It Won’t Cost You Much, Just Your Voice! On Rediscovering A Human Voice in Academia
Craig Rodriguez-Seijas, Ph.D.
University of Michigan
Am I Qualified to Write This? Absolutely Not! Here It Is.
When I was asked to write this early career perspective, I was honored to contribute my viewpoint to the SSCP membership. And then … excitement quickly blossomed into glowing anxiety, sparkling self-consciousness, and preemptive embarrassment. Naturally, I put off writing this until the day before it was due (Happy International Coming Out Day Everyone!). What’s working without imminent-deadline-angst anyway? To write this is to stand in front of a crowd of academics extemporizing. Unlike any conference or symposium I’d ever attended, there are no notes at my disposal. No citations or references to hide behind. No previous scholarship in which to ground my words. Instead, here I am given free reign to say whatever I want to say. To use my voice in a way that feels much more vulnerable to me. What could I say that would be helpful? What can I say that won’t land me in some abstract trouble that we, as junior scientists, often worry about? And that’s how I settled on writing a piece about my own personal journey to finding a stronger voice within academia. Forgive the needlessly verbose introduction, but I rarely get to write independent of the strict confines and rules of academic scholarship. I’m capitalizing on this opportunity for a more “colorful” approach, as my advisor would have called it.
Initial Soft Whispers
A brief history is worthwhile to provide context of some ways in which I learned to self-silence. It’s the quintessential story of academic coming-of-age. Boy grows up on a tropical island in the Caribbean. Boy typically excels at the top of his class. Boy eventually decided to go to medical school because boy perceived it to be the career boy should aspire to. After two years, boy abandons medical training to restart his undergraduate degree in psychology. And as I trace my professional journey, I realize that this would be the point in my life where I began using my own voice. At this point, I began the process of trying to say and do things consistent with how I actually felt. The decision to leave medical school for a career in psychology was met with several comments of “you’re going the wrong way” and “nobody leaves medicine for psychology”. However, my resolve to switch fields was mostly driven by the close group of friends, my mother included, who spoke truth to my inner experiences. Never in my life did I want to pursue medicine, but I thought that I should since I had the grades to do so, and it was expected of me by my teachers and mentors at that time. Growing up in the proverbial closet means learning, early on, to do, say, and eventually study the things that one perceives will buy approval, affirmation, and acceptance.
I felt liberated studying psychology and everything related to it. Readers might be shocked to learn this, but I quickly became one of the more vocal students in my classes.
Well Hello Again Self-Silence!
Fast forward four years, and I was moving from the warmth of the Caribbean to Long Island, USA, for graduate school at Stony Brook University. As I began graduate training away from friends and family, my voice was held hostage by a much louder internal voice -- one which every graduate student knows all too well -- that second guessed everything I do, did, or contemplated doing. Parts of that voice are common to the graduate experience I believe: we’re in a situation where we are still learning, building expertise, and so never know if we actually know enough to have a truly informed opinion. Other examples seemed more unique to my personal circumstances. As an immigrant, I felt somewhat an outsider. Typical social references used among peers and faculty flew over my head. Knowing that I had initially been waitlisted before eventual acceptance to my graduate program consistently echoed that I was not as smart as my peers. The feeling that I had to ensure that I was maximally productive, more so than some peers, was ever present; I needed to justify my worth to overcome the extra “work” that would befall any institution hiring an immigrant as myself. Leaving the relative safety of Stony Brook, navigating new dimensions of sexual orientation concealment within the professional sphere arose. Should I remove my earrings during the internship interview process, lest some subconscious bias or concern about a perceivably gay therapist’s effect on potential patients land me in a suboptimal internship placment (or none at all)? It wasn’t much consolation to hear from female friends that they had similar struggles in deciding if to wear their wedding rings during internship interviews.
I have had the privilege of being mentored by a host of compassionate and understanding scholars throughout my professional career, starting with my advisor. Fortunately, I was always provided the space to process and discuss perceived injustices within academia. For example, I extensively discussed that decision to proceed on internship interviews without earrings (though I still insisted on at least wearing a pink shirt or tie) with him. I resolved that I needed to engage in some concealment to get myself in the door. Thereafter, I could wreak havoc … I mean … be my authentic self! I believe that much of academia is spent, especially for the most vulnerable, covering one’s mouth and telling oneself that eventually, in a safer place, in the not too distant future, one can do more. One day I will be more vocal. In the future, I will change the way things were, so that those coming after might have an easier time. And I personally believe that these internal dialogues keep junior voices silenced within academia (at least within clinical psychology which is my sole familiarity).
Even now, as I reread what I’ve written thus far, I worry that others will interpret my words as some sort of virtue signalling or hyperbolic description of academia. I worry that readers will view this as some search for sympathy and need for admiration from others. A “woe is me” sort of trope. Perhaps this tidbit most effectively illustrates that voice of self-doubt and expectation of rejection about which I speak.
Now I Can Hardly Shut Up!
This past year has really been a decade! Personally, I have found myself speaking up more than ever before. I realize that, or perhaps I’d like to believe that, I have (re)discovered my voice. I have found myself more willing to invite the extensive distress and anxiety that comes with speaking up into my life (such as a week of sleepless nights worrying about how others might interpret my responses on a professional listserv and if this could result in some long standing negative effects on my professional career). I believe that a major catalyst for this has been my exit from the relative protection I possessed as a graduate student who was fortunate to work with mentors who consistently protected my time, energy, and wellbeing. Academics who studied, and lived with attention to, issues related to stigma and its impact on health. Most importantly, mentors who did the speaking up on many occasions. Having seen these models in my formative professional years really normalized dissent for me.
I wanted this piece to do two things. My major reason for writing this was to voice some small portion of my own continuing struggle to come to terms with the desire to speak openly in academic circles and the desire to exist in relative obscurity. I wanted to voice the normalcy of any and all of *waves hands wildly* this, especially for vulnerable students, early career researchers, and those who fit into one of the many underrepresented bins within academia. Secondarily, as I’ve reflected on the factors that impacted my own eagerness to be more vocal, I figured that they could be helpful for everyone who has felt the desire to speak up, but ultimately been unable to for various reasons. To this second point I turn now: The factors that have given me my own professional voice.
1. Relative Professional Safety
I have been one of the lucky few to be hired at the faculty level. Personally, and I will go out on a limb here saying similarly for many/most/all graduate students, I feel that it is now safer for me to be a voice of even more dissent. One of the primary reasons for silencing has been the whisper that we all hear about where some senior faculty member(s) invariably sabotages the prospects of junior folks due to dislike or disagreement with some seemingly innocuous question or comment that was made by the student/postdoc/ECR. Tenure is still up for grabs, but I feel like there is sufficient relative career safety to justify being more outspoken at this point in my life. I am in the most tremendous awe of the courage of even more junior folks who speak openly, with seemingly so much more to lose than I. Affirm them! When you see it, send a back-channel email. Enter the conversation to support them. Let them know how much you appreciate their willingness to invite discord into their professional-emotional lives. They will appreciate it.
I began graduate school in 2013. After seven or so years of hanging back I truly feel tired of staying silent. Even before the relative safety of a faculty position, I’d begun speaking out more. I’d be lying if I didn’t mention that the sociopolitical climate, one which feels like a continued affront to populations with whom I share several individual attributes, simply means that I’ve been left with a shorter rope. I feel less able to let things just slide by without comment. I might not be able to do as much to enact change in any individual way on a wider global level, but speaking up can help shift the narrative in the more circumscribed academic society in which I exist. However, tiredness has translated to increased action largely because of the other factors I point to above and below.
I have privilege. My relative privilege extends to academia. First and foremost, as a cisgender, non-disabled man I am lauded for speaking out. I’ve been socialized to admire the outspoken male academics within my circles. The adjective “outspoken” invariably conveys only the most positive connotation when describing men yet often takes a more derogatory tone when referring to women. I’m less likely to be disregarded as “emotional” if I voice any concerns. Another example: though I am of mixed descent, my ethnic ambiguity means I can often pass for white or white of Hispanic descent. I believe that I, then, have a responsibility to utilize said privilege in ways that can be beneficial. Having seen numerous women and BIPOC academics be vocal, I’ve gained much contact courage from them, and have felt like I have little excuse to stay silent much longer. That I’ve admired the mentors who spoke up regularly, thereby allowing me to remain silent, I’ve decided that I want to be one of those persons, and again I have a wealth of privilege on my side which permits me to actively do this. I think it imperative to point out that silence does not equate cowardice; speaking up does not equate bravery.
4. Social-Professional Support
Several factors related to social support fundamentally increased over the last three years, directly impacting my willingness to speak more frankly and openly. First, beginning my internship at Brown University found me within a 25-person cohort of very vocal, social-justice oriented colleagues. Ask them at Brown ... we routinely caused (good) trouble! Second, becoming more involved in academic twitter helped me realise that most of the people whom I admired, and by whom I was most intimidated, are largely an interesting band of dad-joke-posting, sourdough-baking folks. Seeing this more human side within academia meant I saw senior academics as less intimidating. Third, when I have ventured to speak out I have largely been met with back-channel support and encouragement, resulting in my own increased resolve to remain vocal (see point 3 above, especially when the support has come from graduate students or those with more to lose than I had for speaking out).
In Conclusion: Proceed with Caution
What is this piece not meant to do? Guilt anyone who has chosen/been forced to stay silent or ignore any inner compulsions to speak up within academia. Further, in no way do I suggest that the onus for change remains at the individual level. Instead, all those folks in academia who hold powerful positions have collectively dropped the ball in creating an appropriately inclusive environment for junior research scientists. I simply present my individual decision-making process. Psychological science leaders hold the lion’s share of the responsibility for change.
What would I like anyone to take home from this? Deciding to be more vocal in any atmosphere is going to be a personal decision. I wanted to outline the processes that go into my own choice of whether or not I can handle the stress that comes with speaking frankly and openly within some academic circles. We’re trying to survive historic injustices that show little sign of abatement, academia, a global pandemic, and so much more. I’ll end with a sentiment that I’ve often used in therapy with young sexual minority clients when discussing the decision to be “out”: There is no blanket rule when it comes to speaking out in academia. Staying silent can be necessary self-preservation. Hopefully you can find some professional environment(s) where you can be your authentically-voiced self.
About the Author
Craig Rodriguez-Seijas, Ph.D. is an Assistant Professor in the Clinical Science area within the Department of Psychology at the University of Michigan. He currently directs the Stigma, Psychopathology, & Assessment (SPLAT) Lab which focuses on understanding dimensional models of psychopathology and, in particular, factors related to the expression, assessment, conceptualization, and treatment of psychopathology among populations that contend with stigma, discrimination, and denigration.