Friday, June 15, 2007

The Second-Choice Student

Here's a post I started in June, but never finished. The job search has brought the issue of being "top-choice student" to the forefront of my mind again, so I decided to keep writing about it.

My advisor has other students, and he has to do the right thing by them. This I know, and I don't normally get jealous of the other students. But this summer I asked my advisor to contact the department at Prestigious U and ask if I could give a seminar. He begrudgingly, with argument, assented to my request, but with one small edit: instead of sending an email recommending Jane (not my real name) as a seminar speaker at Prestigious U, he recommend "my two students, Jane and John." Cue resentment and annoyance on my part.

I always used to worry that I was my advisor's second-choice student (or even third-choice student). When I started with my advisor, another man and I were working on similar projects for the same consortium. My advisor really pushed this male student to publish his paper, and spent a lot of time helping him with the draft. In the meantime, I was quietly writing my own manuscript with little help from anyone.

Our department has a prize for the best third-year student. Male Student shared the win with our department chair's female student, and my advisor's other male student got honorable mention. For me, zip zero zilch. Fine--certainly plain old jealousy and sour grapes are part of my resentment here--but when there are six people in your class and three get awards, but not you, you can't help but feel that the department is sending you a message: you are a second-tier student.

To me, it was particularly frustrating that the only two male students in my class got honored, and they were both my advisor's students. I really felt like Advisor's third choice, and considered leaving the program. A grad student needs a strong advocate, and I didn't think my advisor was advocating for me.

My advisor and I healed the breach over the award business when I finally broke down and told him I was sick of not being noticed, and I felt like the department considered me to be at the bottom of my class. He was surprised, shocked, had no idea I felt that way. The reason I wasn't considered for the department award, he said, was because the faculty's perception of me was that I was "fine". I was self-motivated, I was above needing awards, I didn't need any confidence boosts. (On a side note: this is a real danger of being stoic all the time. But I think it's only a danger for women--no one would ever think a male student didn't want awards.) Male Student left our research group to work on a different project, my advisor worked harder to get me recognition, and I no longer felt like a second choice.

Fast-forward two years, to right now. Seeing that Advisor recommended Jane and John to give a seminar at Prestigious U, not just Jane, made me feel all over again like a second choice. Visiting Prestigious U was my idea, and I was the one to make contact with the professor there. Can't anyone advocate for just me, only me? Why always bring male students along for the ride?

No comments: