Understanding common concerns

Need for role models

All graduate students benefit from role models they can admire. Quite often, people identify role models based on shared outlook and connections to similar experiences. Although the composition of faculty at UW is becoming more diverse, students from underrepresented groups — whether underrepresented in higher education in general or within certain areas of study — can face greater challenges finding faculty role models who have had experiences similar to their own. Some students convey that they hope to find “someone who looks like me,” “someone who immediately understands my experiences and perspectives” and “someone whose very presence lets me know I, too, can make it.”

While shared background and experiences are important, they do not guarantee a good mentoring relationship. Shared interests and interpersonal compatibility are the keys. All students also benefit from reaching out to potential mentors who are different from them in race, gender or other characteristics.

  • Expand your knowledge of people within your department, across the UW or at other universities who may help you obtain the experiences and resources you need.
  • Ask other students to identify faculty they regard as role models and why.
  • Discuss with students and faculty how your department’s climate welcomes all contributions.
  • Know that you can receive good guidance from mentors who are of a different gender, race or culture from you. Focus on what you need in order to learn and make progress.

Fear of being categorized as a “single-issue” scholar

Some students are concerned if they select a thesis/dissertation topic related to their own gender, race, sexual orientation or culture that faculty will mistakenly assume they are interested in pursuing only these topics. If you are passionate about these questions in your research and teaching, do not feel apologetic. To bolster the scholarly nature of your agenda

  • Articulate clearly and compellingly to potential mentors the value of your research interests
  • Make connections to others’ work, as well as to other major topics and questions in the discipline
  • Discuss with your peers and faculty members the ways that race, gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity and other characteristics expand questions asked in your discipline and the approaches used for answering them
  • Seek assistance from faculty and advanced graduate students on how to frame the issues that drive your intellectual curiosity
  • Practice job talks and interview responses that demonstrate the depth and breadth of your research interests
  • Understand that some people who are uninformed about your topic may perceive it as narrow or limited, so practice effective ways to address questions from skeptics.

Feelings of isolation

At times, you might find that graduate study can be isolating. Isolation, whether from other students or from one’s home community, is something all graduate students face. If it goes unchecked, isolation can lead students to loneliness and self-doubt. In more severe cases, it can lead to depression or dropping out. Depending on the discipline, students from underrepresented groups might feel more isolated than other students, especially if the composition of students, faculty and content in the department is homogenous. To prevent isolation

  • Ask advanced graduate students and faculty to introduce you to peers and potential mentors with complementary interests
  • Attend as many departmental functions as you can
  • Offer to organize functions or form groups (e.g., interest, study, or writing groups) to contribute to department life
  • Invite mentors to join these activities
  • Be aware of students who are not taking active roles in academic or social activities and find ways to include them
  • Get involved with organizations, such as cultural groups, reading groups and professional associations, to increase your sense of community.

Burden of being a spokesperson

When certain issues arise in classroom or discussions, especially those relating to race, class or gender, the pressures of being a spokesperson arise. Consider the pressures put on a woman in an engineering seminar if asked, “How would a woman approach this design problem?” or on the man in a feminist theory class if asked to provide “the male perspective.” You can help to alleviate this burden.

  • Avoid asking your peers and professors to speak as spokespersons for a group to which you think they belong. Simply ask for their perspective.
  • Avoid assuming that the “white male” experience is the norm. Seek to understand how race, gender and other characteristics influence perspectives.
  • Emphasize that you speak from your own perspective. If you voluntarily take on a spokesperson role, explain that others present may not feel the same way.
  • When other students voluntarily take on spokesperson roles, acknowledge what you have learned from their contributions to the discussion.

Balancing work and lifestyle

Students from all disciplines observe that professors devote large parts of their lives to their work. In turn, students can become overwhelmed if they feel that faculty expect them to spend every minute on their work. This causes concern for those seeking to balance success in their graduate career with other interests and responsibilities. To keep the pressures of graduate school in check

  • Ask faculty whom you admire how they balance their professional and personal lives
  • Request their advice on how you can balance your obligations
  • Ask your peers how they balance family or personal problems and what they do when they encounter difficulties
  • Attend UW workshops and panels on work/life balance
  • Demonstrate through your behavior and work that you are focused and productive when in your office, classroom or lab.