i recently went back to my graduate school lab for a few days. after that visit, i can never go “home” again because the lab is moving. the histology room where epic hilarity happened as we all pored through absurd numbers of slides in various stages of staining, where Eldest Grad Student sliced a thumb open and Second Eldest followed suit shortly after making a big mockery of people who slice thumbs open on the cryostat. the office, my old desk, the binders full of data going back decades. the ancient copies of goodman and gilman’s (7th edition, nearly as old as i am) on the shelves across from mine. my old lab bench, where i used to terrify younger graduate students and do badass science. i inadvertently arrived just in time to say my goodbyes to places from my history.
more importantly, i had a short but great conversation with my mentor. my no-bullshit, straight-shooter, opinion-never-understated grad mentor likely had no idea just how meaningful the talk we had was for me at that moment. while i unhesitatingly left academia some years back (and have yet to regret it, thanks), it still irritates me that the prevailing attitude in academia is that non-academic jobs are for those who couldn’t cut it. in fact, most most graduate students in my department used the “couldn’t cut it” or “won’t cut it” or the like anytime they didn’t agree with a competitor’s decisionmaking process and i got pretty stabby over that bullshit even then. so these days i’m in the process of applying for a new job that, well, let’s say is atypical and has a very high bar for shit that you need to do to get the job. grad mentor wrote me an enthusiastic letter of support, and in this conversation enlightened me with how much fun it was to write this letter and the thought process that went into her support.
i wasn’t sure what i was getting into, hearing this start to the talk. but it was so. damn. refreshing.
grad mentor acknowledges the significant socioeconomic barriers i’ve had to overcome just to get admitted to the stadium, much less play the game. and compares me to herself, someone who was not so much burdened by that type of socioeconomic disadvantage. (i would have countered that her generation had plenty of barriers and she’s told me about some, but i was shutting the hell up right here.) goes on to tell me that academia is not a true meritocracy, and i will excel in the system i aim to get myself into because i won’t have to rely on privileges i never had just to get ahead.
this is quite possibly the most important thing grad mentor has ever told me. back when i was a student and we swapped some life stories, it was acknowledged that i had put much more effort into reaching that level compared to my peers in the program. but these more nuanced things, the reliance on unearned privileges as standard currency in the high-end academic game, i didn’t hear about these things directly. i just assumed them given the people who surrounded me, but this fresh-faced acknowledgment just validated me in so many ways. it validated my entire graduate school experience. and then the conversation drifted off to something else and i was left with that breathless feeling of revelation to myself. as is typical…