Where can I eavesdrop on grad students?
February 17, 2021 10:23 AM   Subscribe

I'm writing a novel with characters who are in PhD programs (sociology and history). This is a world I don't really know. Are there forums or places online where grad students gather to complain and commiserate and advise each other, etc -- that would be accessible to an outsider like me?
posted by swheatie to Education (12 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
There's Reddit /r/GradSchool, which seems to have a bunch of stuff like this. Sort by top, new, controversial etc to get different takes.

But I'll also note that people who are going to complain about their advisers and schools etc are best advised to do so in non-public places, for perhaps obvious reasons.

They say to write what you know, and I don't think you can really know a lifestyle by cruising online fora. It would be best to interview some students directly, and maybe you could recruit some for that at the subreddit too.
posted by SaltySalticid at 10:41 AM on February 17, 2021 [5 favorites]

Right now, Twitter is a good place to find grad students discussing the horrible job market. You'll also find some discussion about teaching, racial/gender/sexuality bias among students and faculty, publishing, research, etc. Like SaltySalticid points out, some grievances are saved for private, though given the job market, I've noticed more grad students being less careful about what they say online - still better to do some interviews though.

Relatedly, as you may know, there is a whole genre referred to as "quit lit" (as well as debates around this) of grad students/contingent faculty explaining why they are leaving academia, which often reflect on their graduate experiences. You can find many examples of this online.
posted by coffeecat at 10:50 AM on February 17, 2021 [2 favorites]

Try the #PhDlife hashtag on Twitter.
posted by deludingmyself at 11:07 AM on February 17, 2021

There's a message board called Phinished, a great supportive community with a 20-year history.
posted by acridrabbit at 11:32 AM on February 17, 2021 [2 favorites]

Something to keep in mind about grad student Twitter is that even when people complain about the job market or their research, they're mostly doing it in their professional persona. You're hearing their public voice, not the private one they use with friends.
posted by nebulawindphone at 11:40 AM on February 17, 2021 [2 favorites]

The gradcafe forums have discipline- and topic-specific boards where people are posting about the whole graduate school experience - the application process, picking a research topic, qualifying exams, dissertation writing, TAing, finding a postdoc, advisor complaints, etc. The user base tends towards the more neurotic end of the spectrum but I've found it to be pretty accurate (though I'm in a STEM program, not history or sociology).

I'd also recommend a Facebook group called grad school memes with relatable themes. It's not field-specific but might give you some insight into what the average grad student is joking about (especially the comment threads).

And I'll second what nebulawindphone said about people using professional personas on Twitter... depending on the field, there are sometimes a lot of faculty members on Twitter and no one wants to be *that* whiny grad student when looking for postdocs, etc.
posted by Oliva Porphyria at 12:22 PM on February 17, 2021 [3 favorites]

Yeah, what grad students sound like on Twitter or Reddit is not going to reflect what they sound like talking to other people in their program. That said, I'm sure you could pay a student $50 or something to Zoom chat with you for an hour or two and and tell you all about their experiences. I'd do it, but I'm a psych student, not sociology or history.

I will mention a year or two ago someone was asking a similar question about talking to history grads for a character, and I contacted my history grad friend who declined because apparently there's been a rash of conservative "journalists" and "writers" trying to infiltrate and get dirt to prove the history department at various universities are a liberal scam, or whatever. People have had very nasty, out-of-context articles written about them after talking to people who purported to just be doing research for a book/documentary/whatever. It sounded like it was specific to history. Don't know if that's still an issue, but something to keep in mind even if you don't go that route--not sure how public people are going to be about their actual experiences, given that.
posted by brook horse at 12:23 PM on February 17, 2021

Response by poster: brook horse, that was probably ME a year ago. I have in fact interviewed some grad students since then. I'm not looking to interview people right now, but rather just soak up the ways these people talk about their programs and talk to each other. Phrasing, jargon, gripes, triumphs, etc. These are what I'm looking for. Really "eavesdropping" is the right word, but it may be that there's no right gathering place, though I'll check out the sites posted above.
posted by swheatie at 12:33 PM on February 17, 2021

There is in fact a comic about this, PhD (Piled Higher and Deeper)! It started off as a college newspaper comic. That archive might be useful background to poke through!
posted by limeonaire at 1:37 PM on February 17, 2021 [1 favorite]

back when i was in grad school, there was a blog called poli sci job rumors that was pretty honest, because anonymous, often to the point of vitriole. i see it's moved here and i also see there's apparently an econjobrumors and a socjobrumors, but have never visited those. might be a (not-very-pleasant) counterpoint to twitter.
posted by ohkay at 2:00 PM on February 17, 2021

An additional caution, as a former grad student who has a Twitter -

When you post publicly you usually have a motivation to - whether that's a grievance, a celebration of a milestone, a sharing of resources, or whatever.

One thing I've noticed is that some grad students in my department can be very political on Twitter: They are pro-union, anti-capitalist, anti-racist, and unapologetic about it. This isn't a secret. However, what they're not doing is talking about issues within the department in specific, personal terms, because that's not the best way to deal with those issues at this time.

They also don't talk much about their relationships with faculty at all, even though this is a big part of every day life as a grad student. Sometimes they will mention something positive that happened, but it's just kind of weird to talk about people who might be in your followers, you know?

Public forums are going to be more weighted toward discussing grievances than really occurs in real life, I think. Not that we never complained or commiserated about grad school with each other, but there was a lot more dumb joking, discussion of subject matter, and board games than you'd gather from Twitter. There is a lot of dark humor about our situation too:

A: (walks into room) "Hey B, how are you doing?"
B: (sitting at desk) "I diD NoT COMe to CAMPUS to be ATTACKED like this"

*Some* of what you'll be missing is that grad students in a department will have shared knowledge they're drawing on when they talk - knowledge about the basics of their subject and about their particular department. If it's a US program, then they likely have taken many of the same classes under the same professors, worked with the same professors, and so on. This can be a large part of the conversation, but is hard to glean from public forums because naturally you don't share that background with the whole public.
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 2:25 PM on February 17, 2021 [6 favorites]

As someone who was a disgruntled grad student and will forever be ABD: agree that almost nobody’s speaking candidly about issues in their own department in public, especially not places where things get recorded/indexed/are available to search by random outsiders that might someday include people who might be evaluating me for a job.

There is one heck of a whisper network, and some people will be more or less open with their friends, but there is a lot that I still would probably avoid putting in writing. I’d say the hierarchy went something like “discuss with friends from home who are totally isolated from the situation in private,” “discuss with other students I’m close to 1:1 in private,” “discuss in person with other students in a group I trust,” and then a wiiiiiiiide gulf to anything that might be written down/recorded.
posted by Alterscape at 2:39 PM on February 17, 2021

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