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Navigating Graduate School As A Millennial Woman of Color

Struggling to survive the often-harrowing culture of graduate school is no easy task.

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By Sarojini Rao

When I started graduate school to pursue my Ph.D., I received an abundance of warnings, advice, and cautionary tales. I was warned about the difficulty of the qualifying examinations. A student a year ahead of me advised that my first-year study group could make all the difference between passing and failing those exams.

My previous mentors warned me about the competitive environment and the sink-or-swim culture of the department. There were stories about how faculty would identify the strongest students, based on their performance in the first year, and practically volunteer to advise them. Many were interested in grooming them for prestigious post-docs, and an academic career that tracked the same brilliant milestones as their own.

Students who did not quite meet this bar had to just find their way to graduation, somehow. It was no wonder that the cautionary tales were all about students who had somehow managed to “fall through the cracks,” who remained languishing in the program years after they ought to have proposed and subsequently defended their doctoral thesis.

I am closing on my seventh year in my program. Most people graduate within six. I proposed my thesis in the fall of 2015, and it was just barely acceptable. This means that I have been “all-but-dissertation” (ABD) ever since. That is, the only thing keeping me from graduating has been successfully producing and defending my thesis. I’m on my way to changing that even as I write this, but the biggest hurdle in my own journey, one that was simultaneously a product of my own mind and yet as real as a theory could ever be, was the sheer shame of having fallen through the cracks.

I had blamed and punished myself for my perceived failure, but once I managed to escape the heavy fog of depression I’d found myself trapped under (a whole other story), I started thinking critically about what exactly I had failed at. 

I have failed to become one of their own. 


The Big Bang Theory premiered on CBS in 2007 and will start its twelfth season this year. Last year, Pop Culture Detective (Jonathan McIntosh) published two videos eviscerating the show for its “adorkable misogyny” and exposing the ways in which “geek masculinity” perpetuates rape culture. These videos are worth watching in their entirety, if only for the insightful deconstruction of how the show’s jokes are scripted.

Full disclosure: I loved The Big Bang Theory before I started graduate school, even though I found some of the humor totally cringe-worthy. Even fuller disclosure: I mainly cringed at all of Raj Koothrappali’s lines. As a South Asian, his whole shtick just grated on me for so many reasons. I’m now tempted to petition Hari Kondabolu (producer of The Problem with Apu) via Twitter to consider making a sequel that gives Raj the same critical treatment. Despite having identified as a feminist for years, I did not see the misogyny for what it was. It was a blind spot because I had trained myself to ignore that particular brand of nerdy misogyny in my own lifelong quest to be seen as a smart kid, despite being a girl.  

To be honest, until I started graduate school, I had no idea how much my classmates would remind me of the four central characters of the Big Bang Theory, and worse, that they seemed to be competing to out-Sheldon Sheldon Cooper, the most overtly-bigoted character whose blatant sexism and racism is bizarrely written off as the quirks of a genius. I’ve always believed that people’s true colors are revealed in high-pressure situations, and some may argue that people are in fact not themselves under pressure. Either way, the fact remains that I managed to see and hear a number of interactions that could easily have been scripted for Sheldon Cooper. 

If I were a character on that show, what would I say? 


Looking Past An Everest of Micro-Aggressions

Of course, many would say that if I truly loved my field, as well as the ideas and rigorous tests of hypotheses of academia, I would ignore these interactions. If I were a serious academic, I would look past these mild irritations and focus on my work. But these interactions, microaggressions if you will, have a way of piling up. Once the pile gets big enough, it obscures your view of the path you had originally set out on. Eventually, it turns into a hill of its own. If you try walking around it, it grows wider, try climbing it and it feels like you’re having to summit Everest.

I think back to the generations of men and women who came before me, those who survived colonization, for their advice. But they remind me that it was a time of war, and that war, despite its destructive nature, breeds its own kind of solidarity. My advisors have pointed out on multiple occasions that isolation makes the writing process harder, but the last time I went into the department, I ended up having coffee with a few classmates who were getting ready to go on the job market. All three of them (white men, natch) complained about having to write diversity statements, and one went so far as to joke about getting a tan before getting pictures taken for his professional webpage. I don’t think I’ve been back since.

How do I look past this Everest that was created by volcanic eruptions of violent bigotry and is now covered with the sharp gravel of microaggressions?


Tapping Into the Online Community of Women of Color in Academia

I did not expect to find my community online. But a series of small discoveries have led me to cultivate a roster of articles and blogs I read and reread as needed, to assure myself that I am not alone and that my struggle will be worth it. I hope to add my light to the growing constellation of WoC academics who have written candidly about their own experiences, and whose words have provided me with much-needed succor when I needed it. 

In no particular order, here are some of my usual go-to reads:

  1. Dr. Brittney C. Cooper aka Crunktastic of the Crunk Feminist Collective — Back To School Beatitudes: 10 Academic Survival Tips
  1. Dr. Radhika Nagpal — The Awesomest 7-Year Postdoc or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Tenure-Track Faculty Life
  1. Drs. Adriana Estill and Anita Chikkatur — Down With Brown – Musings of Two Profx
  1. Everything by Dr. Roxane Gay, including her Tweets. This is a great introduction: Roxane Gay: Meet The Bad Feminist

I wish there were more. If I’ve missed some, please let me know in the comments. I look forward to checking them out.

This article was originally published on Witted Roots.

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More on Mental Health on Campus:

What Campus Mental Health Centers Are Doing to Keep Up With Student Need

If You’re a Student Who’s Struggling With Mental Health, These 7 Tips Will Help

The Hidden Stress of RAs in the Student Mental Health Crisis

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