To be or not to be…in the Academia: Dilemma of an International Doctoral Student during COVID-19

Photo: Josh Edelson/AFP

By Anuja Sarda

In my Fall semester of 2020, during the pandemic, I took my last Qualitative Research class dedicated to teaching qualitative research and preparing doctoral students to dip their toes in the job market scene. It took me just a few days to devour the entire book The Professor is In by Karen Kelsey and even a shorter time to realize how bad the job market is during the pandemic. Kelsey (2015) writes, “There is no ‘safe haven’ for Ph.D.’s on the academic job market…To avoid the Ph.D.- adjunct-debt spiral, you must first face the truth of the collapsing academic economy yourself” (p. 27). These words hit me as if someone just did the Ice Bucket Challenge with me. All these years in graduate school, I was under the impression that having a Ph.D. is all I would need to land myself a coveted job (supposedly working in an R1 tenure track position) in the United States. While I lived in this world of unicorns and rainbows, I was oblivious of the process and the requirements for such coveted positions. Kelsey (2015) describes the tenure track job search process as demoralizing and sums it as a “black box feel of the whole process” (p. 31). While her book opened up this ‘black box’ for me by demystifying much of the requirements, I found myself deeply overwhelmed and felt ill-prepared post-graduation.

As I read chapter after chapter about having multiple publications, having grants and awards, organizing panel discussions, or even having a reference letter from someone outside your university, I reflected on how no one in my field spoke about these essentials in these four years. There is absolute silence around teaching graduate students career-related skills like reading and understanding a job ad, writing a CV, planning a publishing trajectory, or writing an effective job application. Kelsey made it sound like a must-have list of things to be a competitive applicant in the tenure track rat race. But the next question that popped up for me was: How do you expect me to finish my research and write up my dissertation then?

The reality for me is that I am struggling to manage my coursework, my teaching responsibilities, and my own research agendas. To top it off, I am still deconstructing what academic writing is and learning how to triangulate my data. Publications were not in the picture. With COVID-19 breaking geographical barriers, I was forced to re-design my research since my country had closed down its borders. I have always enjoyed working (reading and writing) in the library or cafes. But now, with COVID restrictions, I had to navigate a new work schedule for me in the confines of my apartment. With health-related safety already in jeopardy due to the pandemic in June 2020, the US Department of Homeland Security and the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) proposed a rule that would have required international students (like me!) to leave the country if universities decided to teach completely virtually. This was also the time I started feeling the ‘Imposter Syndrome’. Perfect timing for a disaster recipe!

As a woman of color and as an international graduate student, I am navigating this new geographical, cultural, and academic space while simultaneously deconstructing this PhDness. COVID-19, a microscopical strain of the virus, has brought the entire world to its feet and at the same time exposed the existing inequalities and challenges that immigrants are facing in the academy. While the book The Professor is In has been an eye-opener for me, it has also made me aware of all the disadvantages I already have in this academy’s inequitable and discriminatory structure. Some cultural biases and judgments shape the hiring process. This structure is basically designed to fail international students like me who are competing with other scholars who have the cultural capital by means of being familiar with academia for a long time or have spent enough time in their doctoral programs that they have high numbers of publications. Students like me who are new to this system have a limited time in their hands in their doctoral program due to funding issues. I am also young and have considerably less work and research experience than those who will compete with me.

Tenure Track jobs are already decreasing with the global pandemic forcing universities to cut their finances and budgets due to fewer enrollments. So, what’s out there for people like me? Discourses on Ph.D.’s working outside the classrooms are still a mystery to me. I am yet to see and hear about graduates from my department working in non-academic settings. Rogers (2020) writes, “When certain outcomes are celebrated, and others are rendered invisible, there is a tacit but clear signal that paths outside the well-trodden ones are undesirable. The result is a perpetuation of conventional forms of success which limits creativity and diversity of all kinds, and also limits any extramural connections that students might have fostered” (p. 4). Ph.D. programs glorify R1 tenure track jobs and perpetuate the dominant narrative of staying in academia. As a confused international graduate student, I soon found myself succumbing to the herd mentality of dreaming about an R1 tenure track job without questioning or researching my other options. If I had the exposure, my other option could have probably been my dream job.

Applying to the industry is a new chapter in my doctoral journey that I am currently exploring. As a person who enjoys teaching and believes in applying new knowledge to problem solve, the prospect of working in the industry has been appealing, both in terms of the salary package and the type of work required. There are opportunities to work as curriculum developers, professional development experts, UX researchers in various for-profit organizations. However, by choosing to go this route, I risk losing my visa if my work permit is not picked in the H1B (work permit) lottery system.

There are structural and systemic barricades at every step of the way for immigrants. These barricades are increasing in size and number due to the global pandemic, which has contributed to hiring freezes at universities, layoffs, adapting research plans of international students due to travel restrictions, finding newer ways to stay focused on work, navigating online teaching, among others. Not only has this obstructed the academic progress of international students, but it has also affected their socio-emotional well-being since they are forced to be away from their families for the safety of their own and their close ones. These inequalities in the academy will always remain for international students, but 2020 has been a difficult year which has aggravated the challenges for them manifold.


Kelsey, K. (2015). The Professor Is In: The Essential Guide to Turning your PH. D into a Job.: New York, NY: Three Rivers Press.

Rogers, K.L. (2020). Putting the Humanities PhD to Work: Thriving In and Beyond the Classroom. Durham, London: Duke University Press.

Anuja Sarda
 is a fourth-year Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of Educational Theory and Practice at the University of Georgia, USA. She is also a certified elementary teacher and has taught for some years in private schools in New Delhi. She completed her Bachelor in Elementary Education from Jesus and Mary College, New Delhi, and master’s from Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai. Her research interests are teacher education, multilingual education, language ideologies, and Translanguaging pedagogy.


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