Before I started my Ph.D. program, I worked at a non-profit for five years. While there, I developed great relationships with my colleagues and tried to stay professionally collegial with my supervisors. As casual as my workplace was, the boundaries were clear. I knew who to grab a drink with, who I could gossip with, and who I absolutely could not talk to about my personal life. And then I started grad school and everything turned on its head. Although I was eager to get to know fellow graduate students, I wasn’t sure what to do about the professors. I was now in a world where people had casual drinks with faculty and the teacher-student relationship was heightened by genuine friendship as well. Mentors were also friends; former students became colleagues. While there was a tangible hierarchy that people acknowledged, the fact that we were training to also be academics entering our advisors’ fields makes our interactions with professors different from those with teachers and professors in our younger years.
When faced with an opportunity to divulge personal information, I try to ask myself one question: how does sharing this information help? When my father passed away, I told one professor because I owed her a paper. Throughout my classes this year, I talked about my father with my professors to give them a heads up that I might be out of it. Grief is unpredictable and requires me to constantly check in with myself. I happen to be in the same field as my father, so I run into his work quite often. While I would normally soldier on and save the personal anecdotes for my therapist, I felt in this case it was important for some of my professors to know what I was going through. I was still in course work this year, and how I showed up in class was still very important. But in making that decision, I had to also be ok knowing this information would spread. In my first year, a professor of mine shared his “grad school survival pointers.” Several of them stuck with me, including his point-blank assertion that faculty gossip about students as much as students gossip about faculty. Since that first week of classes, I have found myself in many situations that confirmed this. People gossip at every level. My goal is to give them very little fodder about myself to pass around at the water cooler.
Recently, I was talking to two friends of mine about this question. All three of us have jobs as research assistants and we were trying to quantify how to balance our supervising professors' demands, our personal lives, department requirements, and prep for our coursework. Teaching, working for our professors, writing comprehensive exams and dissertation proposals, and doing coursework at the same time meant that time was precious. On top of that, it was important for us, as people who came back to school from the workforce, to have time to decompress and spend with our partners, families, and friends. We debated whether telling our supervisors about our personal lives would push them to be more reasonable about the hours they required from us. But, academic culture still normalizes working all day, every day, and while there are some academic advocates for thinking about life outside of work, those people are a noticeable minority. In the end, we decided that rather than talk to these professors about our lives outside of school (which exist, believe it or not), we should meticulously record the hours we work for the professors so our compensation actually reflects the time we’ve spent on each task.
As a woman of color, I’m decidedly guarded in graduate school. Unlike some of my cohort-mates, I’ve avoided adding faculty on social media. I don’t tell them about my personal life and I rarely ask about theirs. With other graduate students, I’m slightly less guarded. Of course, there are many people I consider friends; I’m very lucky to be on great terms with my cohort- and department-mates. Thankfully, my departments aren’t tensely competitive, and graduate students generally get along with one another. But, given the now common knowledge that academia remains a hostile environment for women, I’m choosing to be very selective about how much of myself I share. In talking about my personal life, I’ve chosen to operate with a need-to-know policy. I’m learning that there’s no absolute right or wrong way to do graduate school. Different people adopt different approaches. Mine is to think of graduate school like I would a job, a very demanding, extremely exhausting one. In the spirit of self-preservation and drawing clear limits, I’m resisting allowing academia to take over my whole life. For me, that means keeping my personal and academic life separate – at least for the time being.