Advice For Young Academics

#AdviceForYoungJournalists was trending on Twitter this morning and a spinoff hashtag, #AdviceForYoungAcademics, started. It reminded me that the idea for this post has been brewing in my brain for a while, but I haven’t found the time to blog since early January: a partial explanation for my hiatus is the beginning of the Spring term and the deluge of reading, writing and class-attending that it entailed. The other reason is that I spent two weeks in a coffee haze, writing a research proposal to apply for grant funding for my MA and Ph.D. On Friday, I heard that I have been officially accepted for a Master’s degree, to be followed by a Ph.D. This is very exciting! Now I have to wait a couple of months before I hear about whether I am awarded the funding. The grant is competitive and there is one place available. In the meantime, I don’t have much time to think/worry about it, because I have 9,000 words to write over the next few weeks.

Regular Cultural Life readers will know how much I am enamored by academia, which brings me to the point of this post. Before Christmas, I checked out Geek Chic: Smart Women in Popular Culture, edited by Sherrie A. Inness, from my university library. Although it isn’t related to my academic field of linguistics, the title attracted me because I have an interest in how smart women are portrayed. Also: yes, I read academic books for fun. I checked this book out during winter break, so I think that probably makes me a nerd by default.

Geek Chic is a collection of chapters about the portrayal of intelligent women in popular culture and the media. This includes fictional women, such as “Beauty and the Geek: Changing Gender Stereotypes on the Gilmore Girls” by Karin E. Westman, and real-life women, such as, “Heckling Hillary: Jokes, Late Night Television, and Hillary Rodham Clinton” by Jeannie Banks Thomas. I didn’t read the book from cover-to-cover, instead I picked out the chapters that were most interesting to me. That’s one of the great things about an academic anthology of different chapters: you can pick and choose the parts that are the most interesting and relevant.

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I particularly enjoyed the chapter by Leigh H. Edwards, entitled “Dangerous Minds: The Woman Professor on Television”. Edwards writes about how women in academic careers are portrayed on screen in the dramas Jack and Bobby and The Education of Max Bickford. Unsurprisingly, the dramas portray female academics who achieve success in their professional lives, but at the same time they are “condemned for how they depart from traditional gender roles in their private lives” (Edwards, 2007: 122). Edwards’s chapter highlights the “continuing structural inequities for women in higher education” and the fact that many female graduates “[jump] off their career track to be stay-at-home mothers”. Note that Edwards is not judging women who choose that path, she is highlighting the problems and issues that many women face in their careers. This is an ongoing issue, as posts on the excellent Tenure, She Wrote blog show.

I am surrounded by intelligent, academic women in my university department and I respect them greatly for their knowledge and enthusiasm. I am at the beginning of my academic career and I am fortunate in that sexism directed at smart women isn’t something that I have personally encountered, although I know it exists. Just yesterday I read a chapter by Louise Mullany entitled “Gendered Identities in the Professional workplace: Negotiating the Glass Ceiling”, which is about how language can be used to reinforce and spread gender stereotypes in the business world. Mullany (2010: 183-4) cites Kanter’s (1977) four categorizations of gender identities that are often imposed on women in business: the ‘mother role’ (i.e., “stereotypically feminine”), the ‘iron maiden’ (“characterised […] by the performance of masculine speech styles”), the ‘seductress’ and the ‘pet’. If a woman tries to fulfill both feminine and masculine roles, it can result in a “double bind” (ibid.). This, to me, speaks volumes about how the media widely portrays women as unable to fulfill dual roles: duality is frowned upon.

Judgments are commonplace – I have heard them even within my family – about women who decide to fulfill dual roles. It seems to me that women are subject to more judgments about their choices in their personal lives and the chapter by Edwards in Geek Chic describes how the dramas she discussed portray a “dynamic in which women must excel in their career but replicate the nurturer-caregiver role at home, part and parcel of an effort to ‘have it all'” (Edwards, 2010: 124). These shows, and popular culture in general, rarely show women who pursue a professional career and a private life, without resorting to drug use or having their marriages fall apart. Rather than depictions of ‘mommy wars’ and judgments designed to induce guilt in working mothers, I’d rather read about professional women who manage just fine. As a post from Tenure, She Wrote aptly says: Daycare is not a bad word!

Public domain images source:  Woman Studying and Baby Carriage clipart

Public domain images source: Woman Studying and Baby Carriage clipart

I am a young, aspiring academic; therefore, I guess I’m not best qualified to give advice. But I think it’s always good to reflect on your experiences, however old you are. A few of the things I’ve learned so far are:

1) Doing your own research and conducting fieldwork is a wonderful thing.

2) Hard work does pay off. When I look at my post in October, I was starting out on a project and felt somewhat downcast at the time. A few months later: I finished the project, which was very rewarding, and achieved an excellent grade.

3) Always be engaged. If something bores you, look at it from another angle and find what is interesting about it.

4) Prioritize! Start your most important papers/projects/essays etc. early. I like to start early and brainstorm, as it allows time for ideas to percolate.

5) Find your rhythm: when do you work best? For me, it’s the early morning, so I do more intellectually taxing work in those precious hours between 7 – 10 am.

6) Be determined! Everyone doubts themselves sometimes: it’s not a weakness.

Do you have advice for young academics? What do you think about the stereotypes and categorizations that are frequently imposed on professional women?

The references for the books which contain the chapters mentioned in my post are:

Inness, S. A. (2007). Geek Chic: Smart Women in Popular Culture. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
Llamas, C. and Watt, D. (2010). Language and Identities. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

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11 thoughts on “Advice For Young Academics

  1. Grace, I love this post so much. You know I’ve only recently departed the academic world (why does that sound so unnecessarily grim??) so many of these school-related things are still fresh in my mind. I have all the respect and admiration in the world for anyone, male or female, who choose to devote themselves to academics. But I do think that there’s always the danger of getting too immersed in your own bubble, unaware (or not wanting to be aware) of what’s going on outside of academics. Of course, this could apply to any field and overall, it pays to have an open mind as well as a healthy interest in things outside of your immediate work.

    Congratulations about your Master’s degree acceptance! Fingers crossed that the funding will go through. And good luck on your upcoming projects! I certainly don’t envy you those 9,000 words but I have complete faith that you will be just fine. πŸ™‚

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    • Thank you! I’m glad you like it. Since reading “Geek Chic”, the idea for this post was percolating in my brain. It just took me a while to finally get around to writing it.

      “I do think that there’s always the danger of getting too immersed in your own bubble” — true, I suppose that’s why academia is sometime referred to as “the ivory tower”. But my area of linguistics focuses on language and society, so I’d like to think that I keep in touch with the world outside a campus environment. And I do have interests other than linguistics, it’s just that linguistics takes up a lot of my time (and I like that). πŸ˜€

      Thanks for the congratulations and good luck wishes. I can’t believe it’s only a few months until, all being well, I’ll graduate with my BA! πŸ™‚

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Interesting post. I encountered a lot of sexual discrimination in the first 10 or so years of my career but that gradually changed. It’s much less of a problem now. There’s a much more supportive environment for parents, as well. πŸ™‚

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  3. Congratulations! Hope all goes well with the funding!

    I’m afraid over my working life I’ve seen women taking on new roles in the workplace with a great deal of success, but still being expected to perform all their traditional functions too. I’m not sure it’s been a gain overall – yet, anyway. I’m just about old enough to be of the generation where women still tended to choose family or work – now they are under huge expectations to choose both. It has been my belief for many years that successful working women require a traditional wife! Perhaps men are getting better at sharing household responsibilities – perhaps. But not in every case, I fear, and less in some classes of society than others; and the whole bent of society is towards making a woman who actually wants to stay at home and look after her own children feel as if she’s a failure. The solution? Wish I knew – I do feel there’s a danger that feminism puts as much pressure on us to conform to its demands as traditional patriarchal society did. Maybe when we all stop trying to decide what’s right for everyone else and let each individual decide for her/himself… maybe when we value all contributions equally… maybe we won’t need isms and categories and stereotypes at all… maybe I’m a dreamer…

    Oh dear! Not the most positive message to send to young people, but hopefully your generation will do better than mine. πŸ˜€

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    • Thank you! I’m keeping my fingers crossed.

      “the whole bent of society is towards making a woman who actually wants to stay at home and look after her own children feel as if she’s a failure” — while I can’t speak from personal experience, I think that’s a good point, especially in the very left-wing/liberal media where being a SAHM is perhaps associated more with conservative gender roles. But from my reading of blogs written by academic women and articles in the media, I think women who work and have a family also face criticism. I guess that’s why the term ‘mommy wars’ is bandied about so frequently!

      “I do feel there’s a danger that feminism puts as much pressure on us to conform to its demands as traditional patriarchal society did” — yes, I’m not enamored by radical feminism. There are so many different sub-branches of feminism (The Bookshelf of Emily J. did an excellent recap of various types), but the feminism that I believe in is simply based on egalitarian principles.

      Hmm, it would be nice to think that we could eventually live in a world without isms and stereotypes. But these things are so deeply ingrained and categories are often necessary. Your comment about categories reminded me of a recent episode by the new NPR radio show, Invisibilia, which is entitled “The Power of Categories”. It’s a fascinating episode from a great show!

      Perhaps! But I think that in a few decades, my generation will probably look at the next generation and shake our heads as they rebel against us. It seems to be an inevitable part of life! πŸ˜€

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    • Thanks, Emily. I’m thrilled to have my official acceptance letters! There are just a few months until I graduate. Thinking about finishing my undergrad degree makes me feel a bit wistful, but I’m excited to take the next step in my academic career.

      I think you would like that book. πŸ™‚

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    • Thank you, Karen. It is an exciting time indeed, although right now graduation feels so near and yet so far! There is a lot of work still to be done this year, but I try to approach it all with a positive mind-set. I know that my aspiration to be a lecturer in linguistics is the right path for me. πŸ™‚

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