Below is my interview with a brilliant PhD candidate who wishes to remain anonymous. I urge you to read it, and take a moment to think about the internalized discrimination in your own industry, and how that can affect the work and health of those around you.
Occupation: Phd Candidate, Course Instructor
What drove you to pursue your PhD?
After I completed my Masters, I was fairly certain I would never be back in school. I started working as a talent agent assistant and working in marketing and development, but fairly quickly I missed the opportunities I had at school to learn and to write. I missed the busy schedule and surprisingly, I missed the stress of trying to get it all done. Working was wonderful, but the 9-5 wasn’t the right fit for me. I love having control of my schedule and feeling like I am contributing to something that is important to me. I left the talent agency to pursue an MFA in film, and knew as soon as I got back to school that this was what I wanted to pursue. I started attending conferences and writing articles and applied to do a PhD in my second year of the MFA.
Can you tell me about your thesis?
My PhD thesis actually builds on my MFA project. It looks at queer women and non-binary artists in the theatre and performance industry. I thought at first it would be more quantitative, surveying the community and tallying up the lack of resources available to queer women and non-binary artists. As I continued to research and write, the project became more rooted in queer theory and performance analysis. The project doesn’t aim to count bodies or to survey the industry; others have done that before. Instead, my work questions how precarity influences representations on stage.
What are some things you love about being a PhD candidate?
I love teaching and writing. We often forget to remind our undergraduate students that they are scholars, that they are developing and producing new ideas in the papers they write, in their research, and through their insights. I love when my students start to value their own contributions. It changes the commitment they have to the work, when they feel they are respected at that level. It is so important and it makes me feel like I am doing my job when I see them internalize that message. I also love writing. Publishing and presenting my work and engaging in conversation is essential to maintaining my motivation to continue in this industry. It isn’t an easy one to stick with, there are many obstacles along the way, so it feels important to prioritize what I love about this world in order to cope with the stress and anxiety it brings.
What do you think is the most difficult part about your work?
We aren’t isolated from the problems that exist in other work places. Though many try to improve the university environment, there are problems with sexual assault in the academy, with homophobia, racism, white supremacy, abelism and settler colonialism. It plays out in who gets funding, whose work is valued, and how resources are allocated. Our students don’t have adequate access to mental health and wellness services, and neither do we as graduate students. The racism on campus is increasing with professors like Jordan Peterson vocalizing violent racist and sexist rhetoric on the internet and on campus. It can make the university feel very unsafe. I have a strong network of graduate students to work with to cope with these obstacles, and I try to provide my students with support and to create a space where we can openly talk about racism and sexism at the university. But, it is hard and it is draining. The people who take on this labour are the people who are most disenfranchised by it. It is exhausting, which impacts our research and our job prospects. It is a cycle in that the privileged students and faculty are not worn down by the effort. They can continue, if they choose, with business as usual. Those who resist inequities have to rush to get it all done. In a competitive industry like academia, this takes a toll not only on your mental health, but on your productivity and your ability to produce research and for graduate students to finish within their funded cohort. So, you need to decide early on what your priorities and values are, and to give yourself permission to take the time you need. Self care is incredibly important.
How do you balance your teaching requirements with your own research?
I try to push through. There isn’t really another option. There is so much to do and all of it is important. Making lists and keeping my calendar up to date is a practical way to make sure it all gets done. But, the balance shifts depending on the week, or the day, or when it comes down to it, the hour!
How do you like to relax?
Physical activity is pretty important. Though maybe not “relaxing” in a conventional sense, it is how I try to spend my “me” time. It feels good to learn new skills with my body when so much of my work is done sitting still.
This interview series is about working women. Have there ever been times when being a woman has affected your work, or how you work?
Yes. everyday and in everything that I do. Women have acquired significant rights and access, particularly white women, but the emotional labour expected of women, and the additional obstacles that consistently arise because of internalized and conditioned sexism are as prevalent here as other work places. People don’t necessarily notice when they are being sexist, but look around the room in a meeting and see who is taking minutes, who is arranging food, who is providing care? Count the number of times women get interrupted, how quick men are to offer their opinion or take up space. These can be traces, tiny moments of power inequities. These can also appear to be kind gestures: holding open a door, giving a back rub, complimenting a dress. But the words we use and the behaviors we enact are inextricable from the ways we have been conditioned to view gender. This is entirely exacerbated for folks who inhabit multiple positions of marginalization, Indigenous women, Black women, Disabled women, experience these microaggressions and assaults simultaneously to other forms of oppression. The academy is hard for everyone. A neoliberal capitalist restructuring of higher education and the resulting insecurity of academic positions, makes this a competitive and difficult space for all PhDs and sessionals. But, for women, this can result in silencing and a culture of fear and secrecy. We are afraid to speak up about sexual assault or inappropriate behaviour because it could have lasting effects on our future job prospects. We don’t know who will be on a search committee or who will be a chair or dean when we are on the job market. We don’t want to be seen as ‘trouble makers’ or too feminist or too progressive. It is hard to be a woman in academia, but through the presence and support of incredible mentors and faculty members, PhD students and Masters students can learn to navigate this system. The women who have taught me have been essential to gaining voice and courage. Their strength is both an inspiration and an education.
Any advice for young people heading off to graduate school? Any hot tips for navigating the university environment?
Ask questions. Meet with Faculty. Talk to other students. Try to get a really solid picture of what the day-to-day experience is like at the department you are interested in. When you apply, find a supervisor who is passionate about their work, and who is truly interested in yours. Their excitement in supporting you early on is something I would look for and prioritize. It will make all of the difference during your degree and after when you are looking for work.
Bonus question: What are you currently reading/do you want to recommend a book to the world?
Sara Ahmed, Living a Feminist Life. Go read it!