Posted tagged ‘family’

When will you be done? And other questions grad students can’t handle.

June 2, 2013

This is not a post for graduate students.  This is a post for everyone who loves a graduate student.  Here are some things we hate to hear and a few reasons why.  If you are a grad student and can’t bear to say these things yourself, maybe you can click “share” and let these words speak for you.eating-alone-2

1) When will you be done?
We know you mean well with this question, but graduate degrees (MAs and especially PhDs) are not defined by chronological status updates like a BA or BS.  To complete a full original research project may take years even before writing begins.  Some scholars research quickly and take years to write.  Some take years to research and write in no time.  Others take years to do it all.  Oh, and as most readers are aware, most scholars are doing all of this work in the evenings or on weekends because our days are full of teaching undergraduates.  We don’t want your sympathy, but you might consider asking, “how is your work?”  Please don’t ask, “how is school?” like we’re still in elementary school.  We know you mean well, but grad school is our job.

2) When will you get a real job?
This is a difficult question that often does not get asked directly, but it’s what people mean.  When you ask when we’re getting done, you’re basically leading to this.  “So… you’re in your late 20s and you’re still in school… you have no money and no prospects… when are you going to throw in the towel and come work at the bank/bar/hotel/factory with the rest of us grown ups?”  We don’t want to hear that.  We don’t need to hear that.  We need support.  Graduate students took a leap of faith the days we applied, got accepted, and began working on this.  Our work is the life of the mind.  We know that you won’t all “get it,” but that question doesn’t really help.  By the way, if you’re really curious, our answer to this question is almost invariably, “when the market normalizes, my research is complete, Oxford publishes my manuscript, and the perfect job at the place I want has an opening and everyone on the committee thinks I’m amazing.”  In short, we have no idea and the truthful answer might be never.  Is it still worth pursuing?  Absolutely.

3) What does your spouse think of all this?
This one is sometimes in the form of a condescending statement, as in, “Oh your [significant other] must really love you to put up with ALL THIS SCHOOL.”  Again, I point to number one in reference to this being a job and not school.  But… more to the point… the sanctimonious attitude present in this all-too-common question/statement is that we, grad students, are mere leeches on our significant others, bringing down the household income to pursue some silly dream.  I didn’t buy a Corvette and go cruisin’ down the coast.  This is not a quarter-life crisis.  This is a graduate degree that is part of a larger career.  It’s personal advancement as well as, at least we hope, helping to expand the knowledge base of humanity.  You’re welcome.

The main thing we grad students need in this process is support.  We want you to care and sustain us, but this is neither a hospital stay nor boot camp.  We made the decision to get into this ourselves, but that doesn’t mean we always enjoy it OR always hate it.  We love and despise the life of the mind.  The best advice I can give is to treat graduate students like the professionals that they are.  Would you ask your dentist when he’s finally going to quit doing all the small time local patient stuff and get a degree in oral surgery?  Would you ask your lawyer why he’s working on your small time local stuff when he could be slaying corporate giants downtown?  No.  You would talk about their work with respect and dignity, with the care and precision of a semi-interested non-specialist who cares but does not condescend.  On behalf of grad students everywhere, we would love a little of the same.

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Advice for Surviving Graduate School

April 1, 2013

While I’m not completely finished with graduate school, I am on the “downhill” side of doctoral coursework and comprehensive exams, so I thought I’d provide some thoughts on surviving graduate school for some of my junior colleagues. In a world spent mostly looking toward what’s next in my career, it seems appropriate to take a look backward for a moment. books

  1. You can’t read everything, so read strategically. There are some graduate advisors cringing at this right now because they read so adamantly, they’re even reading my blog. They won’t skip point two because it might be the point that unlocks the piece. But the bottom line is that you can’t possibly read everything, especially when a syllabus has “extra readings” for the week. On top of the two books required, the professor suggests you read three of these others. Really, professor? Five books for one class? Yes, seriously. This will be asked of you. So you have to read strategically. Learn to grasp the nuts and bolts of an argument quickly and efficiently. It’s an acquired skill, but it’s best to acquire it early in the process.
  2. Stay balanced. One of the biggest mistakes people make in grad school is selling out to their program of study. You have to go to the gym. You have to sleep. You should stay plugged into a church. Even though none of us are studying science, we need to know enough about how the human body works to give it food and workouts and rest. Your brain will not allow higher level thinking if you don’t take care of your body. Aside from that, research shows that creativity (and higher level processing) happens when we shift our focus away from what we’re working on. It’s why places like Google and 3M allow their employees to play pingpong and take walks. Because when those workers return to productivity, they have better ideas.
  3. Make and cultivate relationships with colleagues. Graduate school is, by definition, an alienating experience. You are becoming one of the most knowledgeable people on the planet in your niche of specialization. So in that, there are very few others who can relate to what you’re enduring. Your significant other may not “get” what you do. You friends may not understand the time commitment and may drive you nuts with the “so when will you be done?” question, as if grad school is just a jog around the block. That’s why connecting with colleagues, beyond just someone to complain about that “stupid paper we had to write this week” is important; they can commiserate on the life of the mind.
  4. Protect your intellectual vitality. This is not an excuse to be lazy. In fact, what I mean is not that you read more but that you stay connected to the important influences that directed you to graduate school. Don’t get so sidetracked by the theory-heavy reading lists of courses that you forget to read theology and life-giving ideas about the profession that motivates you. Read pedagogy when you’re frustrated with disengaged students. Read a biography of your all time favorite pitcher if it breathes life into your historical intellectual curiosity. Don’t get bogged in the mire of grad reading lists.
  5. Vary your studying atmosphere. Some of my colleagues have their spot. For some it’s at home, others a coffee shop, and some (shockingly) can get work done in the office. But wherever it is, you will eventually hit a wall. When that happens and the words won’t flow or your eyeballs seem to cross, find a new place. Universities are full of places to study. Switch it up. Study in a different building on campus. Go to a different part of town. Sometimes studying at a friend’s house can result in minimal actual “study” work, but I’ve gotten more done in 15 minute chunks in intellectually-stimulating places than I have for hours in the institutional confines of various places. Find what makes your lightbulb glow, but don’t stay plugged into the same outlet. Explore and illumine other places.