Advocacy may not be taught in graduate school, but it can be learned

An image showing a scientist showing a lab coat to another scientist

Source: © M-H Jeeves

Not all heroes wear capes

It is near the end of the hour and I can hear the ruffling of papers and the zipping of backpacks. A door opens and a hint of the outside air wisps inside – class has ended. An undergraduate student approaches me and asks about being a PhD student. I pull up a chair and a sheet of paper and begin to write down her questions. She is interested in pursuing a PhD but is concerned about potentially toxic work environments, institutionalised prejudice, and lack of allyship. She proceeds to ask, ‘What is one of the biggest things you have learned from graduate school?’

She nervously twiddles her thumbs and I respond, ‘I learned to reach for things I can’t see. I learned to reach for things that aren’t there and help create them.’

In graduate school, I have had inclusive and respectful interactions, as well as exclusive and disrespectful experiences. For the latter, I learned that I can either accept things as they are or advocate for change. But while traditional graduate education teaches us to think critically and create scholarly products, we are not taught how to effectively shape our scientific community. There is no instruction manual on creating paradigm shifts. However, after years of advocacy, I have found some ways to make it easier to enact change.

Write your idea down. State what outcome you want to see and what actions you believe need to be made in order to see it manifest. When I advocated for a new award recognising diversity, equity, inclusion and service that graduate students engage in to shape a better university environment, having the idea in writing helped communicate to others what the goals were, and what resources were needed to see it through.

Support others through your idea. Your advocacy should help everyone’s educational and professional experiences, not just your own. Framing your idea with that in mind creates room for feedback from others, and listening and incorporating their ideas can enhance your proposal. Showing that you are working for the community may also make it more likely that others will help you to act that idea through.

Create respectful relationships. The people you would collaborate with to advocate for an idea are the same people you work with in graduate school: students, technicians, professors and staff. Fostering professional, kind, and genuine relationships with colleagues also makes it easier to ask for help to advocate for an idea, as they will already care about you. Building these relationships can be easier than you think – it can be offering a cup of tea or coffee, taking few minutes to ask how someone’s day is going, or congratulating them on an accomplishment.

Learn from others. A great idea is a great idea, regardless of its source. A career seminar program I initiated with a colleague was inspired by a conversation with a career director in another department. Because he had more experience, he advised how I could better organise and promote these seminars. You can learn from anyone so long as you have the courage to approach others and the openness to learn from them.

Cultivate a mindset where creativity is valued more than the fear of failure. In my experience, many people have great ideas about how to shape a better scientific community, but the fear of failure may prevent them from pursuing the ideas into reality. Sometimes, an idea might not work out – but failure does not mean that nothing positive will come of it. I once applied for a grant to start a seminar series focusing on scientific leaders from diverse and minoritised backgrounds. The grant was rejected but other groups on campus knew that I applied, and through them I found other sources of funding to carry out a smaller version of that proposed seminar series.

You do not need to wait to reach a senior career stage to successfully advocate for change; in fact, I have sometimes found that being a graduate student has made it easier to support others. Towards the end of my conversation with the undergraduate student, she admitted that she does not feel comfortable talking about graduate school or non-class related topics with her professors. She was grateful I took time to talk with her, and now we can work together to find mentors and more support for her.

I believe conversations like these help us to communicate our ideas, and our collaborations help shape our scientific trajectories in research. The same is true for shaping our scientific community. We cannot change how others react to our ideas, but we can change how we propose them and how we respond to other people’s thoughts. We can choose what kind of scientists we want to be. We are not defined by what we receive but by what we give.