How do you tell your advisor that you don’t want to pursue the faculty path? Or, at least, that you’re exploring other possibilities? Maybe you’ve decided you don’t like research. Maybe you don’t like teaching. Maybe you’ve realized that you need to be in a particular geographic area. Maybe you’ve calculated that your chances of obtaining a faculty position are uncomfortably low. For whatever reasons, you want to consider a wider array of options.
“The conversation” can be anxiety-provoking, even in fields with a well-defined “industry” option. The stakes feel very high. What if it goes badly?
What is a “slow graduate student”? That is what I puzzled over while reading The Slow Professor. Taking inspiration from the Slow Food movement, this book advocates embracing the principles of Slow, to reduce stress and reclaim faculty control over their work.
Two themes of slowing down in academia are particularly applicable to becoming a Slow Grad Student. The first is mindful, deliberate doing, which necessitates doing less. This theme is revealed in the book’s subtitle, “Challenging the Culture of Speed in the Academy.” Relatedly, Slow Academics also prize collegiality and community.
The authors “advocate for deliberative, imaginative and reflective thought as definitive of a professor’s work and life. Creativity and contemplation … can’t be multi-tasked,” summarized one thoughtful review. You can also read about the book in Inside Higher Ed and University Affairs.
How can graduate students adopt these principles and practices? What is “the slow graduate student?”
People who have the drive to get a PhD tend to be the people who try to pack 10 pounds of apples in a 5-pound bag. It can be tempting to carry that many apples, but sooner or later the bag will burst.
Grad students are super-high achievers. Taking on more research projects, saying “yes” to exciting opportunities, learning new skills, stretching in new directions. And doing everything extremely well. Meeting your own high standards and meeting the expectations of others. Each is an apple. Your bag gets more and more stretched.
Then it bursts!
If you are limited to those that fit into a 5-pound bag, how do you pick the best apples?
Do, do, do. I am a do-er. I have three clipboards with different To Do lists. My husband often laughs that I can’t stop “doing.” Recently, however, I paused and created a To Be list.
My To Be list outlines who and how I try to be in the world. I wrote my To Be list after the untimely death of my sister. There were ways that she lived her life that I wanted to emulate. So I curtailed the number of things that I was doing and focused on how I was being.
Creating a To Be list is important for grad students. Grad school is a time when your professional identity is developing. You are shifting from “I study history” to saying “I am a historian.” (This is one of the reasons that Grad School is Hard.) You may also feel subtle pressure to jettison or hide non-student parts of who and what you are. Many students struggle to hang on to core parts of their pre-grad school identities, or, worse yet, feel compelled to erase them. Creating a To Be list can help you to preserve the essence of yourself.
Yoda, legendary teacher of Jedi knights, famously said, “Do or do not. There is no try.” This might be beneficial for training Jedi, but it is misleading for doctoral students and postdocs. For you, it is all about “Try.”
The binary “Do or Do not” frames the world in stark contrasts. Succeed or fail. Fly or crash. Blow up the Death Star or die. For us mere mortals, failure is not that consequential.
“Do Not.” It’s the decision not to attempt. Choose against testing long odds. Play it safe.
The “Do / Do Not” choice operates for many grad students. When failure seems to be around every corner, when hard work is unlikely to be rewarded, the choice “Do Not” is much easier to make. The high risk of failure acts as a deterrent. Inaction seems prudent.
“Why apply for that Fellowship/job/postdoc? I won’t get it?” “Why offer to run the local Pint of Science festival? I have never done anything like that before. It is sure to be a flop, distract me needlessly from my research, and incur the wrath of my advisor.” “Why apply for a postdoc as a digital humanities specialist? I don’t have all of the skills that they are asking for.”
Creating her own structures was the critical key to success in grad school for ecologist Sasha Wright. Memories—some of difficult episodes —came rushing back when Wright was formulating her advice. “What helped me to handle those struggles?,” she pondered.
Her three pieces of advice for thriving in grad school are:
- Invest in your grad school community
- Develop close academic relationships with at least three advisors
- Set short term goals and achieve meaningful benchmarks