Sunday, July 23
This post was sparked by thistle's comment on Transitions, although I want to make clear that I know this isn't what she was saying; it's just a hot button for me.

I hate it when people act like younger graduate students are just here because we couldn't think of anything else to do with ourselves. I've known that I wanted to go to graduate school since I was in junior high--I changed my mind about for what a few times, but the basic idea that I would pursue a PhD was pretty much a constant. I'm a smart person. I grew up among academics and it's a life with which I am comfortable; it's the kind of life I want to have. I certainly didn't want to take time off just for the sake of taking time off, especially when I was a little afraid of losing my academic rhythm. There was like one summer in my entire college career that I didn't take classes, and it left me feeling at loose ends.

But there are plenty of people who don't take me seriously because I'm younger. There are also people who actively resent me for it, and take varying degrees of pains to hide that. For some of them, that degree is none, like the woman who told me that younger graduate students never really know what they want to do with their lives and will just wander off into the sunset after squandering a few years of funding that should have gone to older, more mature and deserving graduate students.

The resentment seems to be expressed more freely by older female graduate students; I'm pretty sure that there is a component of general resentment of younger women included here. I think older male graduate students (and faculty) are more likely just to not take me seriously, and sometimes it's hard to tease out whether that's because I'm young or because I'm female. I have definitely had moments in professional seminars when an older, male person has restated something that I just said a minute ago and gotten a much more enthusiastic reception from the group at large.

At least when I finish my PhD people will be less likely to assume that I went to grad school to kill time. I hope.

12 comments:

thistle said...

Sorry for painting all 20-something grad students with the same brush, that was stupid of me.
I'm just peevish because of some hard-partying colleagues who don't behave professionally, aren't engaged with the department, and then complain about not getting enough advisorly support.

I can imagine that older grad students (especially women) do resent you for being younger and on the ball. I confess to being jealous of people who are younger than I am and already have their PhDs or tenure-track jobs. There's a background fear of the various ticking clocks - e.g. biological and tenure - that makes people touchy.
But that's no excuse for not taking someone else seriously.

fraud, in denim said...

I hear what you're saying, Cerise, and sympathize because I have heard this sentiment myself. In fact, the other day I was talking to my partner about graduate students in my new department who are (ph)inishe(d) but going abroad instead of going on the market. He claimed it was because they probably started too young and hadn't gotten the "travel abroad bug" out of their systems.

I think it's worth saying here, though, that the pendulum might swing both ways. My undergraduate mentor was an older graduate student who returned to college after her kids started high school and started grad school after they got their diplomas. Despite being extremely bright, I think that a lot of faculty wrote her off because they figured she wouldn't have time to really make a name for herself in the "short" career that was ahead.

During my own grad school stint we had a grad student who had retired from a major company, gone to college, and started grad school when he was just shy of 50. While he was incredibly well-liked and respected, I think a lot of faculty wondered if it was worth bringing him onto big projects or mentoring him if he only wanted to broaden his horizons and wasn't going to go out and get an academic job.

There were 12 people in my cohort, ranging in age from 21 to 35. We all have faced some obstacles and have had to do a little growing up in grad school, regardless of our starting age.

Orange Ina said...

I can see where thistle is coming from, although I also don't agree. But I do believe that older students - if mature and driven - may spend some of their time in graduate school more efficiently. However, it's probably hard to tell what time in grad school is more productive on the long run. That is, some leisurely afternoons with friends discussing topics tangentially related to one's dissertation may still have pay-offs long term. A younger student may have more time for this as s/he is more likely to be single and childless and so with fewer household/family responsibilities, just to name one realm in which age may make a difference.

An upside of going to grad school right out of college is that there is a good chance one is not yet married. (There are some folks who get married right out of college and pursue grad school, but that seems less common these days.) TONS of couples break up in grads school and so if you're younger and single, at least you get to sidestep that distraction.

Of course, the other side of that is that as a single young person, you may not have the kind of support someone with a spouse may have. And we all know one can sure use support in graduate school.

Hah, so overall, I think it can go both ways. But it's likely true that older people thought more about the consequences (e.g. financial loss) of going to grad school and so may be more likely to do something with the degree than younger counterparts.

Cerise said...

It actually seems like most of the people I know--people who are not even necessarily older than me, some of them grad students, some not--are married or in long-term serious relationships, and I frequently envy them what I perceive as the "built-in" support of a spouse, even though I know quite well that being married is much more of a mixed blessing for women in grad school than it is for men, and at least as a person who lives alone I can let the dishes pile up without anyone getting snotty at me.

Sometimes I also think that having more of a household of my own would be a welcome distraction, given my tendency to get weird and obsessive and freaked out about academic issues. I'm sure if I had it I would bitch about the stress, but the grass is always greener, blah blah blah.

Cerise said...

Oh, and the points about older grad students are well-made, I think--I don't want to say that it's hardest to be a young grad student; it's just where my own experience lies.

Cerise said...

Also: I sometimes feel like I have too much advisorly "support," if by "support" we mean "relentless prodding to work on things I don't care about."

jazzberry jam said...

I was going to say something similar to Cerise's last comment about most grad students being older and already married. I just did my MA and am starting my PhD in the fall, and for me it kind of feels - socially - like I'm going back to college. Not because I want to be "hard-partying," but because I'm moving to a new place far away from friends and family, I'll be there for a long time, and I'm going there alone. But when I was doing my campus visits deciding on a school, I realized that most people in grad programs (at least in my field) are older, married or in serious relationships, etc. - so it's not the social free-for-all I have sometimes imagined. It's pretty tough to be trying to figure out both your professional life AND your personal life when your professional life is so demanding...but I'm not sure if this is unique to academia, and I certainly know that relationship concerns don't just all-of-a-sudden come to an end with marriage or age.

atomic tangerine said...

I have written and erased like 4 different comments here.

I think the issue may get too close to something I've been thinking about a lot myself...and that as someone who went to grad school just nearly right out of undergrad, I'm wondering if I should've taken another year or two - not because I think I wouldn't have gone to grad school in the end, but because...I just could've used the time.

Turquoise Stuff said...

AT, could've used the time how?

atomic tangerine said...

I'm not sure how I could've used the time, really, and there's a lot more going on here than I'm going to get into. But I have this sense that it might have been good to have learned to work hard and be disciplined in some setting other than school, that it would be good to have that extra skillset. If you'd have said any of this to me when I was entering grad school, I would have been as offended as cerise. But from this end I'm less certain of a lot of things. (Though more certain of others.)

fraud, in denim said...

I do think that, particularly in some fields, experience outside of school is really helpful. I think it is in mine.

I took over a year off before going to grad school, but it was for personal reasons, not self-exploration or growing up. It had taken me long enough to get through undergrad that I had accumulated a lot of life experiences in that time. I draw on those every day, and I see the difficulty that others, who never experienced life in the outside world, can have.

It's not that I think that time off, or even a job, or anything one thing in particular necessarily gives you this experience, you can get it a lot of different ways. But it's good to have those non-academic experiences to compare life as an academic to and to draw from.

mauvelous said...

Atomic T, I feel much the same way-- I took only one year off between undergrad and grad school, and often feel that I am the poorer person (not to mention scholar) for it. And yet, I didn't just enter grad school because I didn't know what else to do (although there was some of that there, not that I would ever say that to academic colleagues)-- there's also that seemingly-now-pervasive sense that one really must know what one wants to do career-wise asap and get on board that train immediately, rather than take time to develop and explore a bit. It's like, if you're going to be a star, you need to also be a semi-prodigy. Or, at least, not a time-waster. It's a ton of pressure-- and I think society is the poorer for it, too, frankly. And, of course, that pressure just gets worse in academia. Although perhaps that's just me. (?)

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