Moving to Freedom in Higher Education

Many young women who attend graduate school do it for wonderful reasons: they are smart, they have had teachers who have inspired them, and they want to make a difference and contribute to their chosen field of knowledge.

But these good reasons why they enter grad school can sometimes be the same ones that keep them stuck.

As one of the women in The Feminar said, "In grad school and the years leading up to tenure, I did a lot of my work under duress, fearing that I would receive a bad grade, lose the support of my advisor, and disappoint my colleagues."

This external focus on success, recognition, and approval - ironically the very same things that drive our achievement - can backfire and become what holds us back once we finish grad school and start working toward tenure.

Another woman in The Feminar shared, "Each May I would look back on the academic year and beat myself up for not having accomplished the unrealistic goals that I had set for myself. Then each August I would beat myself up for not having accomplished the equally unrealistic goals that I had set for the summer. I took on more and more service with a smile on my face because I wanted my colleagues to like me. I wanted to be seen as a team player."

What is the way out of this briar path?

It has to do with reclaiming the Why.

Why did you love your field? Why did you want to teach? Why do you love research? Why do you want to love your job again?

One way to access this Why is to write from the heart.

A member of The Feminar who learned the power of journaling wrote, "It feels a lot different when you write from where you feel. I used to push back any emotions or feelings when I sat to write. This rational script they teach us as Ph.D.s is really cumbersome. Things are changing now."

And another woman said, "It's really only since doing this deeper, more introspective work of Why I do what I do that I've started to enjoy writing again and contemplating new projects. And I've realized that it's not my colleague's approval of my publications that makes me happy and fulfilled. It's remembering that the work is something that I once cared about. And also noticing, happily, that I still care about this work. So now, I'm starting to write because I want to write and not because I want someone to like what I write. And it feels so much better."

(Incidentally, this woman shared her most recent end-of-year report from her chairperson with me, and it has the word "excellent" in it four times.)

The reclamation of the Why can also have effects on teaching. As a Feminarian said, "It was because I felt strong and assured that this was my time to take risks and do things that I wanted to do. Now, I do mainly the things that I enjoy, and if they are classes I disliked teaching, I change them because it is easier to change from a position of strength."

Wouldn't it be great to work from a position of freedom and strength rather than anger and resentment? Here are some journaling prompts for you to shed light on your own Why:

1. Why did you enter graduate school?
2. Why did you choose your field of study?
3. Why do you write?
4. Why do you teach?
5. Why is your work valuable to the world and yourself?

Spend some time journaling about these questions. One good way to do this is to time yourself for one minute each. Write quickly, without editing, just letting your thoughts and feelings out onto the page. See what the Why can teach you about the meaning of your work.


Cassie Premo Steele, Ph.D., designed her Feminar classes for women academics as a way to give support and accountability to women scholars who struggle with questions of privilege and oppression, reason and emotion, sabotage and empowerment. This is the third in a series of five posts on these themes. The Pre-Feminar starts November 30th.