Navigating Grad School: Power and Communication

Over the past few years, I’ve spent a lot of time confront my own misconceptions about how to communicate with people who I feel hold power over me. Power can be real or imagined, but in grad school when you typically have about half a dozen “bosses” at any given time. I’m going to define “my boss” as someone who can tell me what to do and reasonably expect that I will do it or face unpleasant consequences like withholding money or dropping a grade or giving a poor evaluation. And then my boss is also someone I report to, who tells me I’ve done good or bad / right or wrong, and who – if they disagree with my choices or strategies – can cut me off in mid-stride and send me a different direction.

So, generally over the past four years I have had at least one boss per assistantship each semester, sometimes two. I have often continued on a project after my assistantship has ended, receiving hourly pay or volunteering my time. I consider the instructors of my courses as “bosses.” I also consider my advisor as a “boss” as well as committee members (to some extent, although advisor is “main boss”).

One of the difficulties with bosses is that most bosses in grad school don’t see the power they have for good or for bad and generally do not wield their power in thoughtful ways. On the other hand, it’s easy for me, as a grad student, to be overwhelmed with a sense of my bosses’ power. Partly because sometimes a boss is in a bad mood for a completely disconnected reason and uses their power to cause pain and distress, and to threaten dire consequences. And then the next day the same boss is happy and has forgotten all about what they said the previous day. So, as a grad student, it sometimes feels like walking in a mine field, trying to learn the rules when there aren’t actually “rules.”

It shows up in communication.

For example, emails. I can’t tell you how many days and nights I have stressed because a faculty member should have responded to an email and did not, and I don’t know if send a reminder is disrespectful or how they will react to it. Sometimes, if I send a reminder email the faculty member is thankful and responds quickly. Other times, I have sent reminders over months before getting an answer. And the question becomes: Whose responsibility is the communication? Ultimately, I pay the price when communication lines go down, so I am responsible. (I do recognize that faculty are so busy and have no way to accomplish all their tasks, much less respond as quickly as I want them to every time.)

Another example is communication in meetings. Faculty are not always sensitive to the power that their questions, jokes, or statements have on grad students. I remember in my first year talking to a 4th year student who was almost in tears because her advisor had made a joke that might mean she would fail comps. It’s easy for faculty to forget that we are often in situations that are high stakes, where we have little control, and where we don’t know the parameters because we’re doing it for the first time – that is, because we don’t know the parameters and because we haven’t seen successful and unsuccessful strategies, we don’t know whether our strategy is even close to reasonable.

A final example is communication about interaction. As a graduate student, it is difficult for me to tell the faculty around me when things are going well or poorly. Partly, I find it difficult because I am afraid and the fear is not always justified. Partly, I find it difficult because sometimes saying something has drastic repercussions. So, even though sometimes talking helps a situation, other times it makes it far worse, and there seems to be little consistency.

I try to think about what I can do when I am a faculty member and when I am an advisor. How can I create a situation where my students feel comfortable with helping me become a better mentor?


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