I am widely known for being outspoken about injustice both within and outside academe, so I get a lot of emails from grad students asking me about how to succeed at being both an academic and an activist. In considering what advice I could offer that might not be obvious, I realized that if there’s one thing I want students to know, it’s this: no matter what, your job at the end of the day is to become an expert in your field. That’s why the degree is granted.
That’s a hard thing to say because it sounds so discouraging, and in fact, I know why graduate student activism is important — I did it for those reasons. But there’s no substitute for developing your technical knowledge base: not networking, not doing public science, not organizing in the streets (unless you happen to do research that is adjacent to organizing).
There is a tension between this need to become a technical expert and the reasons we often become activists in the first place. I was raised an activist and have always been rooted firmly in the value articulated for me as a Jew in the Talmud that “It is not your responsibility to finish the work, but neither are you free to desist from it.”
As a college student and young graduate student, I was involved in antipoverty, pro-labor activism. The deeper I got into graduate school, the more I found that, in order to get myself to study physics, I had to engage in some physics community activism as an outlet. I looked around and saw that physics and astronomy were both racist and sexist, and not only was I feeling the effects, but also my friends were being harmed. As I progressed through my physics education, it increasingly became clear to me that success was probably going to require me to do a little, or maybe a lot, of yelling at the gatekeepers. To stay in physics, I had to become an activist who fought for people like me to be able to do physics.
But I was still a student working toward degrees, and at various points, I hunkered down and focused. When it came time to prepare for my astronomy qualifying exam, that’s effectively all I did — although I did attend a couple of activist meetings during that term. I avoided being in charge of anything because I knew I had to pass the exam. When I transferred from astronomy to a physics Ph.D. program, I intentionally didn’t get involved in much local activism, deciding to take a couple of years to focus on becoming a physicist.
Why did I choose to not prioritize activism at certain times? Again, because there’s no substitute for becoming a technical expert in your field. Activism will not pass your defense for you. And failing to develop that expertise will make your life as a postdoc and professor, if you decide to become an academic, incredibly difficult. At some point you need to teach this material. You need to be able to independently build a research program. If you’re not staying in academe, you may still need to know these skills for other jobs, like coding.
You simply cannot skimp on technical expertise. You need to learn the basics: calculating (or lab work, archive searches, surveys and so on), how to write and present results for expert audiences, and the basic background texts of your field. Physicists need to know quantum mechanics; students of women’s studies need to know Audre Lorde.
You also need to know your stuff because — and this is especially true if you’re a black woman — people are going to presume your incompetence. That is infuriating and might be one of the reasons you’ve turned to activism.
Yet, ironically, turning to activism will make them assume you’re even more incompetent. For better or for worse, you will need to be sharp. You must be able to shift gears from, say, a Marxist analysis of tokenism in the diversity and inclusion discourse to the excruciating details of what people don’t appreciate about Bose-Einstein condensate dark matter — as if they are practically the same topic.
You may also end up facing internal challenges regarding your competence. It can be difficult to distinguish when something is hard because the system is structurally biased from when it’s hard because the universe is a fascinating but phenomenally complex place to try and understand. Yes, you’re probably more likely to be worrying about whether you’re up to the task if you are a minoritized person because the world has shown you that it doesn’t think much of people like you. But sometimes you’re insecure for reasons that are between you and your therapist.
The danger here, in either case, is turning to activism as a form of escapism at the expense of your intellectual life. I know that I deal with anxiety about failure by avoiding even trying and focusing instead on other activities where I feel like I know what I’m doing. If I don’t try, I figure, then I won’t ever have to witness myself fail. If you are experiencing a similar thought process, it’s important to start working against it, because it both guarantees failure and is fundamentally a misunderstanding of the way learning works. You succeed by trying, and if you subsequently fail, by getting up and dusting your shoulders off, over and over again until you land on success. A friend of mine once told me — I think he was trying to gently offer me some advice about my love life — that you keep making the same mistake over and over until you learn the lesson you need to learn.
As an activist in grad school, you will need extra skills, particularly when it comes to managing your schedule and other people’s perceptions of your schedule. You have to learn how to talk to your adviser and committee about your activism, especially if they think you are not meeting expectations. When they see your hobby is activism and not rock climbing, sometimes they make an illogical leap and think that means you’re not focused. You have to be able to show them that activism is not getting in the way of your academic work. And if you are facing specific barriers that are getting in the way of your work, you need to articulate that, too.
It can feel like a catch-22, and it would be nice if activism weren’t necessary. The burden of activism is especially high for minoritized people who face issues not only within academic spaces but just walking down the street. For example, black and trans scientists have a lot to worry about — and not just in the lab. That’s deeply unfair, and it’s a reminder that activism that only focuses on repairing the academy for the chosen few who are selected to train within it is elitist. It will not even protect all members of that chosen few, much less genuinely alter the human world, which is desperately in need of improvement.
But we also have to manage our Jesus complexes. There is no cross you can climb up on here. You cannot do this alone, and you should not burn yourself out trying to. That means you are allowed to consider what is sustainable for you, especially if you are multiply minoritized. And that’s the case even as you interrogate the ways in which having easier access to your rights may make you feel like you can check out (such as white women who think racism can be dealt with “later”).
This is where you have to decide if getting the degree is important enough to you. If it is, make the time to do the intellectual work needed. I’m not saying that you will enjoy having to make this choice — I never have. I know I am making a choice between what I love and what I need to survive. This is a Sophie’s choice, where we lose either way. Part of the challenge is figuring out what, for you, feels like making progress, and no one can tell you what that looks like for you.
I often tell my students that the inequities they run into are not their fault, but it is their problem to work out what their response to those injustices will be. You should be able to work toward a Ph.D. without having to feel like you need to fix the academic training system or society. The fact that activism is necessary and often falls on students is deeply unfair. Students are still neophytes who are dependent on faculty members to properly steward them through the ritual of becoming experts. Students should never feel forced to be the driving force behind the demand for radical change.
For that reason, I have lots to say to faculty members about how they can reduce the burden on students so they can do activism. But that would answer a different email — one that I’ve in fact never received. Stay tuned!