Pursuing Tenure As A Survivor Of Sexual Assault Suffering From PTSD

Note: this essay was originally published on our career advice column featured on Inside Higher Ed (here). The anonymous author is now a tenured professor at a small liberal arts college.

Surviving Rape and PTSD in Academe

I came to my current institution as a sexual assault survivor. A newly minted Ph.D., I had undiagnosed post-traumatic stress disorder and depression. Together, they transformed the most ordinary tasks into overwhelming obstacles.

I experienced everything that a first-year professor experiences: the daunting task of creating new classes, the dizzying dance of whether to go hard or soft on my students, the effort of forging collegial relationships and the search for friends and community in a new town. And yet I was also in pain, lost amid a whirlwind of flashbacks and panic attacks, hypervigilance and battered self-esteem.

I only confided in one friend about what was going on. The social stigma surrounding rape was such that I worried others would reject and isolate me if they knew. Certainly, the daily news was full of stories of the price women paid for naming their experience. I was also deeply afraid that I would lose my job and my colleagues would see me as a hazard, rather than as someone deserving of their support.

Being hypervigilant meant that there was no place in which I felt safe, least of on all my new campus. Raised voices — even the general, positive hubbub of students in class — led me to dissociate. Loud noises would cause me to panic. Sometimes I could not identify what triggered me but would experience sensory processing difficulties all the same. Every day was a battle: to get out the door, to prepare for class, to be the professor that my students needed me to be. I was constantly exhausted, anxious and fearful that someone would notice the cracks at the heart of my being.

Every aspect of my job proved difficult, but research most of all. Archival work required that I get in my car and drive for hours to a city far from my rural home. It required the confidence to talk to archivists and the wherewithal to be around people without feeling unsafe. It required concentration that I did not have, self-assurance that I had long since shed. Perhaps unsurprisingly, my performance was affected. My pretenure review went badly.

By then, I had finally found a therapist who had delivered my diagnoses, and I decided that I should tell my colleagues and dean what was happening. When I did so, one member of my department reared back and exclaimed, “I don’t need to know that sort of thing!” I left their office frightened and ashamed. Another colleague decided my PTSD was to blame for my lack of response to their unsolicited line edit of a paper I had submitted with my file and chided me for letting my illness get the better of me. A third colleague neglected to warn me of a film’s graphic rape scene in a class we were teaching. Intensely triggered, I completely shut down for the next two days. The dean expressed sympathy about my PTSD but told me to just push on through. I could take an extra year on my tenure clock, they offered, but urged me to gather up all my willpower and do it in the original time I was allotted.

No one said, “I’m not sure what PTSD is — let me educate myself.” No one said, “I’m sorry that happened to you” or “We’re concerned about you.” No one said, “How can we help?”

It came as no surprise, then, that my institution handled student sexual assaults poorly. Stories burned through campus: the survivor who’d been told to think about how her attacker felt; the young woman who was counseled not to make a “big deal” out of things by demanding redress; the several students who were sent from one campus office to the next with their reports, no one believing it was their responsibility to deal with the situation. When one incident blew up into a campuswide issue, faculty members came together to take action. They decided that they should write a letter saying they opposed rape. I asked what the letter was intended to achieve, since no one, surely, would come out and say they advocated for rape. I didn’t get an answer.

What my colleagues did not see was that we were all complicit in the rape culture of our campus. By not demanding real change — clear policies, accountability and consequences for violent actions — we implicitly said that rape was acceptable, public letters notwithstanding. And I was struck by the fact that the same colleagues advocating for the letter were the colleagues who had refused to accommodate my disability or treat me with empathy and respect. I began telling more people that I was a survivor, naïvely believing that my colleagues’ response to sexual violence would perhaps change if they personally knew someone who had been raped. But it didn’t. If anything, it weakened my position. It would not be the first or last time gossip on the campus charged that I was acting out of victimhood and should not be indulged.

I privately contemplated suicide, although it was teaching that saved me. As I sat on a campus bench one morning, eating yogurt and tallying reasons to live or die, I realized I was close to running late for class. I went to the classroom out of a sense that it was necessary to show up, to be present, to listen to what my students had to say. By the end of class, I could see my situation clearly enough to call my therapist and admit how bad things were. I didn’t tell anyone at my university. Again, I was afraid that I would lose my job.

I got tenure on the regular tenure clock — an achievement that even now feels surreal given everything that I was battling. I was elated when I heard and when a friend said, “You did all of this with PTSD.” And then I got angry at the fact that I had had to meet not only the explicit expectations of publications, good teaching and thoughtful service but also the implicit ones: I would do so as if I were neurotypical, rather than someone with a disability protected by the Americans With Disabilities Act. I was expected to make tenure without necessary accommodations for my success, safety and well-being. An extra year on the clock would have helped. Expecting me to teach fewer new courses would have helped. Allowing me to submit documentation of my disability to the faculty in charge of tenure review would have helped. But most of all, if I had received other people’s understanding, I would have been a healthier colleague and teacher all around.

Cause for Hope

Happily, my personal recovery accelerated after finding a therapist who performed a technique that, month by month, replaced the feelings of terror associated with my traumatic memories with calm and coping. That, along with the increased security of tenure, encouraged me to out myself as a survivor to my students. By then, aided and abetted by word of mouth and an unofficial network of survivors who recognized one another, I knew too many people who had faced the withering indifference of their peers, professors and administrators when they tried to articulate the pain of having survived a sexual assault. I wanted to show my students they were not alone and that it was possible to survive and even flourish after experiencing such hurt.

A turning point arrived unexpectedly. On the campus, resistance to seeing rape culture for what it was eventually spilled out into the debate about trigger warnings. Trigger warnings coddled already spoiled students, argued some of my colleagues. No one would protect students from “real life” after college, so why should we do it now? Art was supposed to be a place where students could process their feelings, not hide from them. Science was allegedly a field in which sexual assault had no bearing on the subject of the day. As article after article about our “coddled” students made the rounds on the faculty mailing list, I stepped in to give a first-person account of what typically happened when a person with PTSD was triggered. For the first time, I had colleagues who responded positively, who heard what I was saying and took it into account as they decided where they stood on trigger warnings themselves. I was hopeful.

Student activism also gave me cause for hope. Empowered by the revamped Title IX process under the Obama administration, students demanded change in our institution’s policies and procedures for reporting assault. They demanded that the campus become a friendlier place for survivors and tirelessly articulated that those who had been assaulted were not somehow to blame if they later developed symptoms of PTSD. It was this activism that gave me new language for my own situation. Such efforts allowed me to see clearly that I was not a burden on anyone unless the system that surrounded me was broken. When our workplace demands that we be something other than we are in order to carve out a place for ourselves in the academy, the problem is not us but rather the workplace itself.

I continue to heal. It is not so much that I grow stronger everyday as it is that that strength demands less active labor on my part to be realized. I have always been strong, as have all survivors. The idea that any of us are overprotected and overindulged is a lie told by individuals comfortable in their privilege — be it the privilege of never being assaulted or the privilege provided by their power and position to ignore the very real pain of those around them. There are surely people, too, who cannot yet speak up or speak out, whose indifference is a mask they must adopt to survive the effects of the trauma visited upon them. I hope they find a more welcoming academic home than I did.

When A Professor Is Sexually Harassed By A Student

Note: this blog post was originally published on our career advice column on Inside Higher Ed (here). To avoid retaliation or further violence, the author has chosen to remain anonymous. She is an adjunct professor at a public university

In recent years, we have seen college administrators attempt to raise students’ awareness about sexual assault on their campuses, including what to do if it happens to them. The push we are seeing is often the result of universities trying to comply with Title IX — a federal law that prohibits sex discrimination, sexual harassment and sexual assault at any federally funded education program or activity. In other words, this raised awareness is not necessarily the result of administrators’ genuine concern about the well-being of their students but often because institutions are scared of losing their federal funding.

Moreover, as colleges and universities step up to the plate, rushing to create pretty landing pages, handouts and online trainings, some miscommunication and misunderstanding about whom those laws protect remains. For example, efforts to increase awareness are focused on students, while faculty members are often overlooked. When the tables are turned and it is a faculty member who is assaulted or harassed, standing face-to-face with an attacker, what should be done?

Further, the public often hears about superiors showing dominance over a worker and using their authority to keep the victim in a state of oppression. But this model does not reflect incidents when it works the other way: when students sexually harass their professors. What does a faculty member do when they find themselves at the mercy of a student who has no regard for boundaries or authority, and who doesn’t understand that no means no?

Early in my career, at a campus where I no longer work, I was stalked and sexually harassed by a male student. At one point, he locked me in my own office and tried to proposition me. In the aftermath, I experienced firsthand how little the administration at my institution seemed to know about sexual assault and harassment, as well as how few concrete procedures were in place to help me and others in my position to deal with being assaulted or harassed.

The institution’s webpage was not very helpful at all when it came to providing information and whom to contact for help. And when I reached out to my colleagues in the administration and on the faculty, for the most part, they also turned a blind eye to my situation. Meanwhile, the harassment did not stop. I felt alone, scared and unprotected.

In the face of all that, I could have easily given up. When standing in the face of adversity, sometimes we tend to shrink. But I refused to give up; instead, I chose to rise. I spoke out to my institution about my experience and its lack of support. And I’ve continued to work to bring awareness about the issue, to fight for what I believe is right and to try to help others in my situation.

What to Do if It Happens to You

So, fellow professors and instructors, what should you do if this happens to you? What steps should you take if you find yourself standing in the middle of a sexual assault or harassment case as a victim on a college campus? Here are a few tips that I found helpful as a faculty member.

  • Make sure that all of your communication is in writing via email. This serves as both a date and time stamp that can never be erased.
  • Follow the policies and procedures that are outlined by your university. If the institution doesn’t provide a landing page on its website about preventing and dealing with sexual violence, go to the search area and type in “Title IX.” Unfortunately, this information can sometimes be hidden beneath a layer of nobody cares.
  • Remember that you do not have to allow yourself to be revictimized. You do not have to continue to sit in meetings telling your story over and over again.
  • You do have the right to legal counsel.
  • File a complaint with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission office in your state if you feel your case has not been handled appropriately by your employer.
  • Seek out mental-health treatment because — believe it or not — no matter how strong you may think you are, you are never mentally prepared to deal with a situation like this. I myself was diagnosed with PTSD, anxiety and depression, and have worked with a therapist.
  • Most important, take some time to heal.

There is a bright side to this story. Because of my refusal to remain silent, the institution where I used to work has adopted much clearer policies on sexual assault. It has also significantly improved the information it provides people on the campus about the issue — including anyone on the faculty who might be a victim — and how to deal with it. As for me, it is my hope that by sharing a bit of advice, I can also help other faculty members who find themselves having to cope with similar experiences.

There’s No Manual for This: Surviving Rape Apologists in the Classroom

Note: This blog post was originally published on Write Where It Hurts, and republished on our career advice column on Inside Higher Ed.  The anonymous author is a sociology instructor at a public university in the United States.

When I began graduate training, I was inundated with advice about how to survive in my chosen profession. Specifically, I received tips on teaching — how to grade papers efficiently, how to foster a meaningful class discussion, how to have boundaries with students regarding grade contestations and office hours while also creating a safe space for learning. I was told to grade students’ work as uniformly and objectively as possible. I value all of this advice, yet I was left unprepared for what would happen in the future when I taught a gender course.

It was the middle of the semester, and we were covering rape culture. As any feminist instructor who has ever taught about rape culture probably knows, covering this topic is challenging for a multitude of reasons. Sometimes we encounter students who realize that they have been raped who come to office hours looking for resources. Other times, students learn that they have actually perpetrated rape and struggle to reconcile that with their images of themselves as “good people” and “not one of those (usually) guys.” And many feminist instructors, especially those who are women, know all too well what it is like to navigate the “mansplaining” of a few men students who would like to ardently deny that rape culture exists. Such students may make claims like the following, among others:

  • In response to discussions about the fact that what a woman is wearing does not give someone license to rape her, nor does the rate of sexual violence have anything to do with clothing choice: “But don’t you think what she was wearing is at least a little important?”
  • In response to conversations about the structural barriers to reporting rapes, and the estimated number of rapes that go unreported: “But why wouldn’t she report it? It’s kind of on her.”
  • In response to demonstrating the staggeringly low rates of “false reports” in contrast with the alarmingly high concern lawmakers, the media and the general public seem to have with this artificial trend: “How do you know that it’s really rape?”
  • In response to pointing out that someone is incapable of consenting if they are intoxicated: “Well, don’t you think she should have been more aware of her surroundings? Less drunk? It’s kind of her fault.”
  • In response to the fact that we live in a society that valorizes men’s violence against and dominance over women: “Boys will be boys” or “locker room talk.”

Every so often, however, men students may present a reasonable shortcoming of the prevailing rape-culture rhetoric, such as “Why don’t we talk about when men experience rape? How can we make space for that dialogue without pushing aside women’s experiences with rape and systemic inequality?”

This is a valid question, and the inquiry is on point. We need to make space for men (as well as nonbinary people) to share their experiences with rape, since the foreclosure of such space stems from the very same mechanisms of inequality that facilitate rape culture in the first place.

When I encountered a paper that began with this question in my gender course, I hoped that the student would take the paper in that direction.

He started by citing an example of a case he read in the news media in which a woman on a college campus raped a man and the institution responded poorly. However, I first felt a twinge in my spine when I looked up the source of his story and traced it back to a men’s rights advocacy group. “OK,” I thought to myself, “students use questionable sources all the time, often because they might not have the skills to distinguish objective journalism from something like an MRA group. I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt here and make a note of it for the next paper.”

Unfortunately, his argument quickly devolved into a tirade claiming — since he presented just one case wherein a woman raped a man — that feminism is pointless and women are complaining too much about gender inequality. He wrote that men and women experience rape culture in exactly the same way, and claimed talking about gender inequality was just an effort to make men look bad. He said that women brought these things upon themselves by making people, and specifically men, angry and annoyed via conversations about feminism and rape culture. He did not even feign a presentation of data to back up his argument after the initial example; rather, he simply ranted against feminism, women and open discussions about the sexual violence women regularly experience.

As I went over his paper, I realized that I was reading a paper that sounded word for word like something the man who raped me would say. And not only did this sound like something my rapist would say, this student fit the same demographic profile as him: white, college male, between the ages of 18 and 22.

I got up from my desk and went for a walk. I could not concentrate. I had plans to read a book later that afternoon, which were shattered by being thrown back into a pit of traumatic, fragmented memories by this student’s paper. I was furious at the fact that, as an instructor, I was expected to take his paper seriously, and scared of what he might do if he did not like his grade. Although I knew it was unlikely that this student would literally try to rape me, his words felt so familiar that I began having trouble distinguishing him from the man that did. Their words were so frighteningly similar that the rational-instructor side of my brain could not overpower the trauma-survivor side.

None of my training or experience prepared me for something like this, not even advice from the few feminist scholars I have had the pleasure of knowing. I was in a position where I had to take this student’s words seriously, evaluate their merit and provide a percentile score based on how well I thought they fit the parameters of the assignment.

Zero! You get a fucking zero!” I literally screamed at my computer screen. I decided that I was not ready to return to grading papers yet, so I got up and went for another walk.

I felt irritated that in two pages of (poorly written) ranting, this student was able to undercut whatever authority I thought I had as an instructor. Authority that, especially as a woman instructor, I worked hard to establish and maintain. I imagined him sitting on the other side of his computer screen laughing at my pain, joking about my distress. I imagined him being friends with my rapist (though the man who raped me is now significantly older than this student, he is frozen in the 18-22 age bracket in my mind). How, I wondered, could I possibly evaluate this student’s work in an “unbiased” fashion? Such a request would involve me living an entirely different life than the one that I have had.

I returned to my computer late that night. I pulled up his paper, took a deep breath and began to read it again. No one ever advised me how to grade a paper that sounds like something my rapist would say, so I suppose I will have to train myself. After all, I am certain that I am not the only instructor to have to navigate this dynamic, and I am sure this will not be the last time that I have to navigate it.

Why I Quit My PhD Program: Suggestions For Improving Graduate Programs (Pt. 2)

Source: PHD Comics

Image source: PHD Comics.

This anonymous guest post is the second of a two-part essay in which the author reflects on their decision to quit their doctoral program, and offers suggestions to improve graduate education.  Be sure to check out the first part of their essay here!

Stuck In The Past (Part II)

Welcome back! In the first part of this essay, I examined three fundamental aspects of graduate education that seem flawed or lacking in my experience (comprehensive exams, funding, and teaching assistantships). However, there is another side of academic life that begins in graduate school, and if the student is not firmly grounded in these practices, their career and well-being as professionals will suffer. Professional academic work in the university is focused on research and writing, carrying equal or more weight than teaching (in too many cases) with tenure committees or administrators.

While graduate seminars hone critical reading, writing, and research skills, neither of the graduate programs I attended provided adequate guidance on other aspects of being a scholar, such as writing conference proposals and papers, and writing and submitting articles to journals for publication. In this second post, I provide some thoughts on another three issues: preparation for being a “scholar” or professional academic, interdisciplinary research, and post-PhD employment.


Scholarly Preparation

I imagine there are many ways to address the broad notion of “scholarly preparation,” and I understand that it varies by academic discipline, as well as the size and resources of a given department.

First, departments could encourage (or require) graduate students to participate in an academic writing group. Students would bring anything from course writing assignments to pieces of a dissertation for critique. Faculty would participate on a rotating basis, participating either for a semester at a time, or on a rotating basis of one faculty member present at each meeting of the group. A third option is to have a series of workshops over the course of a couple of months. The workshop series would be held at least once per academic year, but preferably once per semester. In addition to training students how to prepare their written work for publication, students would also have the opportunity to learn how to interact in a critical-yet-respectful way with their peers.

Another approach would be to offer this topic as a course once a year and require all graduate students to take it before starting work on their dissertation. This should be a practical, hands-on course following a weekly plan similar to what Wendy Belcher suggests. The outcome should be a paper revised for submission to a journal, or a paper prepared for a conference presentation. And, in case I need to say it, this should be a course that counts towards the student’s degree, covered by tuition credits/funding, and should be taken seriously by faculty and students alike.

Faculty who are reading this may be thinking, “but I barely have enough time to eat/sleep/do research/spend time with my family as it is – I don’t need even more tasks!” I sympathize with your plight; unfortunately without addressing larger, systemic issues regarding demands on faculty time, I don’t have a recommendation that helps both grad students and faculty.


It is probably fair to say that the (non)availability of true interdisciplinary study on the doctoral level is a significant limitation that keeps me from pursuing another PhD program, even if I were inclined to put up with comprehensive exams, language study, limited funding, and grueling schedules. I firmly believe that methodologies and approaches beyond my “home” discipline have much to offer, especially when contemplating a project the size and length of a dissertation. Moreover, interdisciplinary study can open new avenues of research and broaden scholars’ thinking. This will also help to alleviate the hyper-specialization that has taken over many academic fields. One of the reasons I have never felt completely at home in academia is the pressure to specialize, and to identify just one (often tiny) research area.

(With that simple paragraph I worry I have given myself away, as I have rarely encountered other academics with the same feelings of being constrained.)

The “easiest” fix for this is to have established accommodations for students interested in cross-disciplinary research. This could be along the lines of allowing credits from coursework in another discipline to count towards the total number of credit hours a student needs to complete, or adjusting degree requirements on a case-by-case basis to tailor degree requirements to the student’s research needs.

Encouraging students to increasingly narrow their focus of research is interesting in the short term. But, has anyone wondered about how that affects the student’s ability to teach and craft new research projects in the long term?

The Elephant in the Room: Post-PhD Employment Opportunities

Finally, I can’t ignore the depressing statistics regarding the chances of academic employment once a student has successfully obtained a PhD. I would be lying if I didn’t acknowledge that this is a major reason why I am disinclined to consider another doctoral program. The financial burden of additional graduate study, and a severe lack of programs that fit my criteria are certainly primary concerns. But, the knowledge that I am unlikely to find a tenure track job on the other end makes everything else seem insignificant in comparison. Why take on tens of thousands of dollars in debt to get a degree that won’t give you a reasonable chance of getting an academic job?

PhD program veterans like Jennifer Polk are advocating for PhDs to consider non-academic jobs as a viable career path, which has potential for disillusioned or under-employed academics. It also highlights that academics, with or without a PhD, have skills that can be applied beyond academia. This mentality should be incorporated into all graduate programs and career counseling: here’s what your degree will do for you if you stay in higher education, and here are some career paths that make use of critical thinking, researching, writing, and instruction skills. Programs are currently in the awkward spot of needing students to justify their existence, while knowing that only a small percentage of PhDs will be able to find tenured jobs. I can’t say that knowing my chances of getting hired would be 1 in 100 (to pick a number) would have discouraged me from applying to graduate school. However, I think the departments must take more responsibility for making students aware of the realities of their academic career opportunities.


The problems that I have identified in these two posts are but a few of the challenges facing higher education right now. Large-scale solutions are required, and the suggestions I’ve offered above are patches to the existing system rather than substantial fixes to the overall problem. I’ve often wondered what my ideal PhD program would look like if I could design a model that doesn’t conform to the standard coursework-exams-dissertation template.

How would you change the PhD process if you could? What’s your ideal?

Why I Quit My PhD Program: Suggestions For Improving Graduate Programs (Pt. 1)

Image source: PHD Comics.

Image source: PHD Comics.

In this anonymous guest post, the author reflects on their decision to quit their doctoral program, offering a few suggestions to vastly improve graduate education.  Be sure to check out the second part of their essay here!

Stuck In The Past (Part I)

As soon as someone learns that I have a Master’s degree, invariably they will ask why I don’t have a PhD. Depending on the situation – and who’s asking – my answer varies. In truth, there are many reasons; some are personal and I don’t share those readily. The rest…well, that’s why I’m writing these posts.

Since I’m writing this post anonymously, I’m aware that I need to establish some sort of credibility with you. My Master’s degree is in a field that falls under the broad “Arts & Humanities” heading, from a nationally respected institution. Not quite Ivy League level, but many from my cohort went on to top-rated programs in our field. I completed several semesters of coursework in a PhD program in a slightly different field (also in Arts & Humanities) at the same institution. Leaving the PhD program was my choice: I had a perfectly acceptable GPA, a dissertation topic, and funding. In other words, I was not asked to leave nor did I fail out. That matters, if for no other reason than to reinforce that leaving was my choice. You’re asking yourself, why, then, did I leave? And why haven’t I tried a different program or university? In this two-part post, I look at some of the reasons for my decision not to finish the PhD.

Comprehensive exams

Source: iupac.org.

Source: iupac.org.

Comprehensive exams is the first reason that comes to mind for choosing to leave my doctoral program. In both fields of study in which I have participated, the exams have been described (verbally by students who have gone through them, instructors in passing, and in written departmental manuals) as a multi-day exercise in writing detailed answers to questions formulated by the student’s dissertation committee. Any topic within the field is considered “fair game” for inclusion in the questions, even if it is outside of the student’s primary or secondary areas of research. Depending on the department and dissertation committee members, students may or may not be allowed to use a handful of index cards they’ve prepared ahead of time for reference. Students are expected to prepare for these exams more or less on their own, without much guidance from advisors on how to direct their study. I am aware that the format I have described may be specific to the academic disciplines in which I’ve studied, and so my comments should be read as talking about that particular model of, or approach to, comprehensive exams.

Yes, I’ve had people laugh and look at me incredulously when I list comprehensive exams as a leading reason for my disinterest in pursuing a PhD. Surely, they say, you’ve spent how many years in higher education and you’re afraid of a few exams? No. I am not afraid of them. I think they are a pointless exercise, a waste of time, and a throwback to a much earlier model of education. When I’ve expressed this opinion, the person with whom I’m speaking generally tries to convince me otherwise. I’m reasonably open-minded. If you could come up with a valid reason or purpose for comprehensive exams – that is, not some variation on “it’s tradition” or “it’s the best measurement of knowledge” (both of which make me think the exercise is a thinly-veiled form of academic hazing) – I’ll listen. No one has yet been able to convince me.

While each discipline and program handles comprehensive exams differently, in my experience there appear to be at least two common components: one semester (or more) of intensive reading, and multiple days of writing essays in response to exam questions crafted by the student’s dissertation committee members. It’s rumored that some professors purposefully choose obscure points on which to base their questions as a way of really “testing” the student’s knowledge. It’s optimistic of me to hope those rumors are the university version of an urban legend.

There are a couple of things to consider about comprehensive exams. First, there are costs to the student. I’m referring to not only the literal, financial cost to the student – as funding becomes more scarce, how many PhD students are taking out loans to cover their expenses during the semester(s) spent reading? Further, what about the psychological health effects stemming from the stress and pressure of trying to prepare for these exams? The student has already demonstrated their “value” to the program and field in a number of ways before they get to the point of taking exams through coursework, teaching assistantships, research grants, presenting at conferences, and so on. What functional purpose does it serve to insist that the student must then spend months preparing for the grueling ordeal of writing essay after essay that will most likely never be used for anything else? What does that demonstrate?

In case you think that I am merely a disgruntled former graduate student, let me propose an alternative:

If you, as the student’s dissertation committee chair or member, think that the student absolutely must read [insert list of 300+ books here] before being able to move on to the next stage in the PhD process, I’ll accept that for the moment. Instead of testing the student on the supposed knowledge gained by trying to absorb that much information in a short period of time, what if the student is required to write a one page (500-700 word) summary of each reading, which would then be reviewed in a meeting between the student and advisor? (This might have the pleasant side effect of trimming the reading list rather substantially.) In this summary, the student is required to identify the author’s thesis and main arguments, then provide a short commentary on the work (i.e. the student agrees or disagrees for x reason, thus-and-such was well argued or poorly argued, etc.). If putting scholars, trends, or ideas in dialog is part of the purpose of the exam, then divide the readings into thematic units and after each unit is finished, have the student summarize the school of thought, trend, or theme.

The purpose of having the student and advisor meet about each reading is to guarantee that the student has acquired the necessary information. A secondary purpose is to make sure the student is doing the reading and summary-writing. Once the meeting to review the readings is done, the student puts the summary into a folder (digital or physical) to be kept for later reference. That way, five years down the road when the book comes up as potentially useful for a new research project or preparing to teach a course, the student can refer back to the summary. In fact, this is a strategy that could be incorporated into all graduate-level courses, to better prepare the student for the task that lies ahead.

My suggestion isn’t perfect. It still requires a great deal of time investment by the student and committee members. But this alternative approach accomplishes the overall goal of holding student accountable for necessary concepts and material, while honing the student’s reading and critical thinking skills.

I can’t help but wonder, though, what the point of multiple semester of coursework is if there is still a list of several hundred books and articles the student must read on top of what has already been required along the way.


I consider myself incredibly fortunate that I received tuition credits, a monthly stipend, and health insurance as part of my doctoral program’s funding package. However, many of my fellow doctoral students were not so lucky, and I was not one of the lucky ones to receive funding during my master’s degree work. I know entirely too many graduate students who are mired in debt from their programs.

I discovered that even with my generous doctoral funding package there were many things it did not cover. Language study is a perfect example. My graduate programs required fourth semester proficiency in languages standard to the field, as well as additional languages relevant to my research. Because I tested out of my undergraduate university’s language requirement coming out of high school (something I’m not sure would happen now), I did not have a fourth semester of language on my undergraduate transcript. As far as the graduate programs were concerned, nothing on my transcript equated to not “having” the language. Graduate students, in theory, had the option to take an exam to demonstrate language proficiency instead of taking undergraduate language courses. When I attempted to pursue that option, I found that it was an option on paper only. Since I did not want to make waves (as asking about the option generated enough waves), I opted to take the required language courses.

For the language that I had previously studied, I was able to take the fourth semester as an online course through a community college for a fraction of what it would have cost to take it at my university. For another language – one that I had to start from the beginning – I was lucky enough to unofficially sit in on the first and second semesters that were being taught by a fellow graduate student who understood my predicament. Since I didn’t need the credits for those courses on my transcript, it wasn’t a problem. Had I continued in the graduate program, though, I would have had to register and pay full tuition for the third and fourth semesters. (At the time, those two courses alone would have cost around $10,000. Since graduate tuition credits only apply to graduate courses, I would have been responsible for that entire amount.) The best that the university could offer was to help me find a private tutor whom I would have had to pay entirely out of pocket. And, since I wasn’t taking courses at the university, how would I have demonstrated fourth semester proficiency…? Perhaps I was naive prior to starting graduate school, but these were things I had never considered.

As an aside, I discovered after I was accepted into the PhD program that a language necessary for one of my areas of interest wasn’t taught at the university. This narrowed my options for dissertation topics, and shaped my subsequent studies in the program. (Why didn’t I check if the language was available ahead of time? As it happens, I had checked and the language was listed. It was only after I arrived on campus that I discovered it wasn’t being taught anymore.)

Unlike the above section on comprehensive exams, I don’t have a suggestion for fixing the lack-of-funding problem in the arts and humanities. All I can say is: faculty, be aware of what impact departmental requirements have on your students. It would also help for written program descriptions to specify that language study is not covered by departmental funding, grants, or assistantships, and that students will need to either demonstrate that the requirements have been filled prior to beginning the program, or that they will need to seek alternative funding sources specifically for language study.

Teaching Preparation

Another reason I was dissatisfied with my graduate education is related to the funding issue: preparation to be a teacher. My undergraduate university was small enough that I never experienced a teaching assistant or graduate assistant from the student perspective. Before I started graduate school, I expected that the main purpose of a teaching assistantship (or TA positions) is to train graduate students in all the aspects of being a college-level instructor.

As I mentioned previously, I was not fortunate enough to receive a teaching assistantship for my MA program. However, my PhD funding included a teaching assistantship. My comments about teaching assistantships should be read as what I’ve experienced and not as a blanket statement about how funding is handled across the board – I know that each department handles assignments differently.

As the start of my first semester in the PhD program approached, I was getting nervous. I’d had no contact from the department regarding my teaching assignment; it wasn’t until the blur of orientation that I discovered that I would be the sole TA for an upper-level undergraduate course with about seventy-five students. (Another semester, I was sole TA for a class of almost 100 students.) By the time I left the doctoral program, I had been a TA for several courses. Each professor required something different: one professor didn’t care whether I attended the course sessions, but wanted me to grade and keep track of attendance; another professor insisted that I attend every session of the course, keep track of attendance, grade, and teach occasionally when the professor was out of town; a third professor had all of those requirements, and asked me to lead periodic study sessions for the students. My point is not that these tasks were unreasonable or onerous, but that there was no consistency within the department. Nor was there much (or any) guidance when it came to grading. This caused no end of problems. For example, I was often tasked with covering more material than the professor usually covered in a single class session when I was required to teach. Simply being a TA, which varied from course to course, was my sole form of teaching preparation.

There is something terribly wrong with this model. Teaching is the primary means by which people with their PhDs earn a living. Why, then, do PhD programs do so little to prepare students to be effective teachers? It is not only a disservice to the graduate students, but also to the students they teach. Some universities have teacher training sessions for graduate students. While a good start, these are often not enough. In terms of some of the more mundane aspects of teaching, my assistantship taught me those things. What was not taught were what I consider the more important aspects of teaching, namely, how to structure a course (from selecting a topic through selecting readings and assignments), how to craft an effective lecture or seminar session, how to evaluate student progress, and most critically, ways of keeping students engaged. In theory, a graduate student would be in a position to learn a great deal from the professors with whom they worked since each professor has their own approach and teaching style.

My suggestion here is to rethink the current teaching assistantship model (wherein the graduate student does little more than grade, track attendance, and lead the occasional lecture) and restructure it to be a teaching partnership. After the graduate student has been a teaching assistant for at least one semester (following an established set of departmental guidelines for what is required of teaching assistants, of course), the student would be assigned to teach an undergraduate course in partner with a professor. The graduate student would be involved in each stage of course preparation and execution: crafting the syllabus and choosing readings, teaching the course, leading study sessions, and grading, all under the direct supervision of the professor. An additional semester following this model would allow the grad student to take the lead in planning and teaching the course. And, ideally the two courses should be different types – for example, the first a lecture course, and the second a seminar.


Thus far, I’ve talked about aspects of graduate school that I found dissatisfactory in my experience as a student. In all honesty, I can’t say that the thought of writing a couple of hundred summaries on readings is vastly more appealing than taking comprehensive exams. However, with the changes I’ve suggested, there would be less stress, more engagement between faculty mentor and student, and a tangible outcome in the form of summaries that can be referenced later. The purpose of these posts is to suggest possible changes working within the current structure rather than proposing an entirely new structure for graduate education. I frequently consider what my ideal PhD program would entail if I wasn’t bound by the existing framework of coursework-exams-dissertation. That is a much longer question to tackle, so I have chosen not to go down that path here.

In the second part of this series, I consider three additional ways in which PhD programs (in my fields) do not adequately prepare students for a career in academia.

Dear Department, I Quit.

The following post is by an anonymous guest blogger, who writes about her growing frustration with her colleagues and the culture of her department.

Photo by Quinn Dombrowski

Photo by Quinn Dombrowski (http://bit.ly/1voIkjv)


Dear Department, I Quit.

Dear Department,

I quit.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t literally quit. You pay me a pretty decent salary. I’m not really trained to work in the real world. And for the first time in my life, I have dental benefits.

Don’t think that means, however, that I haven’t spent the majority of the past two years thinking about quitting. The fact that I don’t love my job – or even like it most days – as a professor has been one of the biggest shocks of my professional life.

In retrospect, the revolving door of junior professors who filled my position then abruptly left for the 3-4 years before I accepted it should have been a warning sign. As should have been the sheer number of new colleagues who stopped by my office in the first three months of my job to reassure me that we weren’t that dysfunctional – we were just experiencing some challenges.

I can’t actually quit. But here is my notice that I figuratively quit. I will give you the work that is required of me – the courses you assign me to teach, and the one committee on which I am required to serve – but that’s it. No more volunteering for extra committees. No more organizing events. No extra assistance for the graduate students you send my way for just a bit of extra help. No more consoling the ones who feel abused. No more listening to gossip in my office, helping to smooth hurt feelings, or nudging department politics.

Instead, you get the bare minimum. Like so many of my senior professor colleagues before me, I have decided to make my career all about me.

I quit because the burden of teaching necessary to effectively run our program falls on me and my other junior colleagues. I am sick of being part of a college where teaching is valued only as lip service, one where the reality is that everyone seems to expend more effort trying to figure out how to get out of teaching than that actually exerted in the classroom. I used to love teaching, but your hatred of it is bringing me down. It is spilling into my experience and ruining one of my favorite things. I refuse to let this happen anymore.

I quit because of the burden of service and administration that has been place on me. Or rather, I quit because of your lack of gratitude for the service that I provide when ostensibly I am protected from such service until tenure. A simple “thank you” or “good job” would go a long way, probably with colleagues of all ranks. I am sick of receiving no mentorship in how to perform these tasks, but then being criticized for doing them “incorrectly.” Last, I am sick of being told that I have no idea how good I have it as an assistant professor, and how this is the best phase of my career.

I quit because of the condescension I receive toward my rank from those above me. I acknowledge that I don’t know what it is like to be a senior professor. I would appreciate it if my senior colleagues would acknowledge that they don’t know what it is like to be a junior professor in 2015. Tenure is no longer guaranteed. Grant success rates for my field are at an all time low. My interdisciplinary research (allegedly all the rage right now) is difficult to publish, but my tenure expectations are the same as my colleagues with more traditional research programs. The administrative burden for professors is higher and higher as work gets delegated to us from above (but the administration bloats at the same time). My tenure standards don’t take this into account either. I will spend one-third of my career paying off the student loan and credit card debt I incurred in graduate school. My stress over this environment is dismissed as me being silly.

I come from a generation that increasingly values a life beyond my career. This does not mean that I am less dedicated than the (mostly white men) colleagues who have historically walked these halls before me. Academia as a profession, like many others, is suffering from an epidemic of mental health concerns including depression, anxiety, and suicidality. Being shamed for looking after myself is not only inappropriate, but also disgusting.

I quit because of the everyday sexism I have to experience. Including that from senior female colleagues. I am so fatigued by this that I don’t even have the emotional or mental energy to say more.

Last, I quit because I am sick of the politics. I knew that academia was cut-throat business. I knew it valued the individual over the team. What I didn’t know is that I would be surrounded by coworkers who seem to spend a substantial proportion of their time endeavoring to screw each other over. Who create back-room deals that serve to exacerbate the gross inequities of academia. Who, then, act as though my junior colleagues and I are naïve when such deals (which usually only benefit senior colleagues) upset us.

I quit. I am tired of forcing myself to engage in a system where the only path to personal happiness and health seems to be to disengage. So I give in. I disengage. From now on, you only get the most basic things I have to give, and nothing more.

I don’t know what my long-term future entails for my career. Maybe it is time to start looking for a new job. I see so many academic blogs and Twitter accounts describing how terrible academia is…. It is nearly impossible to believe my situation could be any better somewhere else. Perhaps the one advantage to this experience is that it leads me to consider new career opportunities post-tenure. For now I’m going to focus on my own little world, and making it as positive as I can. What do I want my research to look like? What kind of instructor do I want to be? Who do I want to be, beyond a professor? Now that I’m (figuratively) quitting, I should at least have a lot more time on my hands to figure this out.

“I Just Want A Full-Time Job”

The following post was written by Anonymous.

source: adjunctnation.com

I recently took an administrative position in a campus unit that had been formed by the consolidation of several preexisting units. It fell to me a few weeks ago to effectively fire a contingent faculty member who came from one of those previous units. I didn’t want this task, and it turned out to be harder than I anticipated. But I hope that what I learned will help me be a better administrator going forward, and potentially help others. For the sake of anonymity, I will call this faculty member “Jim.” I had never met Jim in person before he came to my office to discuss the reorganization of activities and priorities in my new unit, a conversation that ended with me telling him there was no place for him. Jim was a research assistant professor, and had been employed by my university for about five years. He started out teaching one course each year, and then supplemented that by securing external grant funding that pays part of his salary. He also works for other universities on a consulting basis.

To contextualize this story, my university is a place of great privilege and my own position is among the more privileged in the university. I have tenure, a leadership position, discretionary budgets, and respect in and out of the university. Departments and programs in my university treat our contingent faculty well. I have often thought with pride that, while we shouldn’t be hiring people into such insecure positions, we do better by them than many other universities. Our “visiting” faculty receive benefits and earn a living wage, and our adjuncts earn $10,000 to $15,000 per course. Jim was able to apply for external grants as a Principal Investigator in the same way tenure-track faculty do. So, feel free to say that everything I describe here is a “first world” problem among the universe of adjunct experiences, or that I am naively living in a bubble. I’m well aware that I should have known better.

When Jim came to my office, I knew the conversation would be unpleasant. No one had discussed with him what the restructuring might mean for his position, and Jim had been complaining to staff about some recent changes that had affected him. I also realize now that I went in with the wrong assumptions about contingent faculty that many people have. I assumed that Jim had chosen this mix of activities at my university because he really wanted to live in this city or work here, or that he probably had a spouse who needed to stay in the area. This looks completely idiotic and embarrassing, as well as conceited about my university, when I put it in words. Like I said, you can call me naïve or anything else, but I imagine I’m not the only one who had assumed the precarity of adjunct work was someone else’s problem.

I spent about half an hour talking with Jim, describing the new organization of the unit and discussing how he came to this university and his research. While discussing the combination he had pursued of teaching and external grants, and gently asking him about the potential of one of his other contract positions becoming permanent, I was framing the conversation in terms of what he wanted to do over the next few years. This is a familiar conversation that I have with all my graduate students. When he said “I just want a full-time job,” and his eyes filled with tears, I was shocked to realize all my preconceptions had been wrong. My first instinct at that moment was to give him the full-time job, but that doesn’t fit with the reality of my position. I was trapped in a situation in which I had to tell someone that they were no longer welcome, that it was effectively not my problem if he was unemployed when his current grant funding ends. All I could offer him was a letter saying that he had to leave because of restructuring and not because of any evaluation of the quality of his work. A poor substitute for real support.

My second thought during and after talking with Jim was anger at the faculty member who had hired Jim. He did no one a favor by hiring Jim into a position that was renewable indefinitely and allowing Jim to apply for grants that committed the university to activities over more years than Jim’s initial appointment. While that did give Jim a (part-time) job for several years, it also gave an implicit promise that Jim was part of our community and would be able to continue in his position indefinitely. As a result, telling Jim that he no longer fits with the mission of the new unit felt cruel, and I believe it was a surprise to him.

I take two personal lessons from this experience, and I hope that others can learn from my experience. First, I need more humility; we here at my fancy university are not as exempt as I thought from the inhumane treatment of our contingent faculty. Second, I will never hire any PhD-level scholar/teacher/researcher without a clear term and regular ongoing communication about opportunities (or lack thereof) for retention and advancement.

For those of you similarly moving into positions in which you could hire contingent faculty, including both temporary instructors and research faculty, I would suggest the following:

  • Don’t convince yourself to hire someone with a vague and open-ended informal understanding. If you give vague explicit or implied promises but aren’t willing and able to hire them with a multi-year contract, you are setting them and yourself up for trouble. Eventually letting them go will be hard for you, and their employment at your university won’t necessarily have set them up for success.
  • Be completely clear about what you can offer and what they should expect, no matter how uncomfortable it is to say to someone that they will never get a permanent position at your school.
  • Pay attention to contingent faculty under your purview, and ask them how you can help with their careers.
  • Don’t wait until you are letting someone go and there’s no time left to help, but also don’t assume you know what career they want or what will help them toward that career. Contingent faculty may unfortunately be second-class citizens in our universities, but they aren’t students or children looking for our guidance.

“Another Blow” — Essay By Contingent Faculty Member On The Endless Academic Job Search

In the anonymous essay below, a contingent faculty member writes about the frustration of an endless search for a tenure-track position, as well as the financial woes that many contingent faculty are all too familiar with.

“Another Blow”

I guess I could see a case being made for the fault being entirely my own.  After all, I got my hopes up—again.  No matter how much I try to tell myself that this time, when I mail out that cover letter, CV, and scanned copies of my transcripts, I won’t care, one way or the other, I still end up caring. A lot.  Especially in a situation where I feel so perfectly suited to fit the needs of the job.

overwhelmedonlyIn any interview situation, I always feel like the pimply-faced geek asking the cheerleader to the prom.  I never quite feel like I’m going to appear good enough for the position, even though, rationally, I know that I am. I know, in my heart of hearts, that I am a gifted, dedicated teacher; a competent scholar, interested in a wide range of scholarly topics and issues; and a “good soldier” for the department, cheerfully performing whatever tasks are assigned to me.  I can get along with just about anybody. I am not judgmental, confrontational, or hostile, nor do I have one of those “prickly” personalities that takes offense too easily. I am not a plotter and schemer, I am constitutionally incapable of deception or manipulation, and I am not stubborn or lazy.  I have a positive outlook on life and the people around me, always believing that they are basically good. I applaud my colleagues’ successes and commiserate with their losses. I do my work, and I do it well. My students, the vast majority of them, respond well to my teaching and go on to lead happy, successful lives. I believe in their abilities, while holding them accountable for their contribution to their own educations.  I want them to be satisfied with their own learning and their grades, but I do not sacrifice my integrity, or the integrity of the educational process, in order to manipulate that outcome. I make positive, substantive, and supportive contributions to any department and any school I am a part of.  I do not know what more any department could ask of one of its members.

But, the truth of the matter is, for whatever reason, a reason that has escaped me for years and continues to elude me, none of that gets communicated in an interview.  Now, mind you: My mother despaired of me when I was child, because in spite of her best efforts to teach me, in her words (and the words of my grandmother, and probably her grandmother before her), to be “gracious and lovely,” I still managed to come off to others as graceless, tactless, mannerless, blunt, rude, and insensitive. I say stupid things that betray my intelligence. I say the wrong things at the wrong times, sometimes hurting people’s feelings without intending to.  I put my foot in my mouth.  I ask questions that have obvious answers. I come off as clumsy and clueless.  I babble, or allow my train of thought to drift way off topic.  I seem to have no internal sensor, no warning bells, and no internal “mom” who can give me the “eye” from across the room to signal me to stop, go forward, or turn left.  I have no angel sitting on my shoulder, guiding me with gentle persuasion.  I am clueless and guideless.

And if that were not bad enough, I also for some reason that has also eluded me for years, come off to some people as arrogant and self-congratulatory.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  I am my own harshest critic, in spite of (or perhaps because of) my lack of internal sensors.  After any interview, I often re-play the entire thing, second-guessing every word, every gesture, every sigh, every ill-advised laugh or answer to a question. Once the hoped-for invitation to join the faculty does not come, then I launch myself into endless rounds of more second-guessing, followed by even harsher recriminations.  It is agonizing.  If I knew what I was talking about, I regret my own confidence, fearing it was interpreted as arrogance.  If I talk about past successes, I review them with a harshly critical eye, chastising myself for presuming to pride.  It seems, no matter how successful I have been in the past, if that phone call does not come, it all amounts to naught but pain, anguish, and intense disappointment.

Rationally, I know that hiring anyone on the basis of a couple of interviews is a crap-shoot, at best.  Other people seem to have perfected the skill of misrepresenting themselves.  The interviewers must be unable to see through practiced artifice.  They may, in fact, make the worst possible choice, but be unaware of that fact for many months. And then, it seems, it is too late to correct their mistake. And of course, it is entirely possible that they hired exactly the right person, and that was not me.

It is also entirely possible that I was mistaken in my judgment of the job, the department, the school.  I am always reminded of the cliché about being careful what you wish for since you might actually get it.  It is possible that I could have been the wrong choice for them, or they could have been the wrong place for me, after all.

But it is also entirely possible, and highly probable, that I was the person who should have gotten the job. And it is that possibility—coupled with the heartfelt certainty that I am absolutely right, and I have lost out on yet another incredible opportunity because no one can see, or that I was unable yet again to convince the hiring committee of, the “real me”—that haunts me.

And so I remain where I am. In a job I got, most likely because, through a happy convergence of circumstances, I did not have to interview for it.  I had the credentials and needed a job, and they needed to hire an astounding number of instructors at once, and could not afford the time it would take to interview large numbers of people the traditional way.  Sometimes, I torture myself and read the biographies of the tenured and tenure-track professors that are posted on the department’s website, where they talk about their interests and their latest research project.  I then think to myself, in my low-self-esteem moments, “Well, I guess I am right where I am supposed to be: in a low-paying, no-status, work-horse job I have to re-apply for year after year, with no guarantee of future employment, especially if my students suddenly decide to turn on me, since most of our jobs are significantly influenced by student evaluations.”

But in my heart of hearts—that same heart of hearts that tells me that I am great teacher and a good person—I know that I can do better, and that I deserve better.  Apparently, though, what I am really unable to do is convince anyone else of that.

And so I remain in a job that barely pays the mortgage, does not allow for a second car, and that causes tense moments when the student loan payments are due. I continue to write papers and send them out, many being accepted for publication, just because that is positively thrilling to me.  I do not, however, feel any pressure to do so, or pressure to be diligently revising my dissertation and trying to convince a publishing house to take a chance on me. I just write and publish because I like doing it.  I do not have ideas for new book topics on my hard drive, or outlined chapters of those books, or whatever it is that publishing professors do. I have ideas for murder mysteries floating around in my grey matter, along with a script for an updated filmed version of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, and there’s that unfinished Star Trek novel, too

I teach my classes and grade my papers.  I do my committee work.  I go to meetings, sometimes.  I speak to the department chair casually, in the elevator or the main office. He, however, does not know me well enough to call me by the shortened version of my name that my friends and family call me—he uses my full name. I suppose I should be grateful that he even knows my name at all.  I continue to get summer school assignments that help with the bills, and I keep getting re-hired. Yay. And my students love me. And I love them.  Thanks be to god.

And so I remain.

toiling in an annually-renewed contingent position
at a Top-Tier R1 institution, year 10;
have stopped applying for other jobs.