Beefing Up the Boundary Talk

Beefing up Boundaries | new faculty


We’ve discussed boundaries with grad students before and kicking grad school mentality. It can be really difficult. Sometimes, no matter what we do, we always end up with a grad student (or two) that is really good at over sharing, over doing it, or just sort of being obnoxious. We’re also to blame as we sometimes let it go too far. If we want respect from our grad students and vice versa, we need to:

  • respect ourselves
  • set some healthy boundaries
  • live and learn

I got a note last week from a friend who is also a newer phd and is in a faculty position at a university. She is doing great.  She finished her note to me with, “when you have a chance, can we talk? i need to talk something out, nothing scary, but it’s been bugging me.”

**ring, ring**

We set up a time to chat on the phone as she’s hundreds of miles away and had a big old catch up over the weekend. It was truly great to talk to her. There’s some things that email cannot convey emotionally and honestly, it was just a lot of fun. After ‘catching up,’ the conversation turned a bit more serious and I probed about what was bugging her.

“I don’t feel like my grad students respect me.”

When I asked why, she had the following (shortened) things to say:

“I see them in class but then I will sometimes go out with them. I also play on a kickball league with them and do some other things. It’s hard being here, my partner works a lot and we’re always running opposite schedules. The students are great so it’s easy. I might have taken it too far once or twice when I was out with them (drinking) but I just don’t understand why they see me as equal and not their professor.” 

**big sigh**

I love my friend. She is a truly talented and gifted woman, and I truly empathize with her loneliness. As human beings we want to BELONG, we want people around us who make us feel good and no one likes being lonely, but she’s in a situation that she CAN get out of.

I asked her some probing questions:

  • what other activities do you find yourself engaged with them regularly?
  • what activities are work related vs. pleasure/outside of work related?
  • why don’t you think they respect you?

Our gut usually tells us what the problems/answers are, but sometimes, we need to talk it out with a trusted friend and that’s what she was doing. I was not going to tell her any golden nuggets of wisdom because she already knew the answers. What she wanted was someone to work through some plausible and reasonable solutions and to affirm her decision making, serving as the ‘voice of reason.’

Upon asking her those questions and going back and forth with some dialogue, conclusions were made.

If you want your grad students to respect you, you need to earn it. I do not blame grad students on this one. My friend was clearly engaging in some poor choices and was making herself wide open to such criticism and LACK of respect.

  • Getting drunk with them is not going to earn it. EVER. Drinking too much with them on a regular basis is setting you up for failure every time. While super fun, it’s not going to get you real far. I’m avoiding a huge beer festival because I know it will be chalk full of grad students and of age undergrads. I realize I’m 21 and a mostly formed adult, but I don’t need to subject myself to their criticism later or comments that are unprofessional at a meeting. Drinking is part of our culture and I’m not afraid to be seen out having a good time, I just choose who I have a good time with VERY WISELY these days.
  • Socializing with them exclusively is not going to earn it. EVER. There is a fine line of ‘getting to know each other’ and ‘whoops, there it goes’ in terms of respect.
  • Social media-facebook, twitter, fantasy leagues, vine, snapchat, instagram, etc…. (the list is ridiculously long) are fine, but you need to censor that. Taking my own advice, I put all of my ‘grad student type friends’ on a restricted list. It is a case-by-case basis as some of my students CAN handle the professional relationship and separate the personal vs. the professional aspects.
  • Force yourself to find one or two colleagues to interact with OUTSIDE OF YOUR DEPT OR SOCIAL CIRCLE. I know it’s hard, everyone is married, everyone has a life, but I bet if you look, you’ll find at least one person who is also a newer faculty. Maybe a writing group, maybe someone who goes to your gym, maybe someone who’s always at the same coffee shop. I’ve written about finding friends in the faculty sandbox. It takes time, but it’s worth it.
  • Ask yourself: would i be friends w/ this person (these people) if we weren’t in this bubble? do we ever do anything that doesn’t involve_____ (drinking, kickball, etc… if we’re following my conversation)? could i sit down with this person without any distraction and have a quality conversation? if the answer is ‘no’ at any time–re-evaluate. kickball and beer is only going to take your friendship so far. if that’s as far as you want it to go, then go forth, get wasted, and kick a rubber ball.
  • Understand the FUNDAMENTAL difference between friends and professional friends. If you only feel comfortable in the confines of drinking and kickball, you might want to check yourself before you wreck yourself.
  • “But New Faculty, I love these friends, they’re great for having a fun time.” Yes, I hear you. Loud and clear. I have friends that are amazing fun-havers, but maybe it’s the introvert in me or the Virgo–I like to be able to have friends that are multi-purpose, just like my spray cleaners….judge me later.

Find people outside of your department/area. The best thing I ever did was make friends with people I didn’t have to see at department meetings. I have no problem talking to smart, intelligent people–grad student or not and you can tell by the flow of a conversation if it’s going to be a positive relationship, even if it’s strictly professional. You can also tell if a grad student can handle a little bit more exposure. I have a friend who’s a grad student and he’s completely dumbstruck when I talk to him. Good guy, a great human being, not ready to be my ‘friend’ in a lot of ways. Yes, he went on that restricted list. I have another friend who’s a recent post-doc. Great human being, very smart and friendly, but you will always find him drinking/socializing with grad students still. Not ready. And that’s fine. Also on the list.

On the flip side of the coin, I have a few close friends who are grad students because they worked for years before returning to academia for their degree and they understand the boundaries.  Our rapport has been positive without going overboard or ‘too far’ in any situation. The mutual respect we share is understood and not taken advantage of.

Staying in grad student bubble is easy. It really is. But, as young(er) professionals, we NEED TO STOP if we want to be taken seriously. This does not mean I’ll be riding my broom around campus or anything extreme, but it was great pause for me to think about beefing up my own boundaries with my students. I stopped living with grad students this year. It’s been great. My housemate is also on faculty/staff at the university and is a real, living, breathing adult who has to be up and out the door at 8 a.m. every day. No “big time” on Thursday nights so he’s too hung over to function on Friday kind of stuff anymore (i’d really like friday’s off FYI 😉 ). I don’t begrudge the grad student lifestyle. Honestly, I’m a bit jealous of it most days, but at this point in my life, I’m ready for whatever is out there and so is my friend on the phone.

She didn’t need me to lecture her, which is a good thing because frankly, I’m no good at it. She just needed an empathetic ear who understood. We set some healthy boundaries (I mostly listened) and it gave me the opportunity to also think about my own boundaries with grad students. I’m thankful that I truly have wonderful grad and undergrad researchers with me this year, but I also hand picked them myself, which was something I had not had the luxury of doing in prior years.

Beefing up my boundaries has helped me frame my own context for who I am as a professional and where I’d like to head (or at least a general direction). Now that we’re in the semester, it might be worth a quick ‘check in’ with ourselves (not all warm & fuzzy like a self help book either) to evaluate where we are as well. It took my friend months to get entrenched in her not-so-awesome situation and she will easily rebound. When we set realistic and attainable expectations for ourselves, we are usually rewarded ten fold. And yes, we even learn along the way. If you’re being mentored, talk to your mentor to help you kick that grad school mentality! It can’t hurt to have another pair of ears on your team helping you along the way!

How do you set boundaries with your grad students? Tips you’d like to share?

*i refer to most people w/ a ‘he’ or ‘masculine reference’ – it just makes life easier…

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2 thoughts on “Beefing Up the Boundary Talk

  1. I agree. It’s important to keep the boundaries high and wide! I just posted something related.

  2. […] ← Beefing Up the Boundary Talk September 17, 2013 · 7:16 am ↓ Jump to Comments […]

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