What is the difference between being a grad student and a professor? I guess Manorama's posts about the relationships between grad students and professors have started me thinking along these lines, although this post is not intended as any kind of direct response to what she wrote. Consider these more personal musings about my own transformation.
And I should preface this by pointing out that like a few of you out there, I was ABD and a full-time tenure-track instructor at the same time (I finished my Ph.D. at the end of my first year in my TT job at Rural Utopia), which complicates the issue. People called me "Professor" (although actually we went by first names there), but I wasn't done yet. I spent the year feeling like a fraud and avoiding my chair, who (I was convinced) would interrogate me about my status every time he saw me (needless to say, while he did ask on occasion, that was not the only thing he ever had to say to me - I just thought it was).
When I got my job at Rural Utopia, a small teaching-oriented college, I was relieved because one of my fears was teaching grad students. I wasn't done yet; I spent much of my time throughout grad school worrying about being a fraud; what on earth did I have to offer grad students? I wasn't any different from them! I had nothing to teach them! As a medievalist, I constantly feel like my paleography and language skills aren't really what they should be; how on earth would I teach students how to read medieval documents when I felt pretty shaky about it myself? I was still figuring out where all the sources were - how could I guide students through the archives? (I should point out that this was something of an overreaction; I know of many places that don't allow faculty to supervise doctoral students until they have tenure, and I wouldn't be attracting students to come work with me specifically until I had a book out. Nonetheless, I worried about these things.)
It was actually a shock to me to realize how different being a faculty member was from being a grad student. And here I don't really mean the logistics (although that in and of itself is a big shock, to begin teaching full time, and attending meetings, and having an actual foot on the food chain), but my position within the profession.
I noticed this particularly at conferences. There is a significant difference between attending conferences as a grad student - even when you are presenting - and as a faculty member. When you are a student, you are always only so much potential. You may do spectacular work, and present amazing papers, and conduct yourself with the utmost professionality. And these are good things that will stand you in good stead; I'm not trying to minimize them. But - to be blunt - until you are done with your degree and hired into some kind of position, no one knows whether you will actually join the profession or not. You may write a lovely, brilliant dissertation, and disappear, never to take part in the conversation again. Looking back at my grad school cohort, I'm shocked at how many people did this. (For a wide variety of reasons; this is not meant to denigrate these folks in any way.) You may never even finish that dissertation. Who knows? I'm not saying that academics should ignore grad students and not make connections with them; many students do finish and do continue to take part in the scholarly conversation, by whatever means; maybe this is even the majority; I don't think we'll ever be able to get accurate numbers on that.
But because grad students are still in a potential state, when I started going to conferences as a faculty member, it felt like they occupied a position a little bit outside of the spotlight. If they did well, that was great; if they didn't do well, oh, well, they were grad students; their performance mattered, but it didn't matter at the same time. You didn't know what to make of it.
Whereas as a new faculty member, I suddenly felt like my own performance mattered a LOT MORE. I was officially part of this strange tribe of professionals, and my offerings were to be judged accordingly. The spotlight was trained on me in a way I hadn't experienced before.
Now, I'm not trying to say that giving papers and networking at conferences isn't important for graduate students; of course it is. These activities are part of what's necessary to get the job and make it to the next stage. So obviously these are important things, and I took them extremely seriously when I was a grad student. The situation just feels different once you're on the other side of that Ph.D. divide.
Conversely, I think the networking side of things gets easier as a professor than as a grad student. For instance, is there anyone else besides me who's seen CFPs that specify that grad students must include a c.v. but faculty don't have to? Or conferences that segregate grad student presentations into one day/session? I'm certainly not going to lend anyone prestige, but I've made it past one round of gate-keeping. And the other thing is that the more you participate in conferences, the more people associate you with certain topics, the more your name gets out there, and the more people think to ask you to do things. Again, I am not important (no one is competing for my services as keynote speaker, for instance), but I'm a tiny bit closer than I used to be. I still need to work on the networking - it's not at all one of my strengths - but it gets easier.
So while I would argue that faculty face the glare of the spotlight more than grad students do, I don't mean to suggest that this makes faculty life harder. In some ways the spotlight helps facilitate things for faculty. But the stakes do feel higher, in a way I couldn't even articulate as a grad student.
This is decidedly NOT meant to idealize grad school. I do not wish I were back there and I do not think that they were the greatest days of my life. A professor of mine once told some of us in grad school that she envied us because we were able to devote ourselves exclusively to our own research. Well, I don't know what she was smoking, but that was NOT my experience of grad school. Now that I have a full time job, I realize what she meant: grad students don't sit on committees, don't have to read masters' or doctoral students' work or sit in on their exams (or, if you're me, substitute honors theses for graduate student work). Grad students aren't expected to shoulder much of the burden of administering a department. Sure, those are difficult things. But that doesn't mean that as a grad student I didn't feel pulled in a million different directions between what I wanted to do, what I should do, and what I had to do. Plus, as a grad student, I was just potential; I'll put up with commitee work, advising, and so on any day, to be a "real" part of the food chain, even in the fairly modest role I currently occupy. (We won't even mention the fact that the pay is much better for faculty than grad students...)
It was a big deal to me when I finally stopped feeling like a graduate student. Rural Utopia was actually quite close to my graduate program, which was sort of good and sort of bad - it was wonderful to be able to draw on the resources of my grad program, but whenever I went back there I saw all my grad professors and instantly reverted to peon-status again (at least in my mind. My grad professors have all been very nice and professional about this). At the beginning of my 3rd year at RU (which was a year and a half after actually finishing my degree), I went back to a faculty/grad student group at my alma mater and presented some of my research. Most of the faculty in attendance were people I knew, but had not worked with very closely; most of the grad students there were people I hadn't been students with.
And I realized that I was no longer one of them.
It was extremely strange to have them approach me as they would any other faculty member, with a sense of - what was it - deference? to me? They were wonderful, bright, engaging people, many of whom I know from personal experience are doing wonderful work (probably better than my own).
But I wasn't one of them any more.
I'm not saying I'm better than grad students, smarter, nicer, or anything like that. It's just very different.