Advice to Future and Current Grad Students

November 13, 2013

The “grad school: just don’t go” post is a pretty common blog post these days.* And, really, that’s what I tell anyone who asks me about going to grad school in the humanities. But some of my students are persistent. And most of those persistent ones are exceptionally talented, brilliant, kind, and friendly. They even bring me cookies and brownies! Basically, they are the type of person I wish populated academia (including the propensity toward baked goods). So, here’s what I tell them to remember when they’re applying to schools and, later, when they’re in grad school.

1. Don’t go to grad school to avoid the bad economy. I cannot stress this enough. If you go to grad school to avoid a bad economy, you are only delaying the inevitable. I know the economy is broken. I know you’re 22 and scared. But it’s a lot easier to deal with entering a bad economy when you’re 22 than when you’re 32. As an undergrad, you’re expected to have only a little experience. If you reenter the job force after earning a PhD, you look like someone who’s avoided real life, who does not work well with others, and who probably has an ego problem.

2. Ask around about the department’s culture before you apply. Believe me, you don’t want to get stuck in a dysfunctional department where no one gets tenure, or where faculty members turn their backs on each other in the hall rather than nod politely in passing. Don’t ignore red flags just because it’s a fancy department. (This goes for job applicants, too–the “dream job” I for which I interviewed last year was a knives-up-the-sleeve kind of department.)

3. Ask junior faculty, or better yet, adjuncts in your department about their grad student days and their search for a job. Yes, you’ll probably want a letter of rec from the fanciest, best-known person in your department. But if you want to get a real perspective on grad school, don’t ask the senior folks. They have no idea what it’s like to be in grad school now, or even in the past decade. If you’re at a SLAC, they may not even know what it takes to get into grad school these days. They definitely do not know what it takes to get through grad school, or about the current cultural climate of certain grad schools. And, across the board, whether they’re at an R-1 or tiny college, they most certainly do not know the job market for new PhDs. Ask the people who do–recent hires and the adjunct you took your intro course with.

4. Repeat after me: academia is not usually a supportive environment. I wish this weren’t true. I wish that academia featured people who were super nice and supportive and helpful at all times. But it does not. Most departments have a sink-or-swim mentality, in which students can band together in support or turn on each other in Hunger Games-like fashion. I had a very mixed experience in grad school–my dissertation advisor didn’t get tenure, which definitely affected my time to degree and my rank as a student in my department. On the other hand, I had quite a deus ex machina save from a new faculty member in my last year of writing. She made sure that I got out with a degree in hand. But if she hadn’t arrived? I’d have been seriously fucked.

5. Learn the games your department plays. No matter how much you ask around, you’re still going to have to figure out how you fit into a place. My biggest problem in my department was that I didn’t come from the same stratum of elite undergraduate institutions as the rest of my cohort. I didn’t understand the games people played or the level of faux familiarity (and even boundary crossing) involved in working with East Coast, Ivy League professors. It wasn’t until I took a class with a brilliant anthropologist that I understood how badly I’d been playing the grad school game. I didn’t understand what the rules were, or that the rules were very different for women. As a result, I played it pretty terribly. (See numbers 7 and 8.)

6. Don’t expect grad school to be like college. It just isn’t. In your undergrad days, you take a wide range of courses about a number of topics. In grad school, you will focus on one small topic. However, you will probably never take a course that actually applies to your dissertation topic. That’s the magic of grad school!

7. Try not to pick a junior faculty member to sponsor your dissertation. Seriously. They may be charismatic. They may be brilliant. They may be innovative. They may be way cooler than the decrepit old man who just won’t retire. They may have tons of publications and awards. They will probably be a better dissertation advisor than the old guy, since they want to get tenure and they need students to do it. They may, in fact, be the perfect person to advise you. But there’s no guarantee that they will get tenure, even with all that going for them. And if they don’t get tenure, it will affect you directly.

8. Don’t pick an interdisciplinary topic for your dissertation. People tend to say that being interdisciplinary means you’ll be able to apply to twice the jobs. But in reality, you’ll have half the chance at any of those jobs than someone who is perceived as fully belonging to the discipline. Don’t believe me? Check out this article.

9. Writing a dissertation is harder than running a marathon. I’ve run 3 full marathons and more than 20 half marathons. And I’d rather run another marathon tomorrow (when I haven’t been able to run long distances for six months due to health reasons) than ever write another dissertation. But there are parallels. For both, you have to prepare for a long time before the event itself (marathon/your dissertation defense). And there are no shortcuts. Oh, and writing a dissertation, like running a marathon, can be incredibly lonely. If you surround yourself with decent human beings, this journey will be a lot less painful. So find the right running buddies–even if you have to network outside your university.

10. Don’t expect to get a job after all your hard work. Don’t. They don’t really exist. Tenure-track jobs are shrinking as an overall percentage of university jobs. This is the reality. Jobs in academia tend to be contingent these days. They aren’t a middle-class income, and they do not provide security. Maybe this will change by the time you get out, but it’ll likely be for the worse.

*Here are some fine examples:

The classic Thomas H. Benton/William Pannapacker essay: “Graduate School: Just Don’t Go.”

The incomparable Rebecca Schuman: “Thesis Hatement.”

100 Reasons Not to Go to Graduate School


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