Sisters: these thoughts have been kicking around in my head for a long time, and I want to share them.
How to Succeed in the Academic World when No One Wants You to: a Primer for Older Women
As a graduate student I experienced a climate so hostile that it was a major accomplishment for me to get an M.A. I had to change graduate programs four times and transfer to another college once. I started out at age 45, which was a large factor in my struggles. If I had been younger by the time I got my M.A. I would have gone on to get a doctorate, but I could not be bothered for the slim career advantage it would have given me as an ESL teacher and writing instructor. Only a tenure-track job would have justified such an effort, and there was no way I would get that. Even a full time job would have been a coup. So it wasn’t worth it.
I can learn from books and improve my writing and teaching with practice, so I don’t really need a lot of instruction. But my teachers taught me more than mere knowledge and competencies. And I have listed these insights below.
I wish you well, all of you brave older women pursuing knowledge in these dark times. Just don’t take the hemlock. You can get a lot of what you want out of the most unpromising situations if you keep these points in mind:
- Understand that women over a certain age are considered by a lot of academics to be mostly a nuisance. Many of the men over a certain age that you are forced to deal with are consumed by fantasies of young women and even little girls, and they will ignore you or actively discourage you in your attempts to get ahead, because you disrupt their fantasies. Avoid them.
- Use your crushes to learn. If you develop a crush on a professor, take all his/her classes and learn everything you can from him/her. Your fixation will anchor everything you learn from this person in your mind forever. Do not let this turn into an actual relationship, however. That would be a bad misstep. You want to succeed.
- Accept that the academic world runs on favors. Altruism is almost (though not completely) non-existent. Be prepared to flatter those who like flattery. Treat your professors and colleagues to lunch. Bring them presents. Help them move. Entertain them in your home. If this bothers your conscience or if you feel it’s beneath you, just call it politics. And if you have given favors, do not hesitate to call them in. Your colleagues expect you to.
- Force people to mentor you, even when they don’t want to. People who are indifferent to you will mentor you if you flatter them and do favors for them. They are not active enemies.
- Know your enemies. Quell any tendencies to try to win people over who really have it out for you. Recognize the brush-off and move away fast before you get damaged. If you feel paranoid, or that people are plotting against you, they probably are. If people are talking in the hallway and stop talking when they see you, they are talking about you. Note these people and avoid them. Do not take their classes or ask favors of them.
- But also know your friends. They like you. They like your work. You do not threaten them. They get you out of jams.You lean on these sweethearts, the people you like and who like you, but don’t depend on them 100%. They probably have their own struggles.
- Don’t stand up for your rights in the way men do. This threatens people. Instead, project power. Never act demanding or desperate.
- Expect to be blindsided. You may be accused of dishonesty or plagiarism if your work is too good. A stealth enemy may give you bad grades to keep you out of a graduate program. Someone else will get the scholarship or the teaching slot who is not in your league at all. You may have to remove yourself to another department or school to get a fair break.
- If you get that doctorate and manage to find a tenure track job, do not get pregnant or have children until you are permanent. Fecundity is frowned upon in the academic world. You will be perceived as not performing up to standard, no matter how well organized you are, and you may wash out.
- Remember that a student is a customer, but a colleague is a rival. Understand that to many academics, your success is their failure. This is what is called the “zero sum game.” Or the finite pie dilemma. To people of this mentality, there is only so much to go around, and if you get too much, or if you get anything at all, there isn’t enough for them.
Above all, keep in mind that life is short and that nothing lasts forever. Enjoy your academic life as much as you can. Believe it or not, I look back very fondly on those years of struggle and would not have missed them for anything.