What Not to Say At Work

Someone with a PhD about two weeks old, and not from the most prestigious institution at that, and a publication or two said to me, “I know you think you have caught a big fish by hiring me, so I am going to take the role of center forward here.” It was not the right thing to say, and the reason it was not is not that I see myself as the local “center forward” (I could not). Let us therefore review a few things people in general should not say when the term starts at their new universities.

If you are scandalized at your new university and want satisfaction, you should perhaps bring problems up to established faculty in the form of questions. “Is there a reason why…?” “Is it possible to…?” “Would you be interested in…?”

If want actual help figuring out how to escape, talk with someone else. If you only want to vent — don’t, it is boring. Here in particular are some conversations to avoid with the people who hired you, and also any other friends you would like to keep:

1. Excessive criticism and complaints. Even if you are right, and you probably are on most things, we are already very familiar with the problems and do not need to be taught about them. Don’t waste time, make yourself useful. For purposes of chatting, talk about something fun and interesting.

2. Threats to go on the market if you do not get the things you want right now. Cut the drama and work on your vita, then. Many are on the market. It is normal, and it does not mean they do not also do their jobs with as much dedication as those who are not.

3. Sentences like “My favorite yoga class is at 11 AM and you keep assigning me to teach then. You are not accommodating my health needs.” This is a job, and you are being paid. Be quiet.

4. Sentences like “I cannot attend that event because I have to write these stupid letters of recommendation.” I understand the frustration with overscheduling and the tedium of bureaucratic writing, but do not call these letters stupid. They are about peoples’ futures, and many such letters were written for you.

5. Paragraphs like “The University is forcing my boyfriend and me to work heavy schedules and to be in different places at different times. I only get to see him evenings, and sometimes not even then. It’s mean.”  Once again, this is a job and you are being paid. Be quiet.

6. Sentences like “The University does not allow these rent subsidized apartments to be sublet, so I have to cover summer rent for a place I am not even staying in.” You are paying a low price for a stable address, a place to keep your things, and a place to come home to; welcome to adult life. Be quiet.

7. The sentence “You have no idea how hard it is for me to do research in our library, the holdings being what they are.” Fuck you then, really. I do not wish to retain a colleague who does not realize that the rest of us also use libraries to conduct research.




Filed under Da Whiteman, Resources, What Is A Scholar?

4 responses to “What Not to Say At Work

  1. Notes and caveats to graduate students and assistant professors:

    I do not mean I do not understand how hard it is to go from a pleasant graduate institution in a nice place to an awful job in a terrible place: I do.

    I do not mean you should be happy no matter what: I don’t; I am not happy with the situation myself.

    What drives me up the wall is the entitled attitude these sorts of sentences belie.

    I also mean, the real problems to which you point are real and need work. Staring at them, worrying them, letting them take over your life are the antithesis of that.


    Further, it seems to me that in some graduate schools it is not considered cool to not be in a problematic situation, not considered cool not to suffer.

    I do not ENDORSE that construction of the world.


    Finally, it seems to me that graduate students are given too much paranoid and decontextualized advice about how dangerous academic jobs are, how carefully they must step, and so on, and that they end up so frightened that they say and do odd things.

  2. I keep thinking about this, the “culture of whining” vs. the culture of stiff upper lips and denial, and I think it is the key to something not just about graduate school and the tenure system but about current society and perhaps (dare I say it?) capitalism… I should read more Situationists, probably.

    Anyway, I asked my blog recently why graduate school meant suffering for people (it didn’t for me, although it also didn’t mean vacation) and was told by two people it was because one was being taught competitiveness and also to be analytical and self critical about one’s work.

    I didn’t find it competitive, and already knew how to be analytical and self critical about work, so maybe that is why I didn’t think it was suffering? There is something ELSE, or there are some other THINGS, that are wrong with academia than those, and I think they are things which are not supposed to be spoken; this is may be why people complain about things they shouldn’t.

  3. “I asked my blog recently why graduate school meant suffering for people (it didn’t for me, although it also didn’t mean vacation) and was told by two people it was because one was being taught competitiveness and also to be analytical and self critical about one’s work.”

    -I’m sorry I missed that discussion because I have a lot to contribute. 🙂 I loved the grad school where I got my MA and hated the one where I got my PhD. It was a horribly traumatic experience for me and I still have nightmares about it. The reason it was so bad for me is 1) because of a very bad environment at the department and 2) because most people at that university came from very privileged backgrounds (unlike me.) A person can take only a certain amount of talk about trust funds, yachts, chalets, and which wedding planner is more prestigious.

    I did whine about that experience a lot and I still do.

    But there is a radical difference, in my opinion, between being a grad student and an employee. As grad students, we have very little power. The feeling of powerlessness was what I really disliked in grad school. As teaching faculty, however, we have more (even though not nearly enough) power to change things. So before we whine, we should ask ourselves how much we have done to change things that bother us.

  4. I think the students from your PhD school all got jobs at the place I first worked after graduate school. It was insufferable.

    It’s odd, what I remember from graduate school was having *more* not less power than afterwards; this has a lot to do with differences institutional structures and regional cultures.

    But yes, I’m all for ranting about weirdness or talking about it to try understand a situation and the options, but I do notice that the biggest whiners are the shortest on doing anything about whatever is bothering them.

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