I am a reluctant advice-giver. This doesn't mean that I'm neither helpful nor opinionated. I like to think of myself as the former--and I know (and pretty much anyone who has ever met me knows) I am the latter. I generally don't like to give advice, though, because I always feel
a little especially selfish while dispensing it, primarily because it takes attention away from the person I'm trying to help and focuses it on me. Lately, I've noticed more frequent instances of advice giving. This advice is usually related to the exam-taking and/or job-searching endeavors of Phd students, and it is almost always unsolicited. Recently a friend and second-year student in my program tweeted about her desire to throw in the towel. This is not unusual for Phd students, as anyone who has the "pleasure" of spending time with us can attest. I have threatened to quit on numerous occasions. More often than not, the threat level fell in the blue-green range. However, there were definitely a couple of red-level days. Of course, I'm glad that I never quit. I'm working on a project I'm absolutely committed to, and I have the great fortune to be joining the faculty of a wonderful department in the fall.
My point here is, and I tend to take the winding road to my points, that I'm going to offer some advice here. I've decided to do it for two reasons. First, as I mentioned earlier, I have some things I'd like to share with my twittering friend, and I can't do it in 140 characters. I could send her an e-mail, but that gets me to my second reason for writing this post. Over the past couple of semesters, I have been requiring my students to blog about a topic/interest across the course of the semester. One concern that many have is their lack of authority as authors. I think it's a legitimate concern, but I encourage them to find a niche and join the conversation. (I will add that this is a media-writing class that is generally taken by students who hope to be professional writers and therefore must become accustomed to engaging in public writing. I'm not sure how I feel about these sorts of assignments in other kinds of writing classes, but that's a conversation for another time.) Truth be told, I suffer from those same authorial doubts. And if I, a burgeoning expert (oh, that still feels sooo uncomfortable) in my field, can't blog on a topic, how can I expect them to? So this is also a case of my doing some practicing to go along with all the preaching I do (and must do) as a writing instructor.
Now that i've sufficiently situated my advice-giving so as to distance myself from the act of choosing to give it, here goes.
One of the reasons graduate school is so completely ego ravaging is that it's a struggle to assume a new identity (Phd student) only to be forced out of it. The goal of being a graduate student is not being a graduate student anymore. Once you get comfortable as a successful seminar participant, you've finished your coursework. Once you figure out how to succeed with taking preliminary exams, you will (hopefully!) never take another exam. All the while, you're also trying on different scholarly identities, donning different cloaks of thought. If you're in an interdisciplinary program (like me), your academic closet is of the walk-in variety, the kind that gets special attention in real estate listings, perhaps even multiple photos in the virtual tour. Playing dress-up is fun, but when it comes to determining the uniform of your life's work, it can be anxiety inducing as well. I am not saying that it's necessary--or even a good idea--to pick a narrow specialty. (I am certainly not advocating teaching the pony to count to five and nothing more. Goodness knows I have worked very hard not to become the Buffy girl. By the way, since we're in a parenthetical aside here, I take full license to move between metaphors willy-nilly.) I think my work spans a pretty wide spectrum. From twenty-thousand feet, it probably looks more than a bit scattered. However, there are clear themes (identity construction, the problematic of a public-private binary, the study of cultural practices) that run through my research trajectory, regardless of the diversity of methods and the disciplines I choose to engage with.
Although I know I still have plenty to learn--and a lot of work to do--I have an increasingly clear idea of who I want to be as a scholar, and I am working every day (well, most days, anyway) to become that person. I think the most important thing, though, is owning it--taking responsibility, avoiding defensiveness, and (no matter what my TCM doctor tells me about my sodium intake) taking every single thing with a grain of salt. In the words of the venerable Chuck D, don't believe the hype--and that goes for your toughest criticism as well as your highest praise. Sycophants and naysayers rarely have your best interests at heart.
However, and this is a big one, voraciously consume (after seasoning it with the aforementioned salt grains) all feedback on your work. Whenever possible, ask for clarification and follow-up. If others take the time to comment on your writing, you owe it to them and you to take the time to take it in, reflect on it, incorporate it whenever possible (and understand when its not appropriate to do so). In graduate school, you have a captive audience of experts and peers--first in coursework and then on your committee--and that might not be the case in the future. Take full advantage of this situation.
Another ego-ravaging part of this process is that fact that we spend almost all of our time with really smart people--people we usually think are smarter than we are. That may or may not be true, but it doesn't matter. Comparing yourself to others is, at best, unproductive. More than likely, comparing yourself to classmates or scholars in your field or Charlie Sheen is going to make you feel like a fraud, a sham, a loser. How do I know this? Because we've all done it, and we tend to compare ourselves to others when we're feeling especially low. The only comparison you can make in which all variables are accounted for and all playing fields are equal is to yourself. Every now and then, revisit where you were when you started. Reread your thesis. I think you'll surprised, both by how good it was and by how much better you are now.
In my second year, I had an identity crisis of sorts. I was struggling with how to balance "friend" Dawn with "scholar" Dawn. My friends had always thought of me as a fun girl -- carefree, maybe a little too loud, first to the front of the stage at the rock show, last to leave the party -- but I felt that I couldn't be a fun girl and a serious scholar. It was tension in my self-conception that felt unresolvable. I felt that I couldn't both be the person my friends and family loved and be a serious and productive scholar. I'm not sure exactly where I go this idea, but I was wrong. Now I don't stay out as late as I used to, and I've pretty much traded in all rock shows for late-night rounds of BSG or Dominion (or, on one rare occasion, Talisman), but it is possible to be fun and serious. If you're fun and serious. If you're only fun or only serious, that's okay, too. If you're going to be only fun, however, you'd better be seriously good. My (academic) writing tends to be straightforward with the occasional splash of whimsy, so I'm not much of a pranker/playa.
I can feel myself losing the tenuous hold I have on this post, so I'm going to make one last point (and then I'm going to make dinner), but I think it might be the most important one. Never pretend to know more than you know. In fact, I tend to approach most every subject as if I know less than I probably do. I find that I learn more that way and that I'm more open to new ways of thinking. Plus, it's hard to come off as an ass that way. However, I think it's important to maintain an air of confidence and competence. Don't play dumb. It's can be an easy way out for women and girls, but it's a cheat. Be confident and competent, fun and serious. Be good and good at what you do. Don't be an ass. It's a tough game, and the rules aren't written down anywhere that I could find (not even on the internets!), but it's kind of a calling, if you believe in that sort of thing. So just accept that you've made this crazy life choice and own it.