Grad Life: The “grad stigma”

Posted by barb on Aug 29, 2005 in Thesis/Grad Life |

My non-science friends are impressed by the fact that I’m a grad student in astronomy. Perhaps they’re more impressed by the fact that I’m doing my thesis work with a scientist at NASA. The same goes for my family. However, in my workplace, it’s not so special to be a grad student.

This might be my imagination, but it feels like there’s a stigma attached to being a grad student. Whenever someone calls me a grad student, it’s usually accompanied with an attitude that comes across as “she’s just a grad student”. Every time I hear someone refer to me as a grad student, I feel diminished.

I think this comes from the fact that most of the people I work with are PhDs (or “phuds”, as my friend Lorna might say). This means that they were grad students themselves once. They probably remember that they were a bit clueless when they were a grad student.

I’ll happily admit that I’m clueless about a lot of things. I’m still working my way through a lot of what I need to know in my field of research. The larger problem comes because I’m a part-time grad student – I’m also a part-time support scientist-slash-web developer-slash-e/po specialist. Whenever I’m introduced as a grad student, it makes me feel as though I’m also “just” a support scientist, or “just” an e/po specialist.

Whenever I introduce myself and what I do, I try to keep the grad student part last, to make it seem trivial compared to what else I do. In that way, I try to diminish the grad stigma.



Aug 29, 2005 at 9:09 am

You’ll never be your typical “phud” Barb. You have a lot more personality than most of the ones I’ve met. So please stop allowing the “just” to diminish what you are in the process of accomplishing as well as what you’ve already accomplished. Sure there are a lot of grad students working here – that’s what this place is about. But you sure don’t see them working at HP, Boeing, or Giant. 😎

Aug 29, 2005 at 9:32 am

What’s the dropout rate for grad students at this level? Is it possible that the phuds have invested a lot in past grad students that then dropped out / wasted their time?
I know you mentioned that at least one university in the area is pretty much a grad student factory – churning them through the system without much assistance. Your average grad student, then, may cling desperately to the phuds for help.
Or the phuds might just be elitist wankers lording it over those who still suffer.

Aug 29, 2005 at 10:15 am

I’m not ready to call all phuds wankers, though I have come across a few who would fit that description.
I think I’ve passed the big drop-out point for grads, though I have no hard evidence on that. The physics department at UMD brings in about twice as many grad students as will pass their two qualifying exams. I’m well past the qualifier, and I’m not in the physics department. The astronomy department seems much more selective in who it brings into the department, and they are more willing to work with students in whom they see potential.
Maybe part of my problem is that I work primarily in a research institution, where grads are simply grunt labor, rather than at a university where grads are more valued members of the department.


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