Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Surviving Grad School

I have had more than one student who confided in me about his or her goal of going to graduate school. A few of them have said, "I want to be a professor. Do you have any advice you could give me?"

I try to be as honest as possible without totally crushing their dreams with an emotional sledgehammer. I tell them that the number of people with Ph.D.'s far outnumber the tenure-track and full-time teaching positions that are available. I say that you could spend years working on your degree without any guarantee of a steady job. I say that you can learn a lot in graduate school and gain some interesting experiences, but that graduate school is much more like a job.

But what I really want to say is this:

RUN AWAY! Put down those graduate school brochures and run away as fast as you can! Unless you want to prematurely age, lose the ability to sleep, and have nightmares about Judith Butler and Edward Said threatening to ban you forever from the Academic Hall of Fame because you don't include twenty footnotes per paragraph in your own writing, RUN AWAY AND DON'T LOOK BACK!

Have you ever made a decision that made you question whether it was the right one? Have you ever felt like you've gone so far that it's too late to go back, even though you sometimes wish you could? I have had valuable experiences that I never would have had if I hadn't gone to graduate school. I got to learn from really great professors who inspired me. I worked with several great undergrads who changed my perspective of teaching. I developed new research interests in fields that I used to know nothing about.

But graduate school can be one of the most mind-numbing experiences you will ever have. You may think I'm exaggerating, but you'll think again the next time you see a graduate student. You'll be able to recognize one by the bloodshot eyes, haggard appearance, and the way he or she clings to your ankles, sobbing, "Don't look at me! Oh, what have I become? I used to be human, but now I can only talk in theoretical terms! I constantly correct other people's grammar to the point that they want to jab dictionaries down my throat, and I keep asking myself, 'What would Derrida do?'"

But no matter what I say, there will always be people who persist in their dream of going to grad school anyway. So for those people, I have these words of advice:

1. Don't go to grad school for the wrong reasons. I think that some people go to grad school because they want to put off the "real world" for a few years. They figure they can go to grad school and prolong the college experience for a while, at least until they figure out what their next step is. But here's the thing:

Grad school is NOTHING like the college experience. And you won't be able to avoid the real world, because it is very much a part of the real world. There is no partying. There are get-togethers, but they're not really parties so much as academic showdowns where the main form of entertainment is a game that I like to call "I'm smarter than you are so you should just drop out now, you philistine, you!"

Even during their free time, grad students talk about their work. They talk about the research papers they're working on, their professors, and how they've had to grade so many papers that the sight of a comma splice now makes them cry.

If you do pursue an advanced degree, you should do it because it's what you really want to do and because you know that it will help you in your future career. It's also hard to transfer or drop out of a grad program; it's kind of like trying to leave the Mafia. Even if you leave, you will be permanently marked by the experience, usually in the form of a scholar's name that has been branded onto your skull.

2. Learn to live on a limited income. Grad school is not cheap. If you're lucky, you can get a research assistantship or a teaching assistantship, which usually means that you'll get a tuition waiver and a stipend. A stipend is something that looks like a paycheck but will usually only be enough to buy you pencils to stab yourself with, and maybe a new notebook. You'll probably have to take out a loan to get textbooks.

Even with the waiver and the stipend, it isn't enough to live on. I thought I could just get a second teaching job or a weekend retail job, and I'd be able to make ends meet. And I did...just barely. But I ended up being forced to sacrifice a lot of time that should have been devoted to my graduate work.

I'd be exhausted every night and fall asleep at six P.M., wake up at 10 P.M., and then decide I was too tired to eat dinner; then I'd go back to sleep for the rest of the night. Or I'd try to go to sleep but end up being so tense that I couldn't relax, so that I ended up watching a lot of sunrises. I used to look out the window at the sun rising, and say to myself, "That is beautiful. Now if only I could keep my head from exploding."

No matter how hard I worked, I barely earned enough money to pay the bills, while my friends and former classmates were taking vacations and buying houses. I wore the same clothes and shoes over and over again, and didn't buy new ones unless there were holes in them that were beyond repair. I dreamed of the day when I'd be able to go to Starbucks without carefully calculating what I could afford to buy and how it would affect my budget; I'm still dreaming.

3. Be prepared to work independently, and be prepared to work hard. There is no one holding your hand. You may be lucky enough to get some sympathetic professors who will guide you, but professors are busy and can't always be available to help you (like some of my students expect me to be).

I have lost more than one friend because I spent so much time on my work. I've forgotten birthdays, cancelled outings, and turned down dinner invitations. Even when I went out with friends, I was thinking about all the work I had to do.

It's not enough for me to just have teaching experience and get good grades; it's already expected that I have those things. I'm also supposed to distinguish myself in grad school by coming up with ideas that other people haven't thought of before. But most of the time, I'm just trying to stay afloat.

When I think back of the years that I spent working on my master's degree, and then later on my doctorate, I think of many nights spent huddled over my desk with my laptop open and stacks of books in front of me, while I listened to groups of people my age walk by outside, laughing and joking as they went out to the bars and restaurants. And I kept working, because that was what I was supposed to. I've managed to survive grad school (so far), but I've had to give up a lot. Hopefully, one day it'll eventually pay off.


  1. As a grad school flunkie, I regularly tell people grad school is awful and not worth it. I say it jokingly (most of the time) so people laugh, but I'm actually quite serious. I teach test prep part-time (GMAT, GRE, etc.) and I have actually talked quite a few people out of the academic life. But it ain't pretty.

  2. Hi NGS,
    I haven't succeeded in talking anyone out of the academic life yet, but then again my professors tried to warn me about it too. I didn't really understand what they meant until I became an academic, and by then it was too late.

  3. People have been telling me similar stories about law school. I've had three professors try to talk me out of it so far. It really is something I've always wanted, and I realize it will be a lot of work. Hard work and debt, sounds like a right time lol. I'm still waiting on my LSAT scores to come back, and then I'll decide if it's really worth applying. Grad school was my backup plan, but this post does make me reconsider. Try to be gentle with your students, each time a professor tells me something terrible about the real world I feel like my dream is a delicate balloon that just keeps getting holes poked in it. It's almost completely deflated right now, but maybe my bedraggled balloon and I will trudge on to law school some day. Time will tell. Maybe I am just a masochistic for academia.


  4. For me grad school was both awful and amazing at times. More than once I just wanted to give up, more than once I realized I had been given opportunities that would enrich my life and change it forever. It was hard, but it was worth it :)

    Also, 'What would Derrida do?' = epic.

  5. Hi Delilah,
    You're not masochistic. If law school's what you really want to do, then do it. I think that the people that last are the people like you, because you're the ones who really want to be there.

    Hi Marieke,
    I've wanted to give up countless times. But I haven't just yet. I'm not quite sure what Derrida would do, though. I'm still trying to figure him out. :)

  6. Hi, I'm stopping by from Theresa's blog. Have you seen this video? It's pretty funny :)


    I got my M.A. and thought about going onto my PhD, but the benefits just didn't outweigh the work and expense.

  7. Lone dissenter here. I'm sorry so many people had horrible experiences in grad school...

    My 3.5 years of grad school (Master's) were the best of my life, way better than college because I got to study and learn ONLY about the field that I love most! I expected them to be lonely, soulless, horrible years where I only worked and ate peanut butter sandwiches, day in, day out. It turned out to be the place where I found myself, my career, where I learned to live frugally and still have side-splitting fun, and where I met a dozen people who are all my soul mates. Sure, I was poor and my project was overwhelming sometimes and had major snafus and my advisor didn't have really have a lot of time for me, but my experience was second only to my job now, which is my dream job, working in a research facility associated with a university in my chosen field of study. I'm SO happy I decided to 'put off real life' and take further study of a subject that I was (am) in love with.

    So, it's not all bad. Just choose a project/field of study you LOVE, make sure the grad student community is tight and offers many social outlets, and that your advisor isn't a complete douche. Oh, and learn to have fun for free or close to it. You'll be fine!

  8. Hi Lisa,
    I love that video! I might post it on this blog later, and I'll tell people that you recommended it, if it's okay.

    Hi Sense,
    I'm glad you found your dream job; hopefully I'll find mine. I do love the field that I'm in, but sometimes I wonder if that's enough. My grad student community doesn't really have a lot of social outlets, though, because we all live kind of far away from each other.

  9. I'm hearing both sides of it, and maybe it's just a question of what degree you take, industry, where you end up working and so on??

  10. You really describe what grad school is rather than just a way for people to stay in school w/ minimal effort. Very eye opening! :)

  11. Hi FB,
    The degree and the industry definitely have an effect, since some degrees are more in demand than others. Unfortunately, there are typically more English Ph.D.s than jobs available.

    Hi notesfromnadir,
    Thanks! Before I started grad school, I had a very different idea of what it would be like. My impression changed before the end of the first week. :)

  12. This post is so accurate (especially when you talk about department "social" gatherings as academic showdowns and the joy that is working independently).

    More than anything else, I wish someone had warned me that professors who invest in time and effort in teaching are the exception and not the rule in graduate school.

  13. Hi Anonymous,
    That's why I don't usually go to the department social gatherings, because all I can say to everyone is that I've managed to keep up...so far. But at least there's free food. :)