Category Archives: How to Survive…

How to Survive: the break between academic years

When you are a postgraduate research student, you will most likely be employed as a casual academic tutor. This means for about 5 months of the year, you will have no income (other than your scholarship if you are lucky enough to have one). The break between academic years is almost four months long (the mid-year break is almost 2 months long) so you have to entertain yourself with casual retail, administration or bar work until the semester starts again and you can resume teaching the wonderful undergraduate students.

Here are some strategies for surviving the break between academic years:

1. Government support. Some countries have some sort of government system to hand out money to poor people. In Australia, we are lucky enough to have Centrelink. This is a semi-privatised/contracted out system used to distribute government money. The problem with a privatised system, is that they strategically degrade, humiliate and undermine you for kicks. This means, that despite the high number of PhD graduates who end up in the dole queue, when you explain that you are a casual tutor between academic years to a Centrelink worker, they will invariably ask you whether you have finished high school. They may also insist you attend a Christian mission so that they may ‘assess’ you for ‘job readiness’. They see nothing wrong with canceling your payments if you express an ideological objection to being required to go to a religious organisation. Even when you cite the history of Western civilisation to illustrate that nothing good can come from anything called a ‘mission’. This means that at this time of year, around the nation, the despairing cry of “but I have a Masters degree…” can be heard from Centrelink offices far and wide.

2. Casual Retail Sales Assistant. One of the fabulous opportunities available to the graduate research student in the break between academic years is a career as a casual retail sales assistant. As an applicant for a casual retail sales assistant position, the graduate research student is required to show why they really want to work for that shop. Desperately. Passionately. Beyond all others. The application process will resemble a PhD proposal without the intellectual stimulation. Long, dull bureaucratic, and full of bullshit. If you are a successful applicant, you will then be lucky enough to be ‘trained’ for several days, or weeks, at reduced pay. ‘Training’ actually just means working, and being either ignored, or screamed at by the either a) 40-something trying to pull off 20-something gay man or b) 50-something trying to pull off steel grey hair battle axe woman. It may also include being required to pretend to work when there is nothing to do so that the overlord manager feels more secure about his or her micro-fascist dictatorship. Then there’s always the exciting treat of dealing with the general public, who are both more ignorant and more arrogant than the average undergraduate student.

3. Administration. A postgraduate research student can often find a wonderful job as an administrative assistant. These jobs are often seductively well-paid. They are a trap, and they make you want to die in a way that even the casual fury of retail can’t. It has something to do with doing a job without any purpose whatsoever. When you know that the world would be utterly unchanged whether the administration is done or not. It’s likely that other people in the office wouldn’t notice the difference.

4. Bartending. A career for the graduate research student that I have never personally pursued, but the late nights, tight tops, drugs and blatant sexual harassment perpetrated by both customers and fellow staff has always appealed. Maybe I’ll give that one a go next time around, because at least it’s probably fairly easy to get away with drinking on the job.

Just remember to document any jobs you apply for so that you can demonstrate your ‘job readiness’ to the Christian mission administering a government service as they remind you how useless and uselessly over-educated you are.

When’s March?

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How to Survive: Students attempting to ‘freak’ you out

Students really enjoy trying to freak their tutors out. I think it probably makes them feel cool or smarter or better about themselves or whatever, and variations on this theme also seem to involve trying to make their tutors feel old, inadequate or poor. Of course, we are almost always all three. Anyway, I think at these moments, however stunned you might be (and I am usually pretty stunned) it’s important to try not to look like a fuckwit (thereby denying the student their jollies).

Recently, I had a student bail me up, and tell me that his bestie (who was standing beside him, grinning) was a poetry major, who delivered his performances via telepathy. This was supposed to mean he held a microphone to his head for three minutes while performing, and thought his poem for an unsuspecting (open mike?) audience. My student insisted the rustling coming from his microphone was his “synapses firing” rather than very obviously, his hair. In this instance, I went with it, grinning, and asking when and where he was next doing a reading, while being coy enough to not appear gullible. Or in other words, fight petulant irony with petulant irony.

Undergraduate students often think they’re being super original and fascinating when they’re not. I can forgive this of those who are straight out of high school because they’re young and silly and it’s all fun and games until someone loses a theorist. However, on occasion, as a tutor, you will be required to teach someone who is as old, or older than you. This shifts the teaching power balance in a pretty significant way, especially if that student notices, and decides to make an issue out of it.

When I was an undergraduate student, I witnessed a classics tutor in his late 20s being called a “young upstart” by a rather mature age student in my class. She was a retiree, doing the class for the novelty, and was upset by being failed for handing in half a page of dot points, in the place of a 1500 word essay.

One of my students recently told me she was old, but not as old as me. Which was a fascinating calculation considering she’d been in and out of university for several more years than I, thereby making her significantly older. Regardless of the mathematical situation, she felt like we shared a special ‘oldies’ bond that gave her license to giggle inappropriately and disengage from any theoretically rigourous discussion by observing that it was “stupid”.

Another variation on the freak out, where you really need to keep your head, is when your thesis supervisor or some other tenured member of faculty tries it. Usually, they will slip something along the lines of “when I was sunbaking nude on the weekend…” or “while I was snorting coke in the toilets at the conference…” into an otherwise tame conversation. This is a test. It is essential not to let your face register any affectation of shock, no matter how outlandish the original comment was. Otherwise, you will be considered puritanical, conservative and as dull as the undergraduates.

How to Survive: End of Semester Drinks

This week was my final week of teaching for the year, as it was for many of us. This means that there were, and will continue to be functions at which you, as a graduate research student will be forced to drink with the undergraduates that you teach and/or senior members of faculty and permanent staff.

As there is never a decent budget (or any budget) for end of semester events, you will find yourself in a position where you are expected to buy alcohol for your consumption, and in many cases, the consumption of those around you.

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This is particularly galling, as undergraduate students and faculty staff members are inevitably in a more stable financial position than you. Especially as the end of teaching also means the end of your meagre casual salary for the next four months, and the beginning of careers in bar work, retail or unemployment benefits.

In the case of drinking with your students, all the usual techniques for avoiding purchasing alcohol will be detected in such an exposed setting, so it is best to give in, buy a jug or two of the cheapest beer the uni pub has to offer, and accept your place as the hero of all students with minimal outlay. The only issue that then presents itself is that you have to be seen to drink some of the beer you have purchased.

Faculty members tend not to demand alcohol en masse, but rather approach individually, so as long as you can avoid talking to some of them until someone else has gotten them drunk, you should be fine.

Aside from the financial obligations synonymous with the end of semester, there are also many social pitfalls. Most importantly, if you get a bit tipsy drinking the swill you bought your students, try to resist encouraging them to tell you about all the other tutors and lecturers they hate. Especially avoid confirming their cynical observations about your colleagues, no matter how accurate the accusations may be because they are usually the ones *kind* enough to employ you to teach, and they’re usually behind you when you are talking about them. Remember that students probably say the same things about you behind your back and some of them could be spies for your subject coordinator.

Similarly, at staff functions, try not to get drunk and let a fellow tutor or faculty member manipulate you into divulging who you’ve slept with, or hate, within your field. No matter how fun, gossipy and secretive it feels when you’re giddy on cheap gin, it always gets back to them, and the academic world is way too small for that sort of thing.