Grad Students Should Pursue Technical Proficiency Over Activism

Grad Students Should Pursue Technical Proficiency Over Activism
Catherine Avalone/New Haven Register via AP

I am widely known for being outspoken about injustice both within and outside academe, so I get a lot of emails from grad students asking me about how to succeed at being both an academic and an activist. In considering what advice I could offer that might not be obvious, I realized that if there's one thing I want students to know, it's this: no matter what, your job at the end of the day is to become an expert in your field. That's why the degree is granted.

That's a hard thing to say because it sounds so discouraging, and in fact, I know why graduate student activism is important -- I did it for those reasons. But there's no substitute for developing your technical knowledge base: not networking, not doing public science, not organizing in the streets (unless you happen to do research that is adjacent to organizing).

There is a tension between this need to become a technical expert and the reasons we often become activists in the first place. I was raised an activist and have always been rooted firmly in the value articulated for me as a Jew in the Talmud that “It is not your responsibility to finish the work, but neither are you free to desist from it.”

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