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The Bachelor group shot

“One of you lucky ladies is going to get tenure!”

Hi Captain (& friends),

I have been dating an awesome guy for a little over a year now. It’s not really my style to gush over a romantic partner, but this is possibly the happiest and most comfortable I’ve ever been with someone. However, we have one big difference: I’m a graduate student getting my PhD in a science field, and he never completed his bachelor’s and is currently working in the service industry. He’s taking online classes and collaborating on a startup, but doesn’t plan to finish his degree.

This doesn’t bother me, or adversely affect the relationship. He is extremely intelligent and genuinely interested in my research work, and I like hearing wild stories from the club he works at. He challenges my ideas and experiments in ways that are interesting and helpful, since they’re not coming from within the academic culture. And besides, we have a lot of shared interests, like programming, caving, and gaming, where we are at similar levels of accomplishment and feel like we can challenge each other.

But this doesn’t stop me from getting anxious about the education discrepancy. When I first met Boyfriend, my out-of-town friends told me I needed to be aiming higher. All my in-town friends are grad students / PhDs, and they’re all dating other grad students / PhDs. They spend date nights writing new theorems; I spend date nights playing Starcraft. It can make parties a little weird: “Oh, your partner developed an entirely new model of fish ecology? That’s awesome! Mine couldn’t come because he’s still washing tables.”

I already have a lot of anxiety about my career. Thanks to ever-present imposter syndrome, my brain loves telling me that I’m my department’s pity hire, I actually don’t know anything about science, and I will crash and burn horribly. So now I’m afraid that I’m somehow sabotaging myself and my career with this non-academic relationship. Is it going to turn me into a lesser scientist? Am I wasting time? Are my priorities all out of whack? I feel awful for making this all about me and my flawed, academia-instilled value system, but my brain won’t shut up about it. For what it’s worth, Boyfriend knows about this anxiety and tries to help (like, by scheduling Thesis / Startup Work “Dates”, to help with my fear that I’m spending too much time with him and not enough time in the lab).

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I’m in grad school for creative writing. It’s hard. Right now, I’m taking three classes, which means that I’m reading 500-plus pages a week, in addition to commenting on my classmates’ writing and producing a poem every week. Plus, I’m teaching a basic composition course for struggling writers, and a literature course (for the first time ever), so I’m writing lesson plans and grading essays for nearly 60 students. AND I work ten hours a week to supplement my stipend enough to buy things like toiletries, books and the occasional beer on a Friday night. Also, I need to clean my apartment and do laundry and run errands sometimes. And in addition to all of THAT, I’m expected to participate in meetings, go to outside lectures, and attend all the readings by my classmates and visiting writers. And I WANT to, because oh my god I love school. School is the best thing ever. I work my ass off and I LOVE IT. This is not really about grad school.

Millay

What people think an MFA is like.

Except it kind of is. I have Polycystic Ovary Syndrome, which causes, among other things, crushing migraines and extreme fatigue. And there’s no cure for it, because ovaries, ew. Mostly, I manage. But there are days when I can barely drag myself around, and did I mention all the stuff I’m supposed to be doing? Sometimes I can’t do it all. Sometimes my whole body feels like a bag of wet sand that I’m not strong enough to lift. Sometimes I have to lie down and rest before I die. So I miss the reading, or the lecture, or the lunch meeting.

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Hello!

I have an academia related question for you. I graduated from a small liberal arts college in May 2011. I enjoyed my time there immensely. I was able to form some awesome relationships with my professors and some administrators (most of whom were my bosses for part-time jobs or internship supervisors). I moved to Japan for work about 6 months after I graduated, and I’ve been here ever since. Before I left, I visited my university and said goodbye to my friends and professors (and let them know about my moving/work plans). We all said the familiar refrain: “Let’s keep in touch!”

Question 1: Do professors *really* want to keep in touch? Or do they just say that to make you feel better as you leave the comfort of the college bubble?

Question 2: If they do really want to keep in touch, what are some appropriate, non-awkward ways to do that? 

I’ve thought about emailing small updates, but every time I sit down to write one it feels awkward in a way I can’t quite put my finger on. I feel like I’m imposing on their busy schedules if I ask questions about them/their lives, but I feel self-centered if I only give information about my life. Is there some sort of script that could work in this situation?

Full disclosure: While there are no immediate grad school plans, I do want to go back eventually. So I might be requesting references at some point in the next few years. But I really would want to maintain some sort of contact even if I didn’t have grad school aspirations/need someone to say nice things about me.

Do you (or the Amazing Awkward Army) have any ideas on what is the most appropriate/least awkward thing to do here? 

Thanks for your time!!
B. A. (Bachelors of Awkward)

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The Puns

Alternate plan: tell them you’ve changed your name to Kate Beaton. (Seriously, everyone go buy her book! WE LOVE YOU KATE BEATON)

Dear Captain Awkward,

I’m an undergrad English student who just got published for the first time (yay!) and I’ll be starting work on my capstone thesis next semester (although I’ve already started reading and outlining and stuff like that). My family is currently very supportive and thrilled for me- also yay! Problem is, I’m not sure if that will continue once they actually read the paper in question. I promised to get them copies of the journal in the heat of the moment when I first announced my big news, and now I’m thinking that might not have been such a good idea.

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Social Anxiety Comic by Natalie Dee

Toothpaste for Dinner feels your pain.

Dear Captain Awkward,

This weekend I’m attending a housewarming party for which I’m incredibly anxious. Some background: I am a first year graduate student in a phd program, and I am going to a housewarming party hosted by one of my professors and her new husband. I’ve always been shy, have some confidence/insecurity issues, and I have struggled with mild to medium social anxiety on and off over the past couple of years. I can handle most lower-stress social situations without much problem thanks to some therapy, but high-stress situation still give me problems. 

The situations that cause the most anxiety for me is a social setting where I don’t know most of the people, and I perceive it as high-pressure. This party will fit both of those conditions. There may be a couple of fellow students, but primarily people I don’t know. It is high-pressure for me because some of the guests will be well-known academics and journalists, and thus ‘intimidating.’ Also, unfortunately, these kinds of events are an overly important component of one’s ‘professional’ academic career. It is my first time at one of these more important kind of events, but it is something I need to be good at (and I’ve been told this by a couple of professors, including the one hosting the party). 

Do you have any advice you can give to me, or links to previous posts of yours? I really like the way you approach giving advice and writing, I would appreciate the help!

Thank you,
Already Anxious

That is a high pressure situation, and I understand your anxiety, but the good news is?  You’re going to be fine.

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From all of us.

Dear Captain Awkward,

I am a Theater Geek.  I recently got a short term, temporary job teaching Theater to budding Theater Geeks at a university.  My contract is for one semester; I’ll be done here in May.

It’s the tradition at this university to have a party after the closing performance of each production.  Cast, crew, staff and faculty all attend.  Little speeches are made; thank-you gifts are given.  After the cast party for our latest production, the director — a faculty member, and in fact the department head — sent an email to the stage manager (a student) and insisted she forward it to the entire cast and crew.  The email in question expressed the fact that the director was disappointed with his thank-you gift, and felt that the amount of thought and time that went into the gift were insufficient.  The stage manager did as she was instructed, and forwarded the email to everyone.

The stage manager and another student came to me.  They felt uncomfortable.  Embarrassed, and “a little scared.”  They thought the director’s behavior was inappropriate and petty.  They felt someone up the chain of command, namely the director’s boss, should be told.

I told them that I wanted to support them.  That they should document all the emails, responses, and responses to the responses.  That they should tell me right away if anybody threatened violence to anybody or if the situation otherwise escalated.  And that I needed to think about how to proceed.

Captian Awkward, I agree that this director’s behavior was inappropriate.  I think he’s being petty and overly critical.  (A thank-you gift is not a right, dude!)  In my short few months teaching, I’ve leaned that students sometimes disappoint, and I do know how that can suck.  But 1) as the “more adult” person in the situation, it’s my job to suck it up and deal with it and 2) it’s not about me, it’s about them and their education.

My big question is, do I talk to the director about this directly, or do I go over his head to his boss?  And if I talk to him directly, how do I broach the subject?  In essence, this guy is guilty of not behaving like an adult, but he’s easily 20 years my senior.

Furthermore, while my position here is temporary, I would like to teach in a university setting again, someday.  And to make that happen, I’ll need a good reference.  Guess who I’ll need to approach about writing that?

Help me have this oh-so awkward conversation.

~Befuddled Visiting Lecturer in Theater

Dear Befuddled Lecturer:

I have a very cynical answer for you today.

If the director is a full-time professor (did you say he was the Department Chair?) his colleagues and superiors already know that he’s a big jackass crybaby and have decided that they can live with it.

The university has a code of conduct, I imagine, and if the students can show that something in the email violates that code of conduct (if he was acting like a sexually harassing or racist jackass crybaby, for example, or they could make an argument about a hostile learning environment, or if the behavior escalated), they could maybe take the email to his superior – The Dean? – and make a complaint.  Without reading the specific email, the part that stands out to me as being the worst is where he insisted that the stage manager share the email with everyone – she has the biggest claim to an actual grievance.

If there are a ton of documented cases of him acting this way, and a ton of people have made similar complaints, who knows….this could be the straw that gets him….a strongly worded letter about being more polite to students?  Maybe he’d be forced to make some kind of grudging formal apology?

The students would gain a sense of justice done and an enemy for life.

If your name comes into it anywhere, you would also gain an enemy for life.  A petty vindictive shitty emailing enemy for life.  And a reputation for being “difficult to work with.”

This is probably not a hill that you want to die on, young adjunct instructor.

It’s totally unfair and crappy and he is in the wrong, and someone will probably come along and make the argument that if you all let him get away with it, well, that’s how stuff like this is allowed to happen and goddamnit someone has to make a stand!  But honestly, the stakes just aren’t that high and the advantages are few.  It’s not the first time you or your students will meet entitled assholes in show biz (or academia).  I realize you want to make the world a better place for your students and help them speak truth to power.  If they’re up for it, they might get far more impact and far more of a growing/learning experience by responding to the guy directly:  “Hey, we’re so sorry and troubled that you didn’t like your gift, we really valued working with you and certainly didn’t mean to hurt your feelings.”

Then the email chain is Him = asshole, Them = polite, direct, and professional.  If he responds rudely or gets vindictive, then they clearly and legitimately have something to take up the grievance chain.  Think of it not as giving in, but as baiting the trap with sweet, sweet honey.  The way to to present it to the students is “You’re right to be upset.  I understand that you want to report this to someone, and you are welcome to do that, but there is a lesson to be had here in handling yourself politely and professionally even when someone is unprofessional and rude.  He only made himself look badyou didn’t do anything wrong, and nothing about his actions reflect on you.”

You did the right thing by asking them to document it, and you are right to be protective of them if things escalate, and I understand the temptation to sock it to a bully and save the day for your nice students, but you did the smart thing by holding off.   The likelihood is that a) This will all blow over soon b) They’d probably get far better justice giving him a mean nickname (May I suggest “Evita?”) and posting it on PassiveAggressiveNotes.com and RateMyProfessors.com (though obviously your students didn’t hear that from you).

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