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Academic Underbelly Grad School Jobs and Academic Underbelly Realities

Published onDec 08, 2023
Academic Underbelly Grad School Jobs and Academic Underbelly Realities

My record was three jobs at once, but two jobs at a time was standard for me in grad school. I always sought one that came with a tuition waiver (because that was a thing at my public university in the late 90s) and one for income. Some of these jobs were legit: teaching assistantships, working four floors below the library writing catalog descriptions of gifted collections, and graduate assistantships. But some of the jobs typed on small cards and thumbtacked to a board in the career center (because that was a thing in the late 90s) were shady even then. But when you need a job or two or three, that’s how it is. One of these, initially, seemed, like a normal job working as an office assistant to a professor outside of my department – filing, following up on correspondence, and typing (on a typewriter – not because that was a thing in the 90s, but because that was this particular professor’s quirk) – except that it was at the professor’s home.


It’s not that I missed the red flag. The fact that it was typed right there on the card in the career center let me convince myself in the moment that maybe it was OK. In hindsight, though, things were a little lax at the career center in the late 90s. Even so, if there had been another job option on the board, I would have applied for it instead. But jobs were scarce, and that was especially true for jobs that I could manage around my class schedule, that would lend academic skills to my CV, and might provide access to letters of recommendation from professors.

But even this job, as with all the others, taught me things about the career I was seeking. And these were insights not covered in coursework or professional seminars. In that era, job interviews at the AAAs were held in hotel rooms at the conference venue. So, learning to navigate the thought process of “this might be a standard interview, it might be sexual harassment, and it might be both,” was a skill I was going to have to learn to manage, as was tempering the added nervousness at having to think this through in order to project professional confidence. I remember leaving the hotel room interview and seeing the young man that was up next. I thought, “I bet he can just talk about his qualifications, without wondering why the interviewer was sitting on the bed instead of across from me at the small table. How nice for him.” That first university-related job taught me not to be caught off guard by sexual harassment or the fear of its possibility in professional settings. This was not only true in the hotel room interview scenarios. The majority of my on-campus job interviews included the illegal questions about marriage, family, or plans for children. There is no neutral reply once those come up. A candidate had to have weighed the possible answers before needing them. The home office assistant job was an introduction to the need to develop an array of possible responses to sexual harassment’s varied forms.

In the more than two decades since my grad school years, across multiple campuses with the usual turnover and entries and exits of faculty members, I would use these insights to react to that colleague that can’t talk to a person without touching them, and the one that gives unsolicited massages at one’s desk. This extracurricular, experiential education meant that while I continue to be dismayed each time ostensibly professional outings are either extended-- or inaccurately received—as romantic gestures in disguise, I am not shocked by it. Of course, this is not as it should be. And yes, there are channels for reporting now, but these, too, require an added burden that takes time and energy away from the teaching, research, and writing necessary for tenure and promotion, which are central to doing the work we signed up for. But back to the graduate school jobs.

For a subsequent graduate assistantship, I was wiser. I only accepted either jobs fully on campus or completely unrelated to it, like retail work, but nothing in-between, and I was especially wary of the personal assistant situation. But again, jobs were scarce. In a subsequent assistantship, on campus and with other people around at all times, sexual harassment took new forms. These included taking credit for my intellectual work, as if the professor whose grant paid for my labor owned my own insights, too. This abuse of power constituted a lesson I would lean on later, when faced with a similar situation, and again, when, from an untenured position, students and community members confided in me about a senior colleague’s severe ethical breaches steeped in racism, and I had to act. I used these lessons again, in varied moments of my career and settings marked by colleagues who would engage in some combination of taking credit for my work or hyperbolizing their own contributions to it. These unwelcome experiences as a grad student prepared me to be fully aware that sometimes colleagues may resort to sexism as well as racism – intentionally or not, overtly or implicitly – to call into question one’s knowledge or infringe on rights for their own ego protection or impression management. They offered a template for troublemaking.

First forays into teaching as a graduate student trained me not only in pedagogy, but in additional forms of sexism to manage. Teaching evaluations from students, rife with assessments of my physical appearance, were required for application packets in tenure-track jobs at that time. I would need to contend with the biases inherent in evaluations throughout my pre-tenure years, too, when these weighed heavily in tenure decisions.

Fortunately, interspersed with the jobs just described, there were others where professors offered true mentorship in teaching, research, and navigating sexism in academia. There were job opportunities offering skills I would need as an anthropologist, running focus groups, and as an ethnographic researcher on meaningful projects. There was one doing archival research outside of my academic discipline, for a professor committed to proactively offering mentoring about research and careers. One professor in my own field took charge of righting one of the academic wrongs I experienced. Voluntarily taking on the additional labor and burden, she initiated a mediation process, then attended each session with me to assure that I would retain rights to my intellectual property. She offered a model not just for support or solidarity, but accompaniment. Later in my career, I was able to follow her example for my own students and for community members seeking justice for an ethical breach. She and others also prepared me to recognize the boys’ club dynamic, which was necessary knowledge to frame a later experience, in the face of a colleague who began a plagiarism hearing panel by greeting, sitting alongside, and checking on shared weekend plans to go to a shooting range with the student at the center of the plagiarism allegations. The colleague and student, together, stared across the table at me, as if I was being investigated for having the audacity to report the violation of academic integrity to begin with.

The safer grad jobs, too, prepared me in unexpected ways for academic life. My job in the bowels of the library offered training for solitary, sometimes lonely work, punctuated by unexpected and necessary bouts of interdisciplinary camaraderie in unlikely spaces. Taken as a whole, these experiences constituted an apprenticeship for the parts of academia that coursework did not cover. Some parts of this apprenticeship were thoroughly unwelcome. I am neither waxing nostalgic about these experiences, nor am I grateful for them. I am relieved that having had no choice but to confront them, I was able to put them to use, given academia’s stubbornness to change.

But ultimately, I am writing this piece more as a call to action than a memoir.

We should neither presume that the situations I have described are cultural remnants of the late 90s and early aughts, nor that they are unique to large, public institutions. While job advertisements are no longer typed and posted on actual paper and typing skills on the IBM Selectric II are not required for even the most eccentric professors, we should not assume that the human dynamics or systemic inequities have changed all that much.

These jobs in the academic underbelly, and those public enough for all to see yet still fraught with sexism, prepared me somewhat to navigate academic realities during on-campus job interviews, as junior faculty, and still, now, as senior faculty. But this burden should never have fallen to a grad student. It should not still occur at any level, but to bring that “should” into being, we need more colleagues at all levels working actively to change these realities. My experiences are not rare. They were and continue to be exacerbated by economic need, scarcity of jobs that will allow for coursework, research, and writing time, and the pervasiveness in academia of manipulative treatment rooted in systemic misogyny, racism, and the combination of the two. That prevalence is not a vestige of the 90s, nor is it characteristic of any one type of academic environment. It remains dangerously tenacious in academic spheres. So does the fact that the burden of addressing it falls to those affected most negatively by it.

If these graduate school-era work experiences do not resonate with your own, or if they come as a surprise, take that as a call to do more. Be proactive so that the added burden of prevention and reporting does not fall only on those who have had to bear it repeatedly. Likewise, and as is my task also, if your experiences are marked by racism only insofar as white privilege lessened the severity of your experiences in comparison to colleagues and peers, especially in the cases of women of color, do more. Be proactive so that the added burden of prevention and reporting does not fall only on those who have routinely had to shoulder it.

Look out for the wellbeing of your colleagues and students in these areas that exist in tandem with standard academic processes but are not quite of them. Publishing alongside students, so highly valued in the tenure process, might mask a very different dynamic. Find out. The required, annual training videos about sexual harassment have done relatively little to change the deep rootedness of misogyny in academia and the sneaky habits of repeat perpetrators, while the increasingly available solutions require additional labor on the part of those already negatively affected by the phenomenon to begin with. That extra-friendly colleague’s habit of being touchy even in quite public settings is still sexual harassment, even if its openness would suggest otherwise. It is not only the things that are harder to see that we need to commit to seeing. The same goes for the ubiquity of systemic racism, of course. Among other ways of being proactive, work to acknowledge the racist and sexist bias common to teaching evaluations and diminish the weight placed on these in tenure and promotion procedures.

Finally, these skills that one develops in the process of paying for education should make it into the overt curriculum, so that we prepare grad students to navigate these realities while we also work at disrupting systemic discrimination in academia. By doing so, we will not only prepare students bearing these burdens to cope, resist, and respond, but we will also train those students and professors who have not had to confront these situations to be aware of their common occurrence, that they represent barriers to hiring, tenure, and promotion throughout an academic career, and that colleagues not negatively affected by these dynamics have perhaps benefited from them. The responsibility to change academia is a collective one.

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