dialogue?):
1. Why do we do comps?
2. Should we continue on with the process of comprehensive exams or are they obsolete?

So, to begin with, I will tell you about our process here.  Students typically take comps at the start of their 4th year of the PhD program.  That's late for the discipline but this program puts a high priority on both substantive courses AND methods training.  We get a lot of classroom time which has good and bad associated with it.  The exams are given in BOTH fields of study (mine were in public policy and comparative politics).  Your fields weight equally.  You have a written exam for each field.  Mine were each over an open-book period of 8 hours.  Then, a few weeks later, you defend your answers.  Some fields give you feedback and others don't.  You can't just pass on either stage alone - your orals and written both have to be "passes" and you have to pass both before you continue.  If you pass neither or only one, you have to retake the next semester.  If you fail that, you fail out, essentially.

In some departments, this is a foregone conclusion and simply a hazing exercise.  Everyone passes but they hurt you in the process.  In our department, few people actually fail but they have failed people and pushed them out of the program twice in the past year and a half.  It's not a foregone conclusion that you will pass and you do have to demonstrate pretty exceptional knowledge of a given subdiscipline in your written and oral exam to pass.  They don't do it to fail you but they don't make it easy, either.

So, with that said, why do we do comps?

Well, I asked this question at the beginning of my studying and then throughout the past 4 months of studying.  There is NO one answer but the answers I have collected seem to fit into three general camps.

Camp 1 (the cynic): Hazing
This is the camp that definitely hates comps the most.  A lot of grad students in-process and  post-process probably fit this mold as well as some faculty members that feel a publication is probably a better gauge of material.  These people see comps as an artificial ritual that just forces grad students to stress out for no reason.  A part of me DOES agree with them.  And while I do agree that much of the Ivory Tower is kind of obsessed with being an old boys club that would be totally okay with an arbitrary hazing process, I think this is a little too cynical to be reality.

Camp 2 (the scholar) : Breadth of Material
This camp thinks comps are fucking awesome.  Or, at least they seem to feel this way outwardly.  They believe that comps are a somewhat enriching process in which you learn what you need to be a scholar.  To some degree, I see their points.  I didn't agree with this idea prior to the process starting. I thought, "Why the hell do I need to know about Latin American party systems, anyway?  I will never use this teaching in policy school!"  Well, it is true that I probably won't but I will have to talk to people of differing backgrounds at conferences, in job talks, etc.  This view does have some merit.  However, I don't know if it alone merits such a horrendous process as comps.  Scholars are often quick to point out "I don't do that" when you ask them a question outside their bag of tricks.  However, I do think the process helped me get my head around how I would make a syllabus and the main arguments in each subfield.

Camp 3 (the pragmatist): Stress Management
My advisor is a cross between a scholar and a pragmatist but she errs heavily on the "pragmatist" side.  Academics are often seen by outsiders as pretty lucky.  We set our own schedules, we don't do manual labor, we get compensated fairly well, comparatively.  However, we also have really high stress jobs in a "publish or perish" environment.  Comps, in this view, prepare you for a life that is high-stress, critical, and demanding.  Your dissertation, publications, and tenure are stressful processes.  If you can't handle comps, according to my advisor, you will be up shit creek.  I believe there is probably more than a grain of wisdom with this view.  As someone who has a tendency to have panic attacks, has a mood disorder, and has always been wound up a bit tight when it comes to exams, this process was eye-opening.  It taught me I *could* handle the stress, over all.

I believe the BEST way to characterize why we do comps combines all of the above approaches.  Comps is a bit of a hazing ritual and a bit artificial in nature but it DOES teach you the main arguments in your subfield and, possibly even more importantly, prepares you for the reality of academic work.

Should we carry on with comps or are they obsolete?
I don't think they are.  Are they awful?  Yeah.  Is "well, I did them so you should to" a justification I think is appropriate for path dependence?


I do, however, for the reasons above, think they have merit.  Some have talked about changing the format of our comps here - making them closed-book.  I must say that I am not necessarily impressed by this idea.  My advisor is an advocate, saying it would help us not be held to an impossible standard of knowing EVERYTHING under the sun but I don't think the expectations among some of the faculty in every school and department to change over night. Some of us would be burned.  I'm not sure I feel this would be best.

I think comps suck.  They are miserable, awful, and stressful.  They suck.  But while they suck they also have merit if not just on the merit of those things listed above but also because knowing what would be expected for me in comps on DAY ONE of my program required me to take excellent notes, engage better with the material, and critique every piece I read.

For these reasons, studying was far more simple and relaxed (if it ever could be!) and I learned more during my courses.  So, there are merits to comps.  I just think we need to be careful how we look at them.  We also should reflect more on them as people who have survived our comps.  We need to help those suffering through them in subsequent years and stick to furthering the goals of scholarship and professionalization rather than using them as some sort of hazing ritual.

What say you?  Should we keep comps? Get rid of them?  Change them?  What were yours like?