Adventures in (Post) Gradland

Thoughts on life after the PhD

Humanities Grad School: Expectations vs. Reality, Part 1

I’ve been thinking a lot lately (really, racking my brain to try to remember) what I imagined grad school would be like before I actually started. I think my image was pretty similar to a lot of twenty-somethings. I pictured sitting around with brainy people talking about books, writing meaningful arguments about said books, and existing in a world full of values and ideals that were markedly different from the more corporate environment that I’d been living in during my first three years out of college. As I’ve said before, my image probably wasn’t so different from the little pigtailed girl in the So You Want to Get a PhD in the Humanities video.

I’ve also been trying to decide to what extent expectations and reality meshed. Not much, of course, but there were some areas where I wasn’t too far off the mark.

So here, for the benefit of anyone wondering What It’s Really Like, I present Expectations vs. Reality, Part 1. I’ve even made a handy numbering system to illustrate the gap between expectations and reality, from 0 to 5. 0 means reality was just like what I expected, while 5 indicates a huge gap.

I present my usual disclaimers here–this is my experience and my experience alone, and I don’t claim that it’s universal.

A little more background: since 2007, I have been enrolled in two grad programs: one two-year M.A. program at an international university in Tokyo, and one PhD program in the U.S. The first program granted me a degree in “Comparative Culture” with an Asian studies concentration (in my case I focused on Japanese literature), while the second program will (heaven willing) grant me a degree in comparative literature.

1. Expectation #1: I will finally have the freedom to attend classes, read books, and write papers about the subjects that I love–unlike high school and college, where I had to take a bunch of stuff that I wasn’t interested in.

Expectation vs. reality gap: 4

Unfortunately, the specific requirements for an M.A. or PhD mean that you often have to take a lot of courses that you’re not interested in. Before starting grad school, I think I imagined a university just magically designing courses with interesting themes, with a wide enough variety that any student could find something to suit their interests. That’s not how it works, of course. Courses are designed by professors with very specific research interests. Those courses have to fit certain requirements–they have to include a certain amount of reading and writing, and if they’re in a particular department (comparative literature, for example), they have to, ostensibly, be related to comparative literature. But beyond that it’s really up to the professor to design the syllabus.

At my Tokyo university, the only courses offered in Japanese history (I had to take one history courses to complete my M.A.) were on legal documents from the Edo period and Christianity in Japanese culture. I went with the latter, which turned out to be an interesting course, though not really relevant to my subject area. At my second university things were a lot more frustrating. I was required to complete three English literature courses, and in any given semester there might only be *one* graduate level lit course on offer. (This happens a lot–courses are designed and scheduled but not enough people sign up for them, or the professor gets a different job, so they get canceled). In my case, I got stuck taking courses on medieval poetry and Greek and Roman rhetoric. Nothing against these subjects–I’m sure they’re fascinating for lots of people–but they were NOT what I wanted to be studying. And the papers I had to write for those classes, plus the weekly reading load, ate up a LOT of my time.

There is, of course, an advantage to making grad students take a variety of courses not necessarily related to their research interests. It’s what humanities grad school is all about–exposing yourself to a wide variety of subjects and ideas. I’ve gotten plenty of inspiration for my research from very unexpected places–a conference on otaku culture, for example, or a talk on the history of neoliberalism. I’m not saying that humanities grad students should only take classes that directly relate to their research interests. But certain realities–limited funding, professors with interests that don’t match your own, extensive course requirements, and an overall lack of choice–can mean that you will often end up in classes that feel like a waste of time. This is why it’s so important to learn as much as you can about the professors who actually teach the courses in the grad department you’ll be applying to. And don’t just take their word for it. Talk to students who’ve taken their classes and get some information off the record.

2. Expectation #2: I will be surrounded by smart people and we will get together and have lots of smart people conversations. Unlike in the corporate world, where people often just want to talk about their clothes and celebrity gossip.

Expectation vs. reality gap: 1

I was actually pretty right on this one. Grad school is full of people who unashamedly love books, learning, and having lengthy debates about complicated subjects. This was and continues to be one of the things I love most about the grad school experience–making friends who share your passions and who don’t just want to talk about books as they relate to a classroom assignment, but who take the conversation out into the hall and to the bar afterward. And who, at the same time, can laugh about celebrity gossip and fashion.

When it comes to the people you meet and take classes with, grad school can also be very humbling. Being surrounded by really smart people is awesome–it keeps you on your toes and makes you want to work harder–but it can also be a source of extreme anxiety, at least for me. Impostor syndrome sets in quickly. I took plenty of classes where friends and colleagues gave presentations and made comments that blew me away–and made me go home beating myself up for not measuring up. It was a comfort to hear from said brilliant people that they often felt the same way (though I didn’t always believe them), but the anxiety often lingered for a while.

Also, just because someone is smart doesn’t mean they’re nice. I’ve been lucky in that the vast majority of professors and grad students that I’ve interacted with over the last seven years have been great people, and if not great then at least not offensive. But I’ve also run across some serious assholes. People who think their above-average intellect gives them the right to treat others like shit. People who espouse a feminist / egalitarian ideology in the classroom but then sexually harass colleagues or make disparaging comments about female academics. People who are just plain petty and ruthless. In the corporate world, people will backstab and brown-nose over money and power. In academia, people will backstab and brown-nose over ideas and status. The reasons might be different, but shit still happens.

So overall I love the social and creative circles that I’ve been a part of thanks to grad school. I love my friends as people and as academics, and I love the opportunity to have meaningful conversations and engage in work that means something to me. But I’ve learned that academia will never provide a complete escape from shallowness, pettiness, or all-around assholery. I don’t think there’s any field that does.

All right, that’s a start–back with more later!


4 comments on “Humanities Grad School: Expectations vs. Reality, Part 1

  1. toranosuke
    August 6, 2011

    A great idea for a post, and a great start to presenting it. Thank you for this.

    Regarding the expectation of freedom in doing research on the topics one likes, I continue to struggle with this very much. When it comes to finding classes on topics I’m interested in, that’s not such a problem. Even if the topics being offered aren’t 100% relevant to my focus, i.e. if they’re not offering courses on early modern Okinawan history, or on the history of kabuki, for example, the courses offered are generally still quite interesting, and useful, as you say, for obtaining a wider, broader knowledge. Seminars on Orientalism, Modern Chinese Calligraphy, and Issues of Post-Colonialism faced by Museums have all proved quite interesting and useful.

    What I still struggle with, however, is the question of when or if I will ever be free to do the kind of research that I want to do, to write the kind of papers I want to write. Inevitably, no matter how free I may be within the confines of a class to choose my own topic, somewhere about halfway through the researching or writing process for that term paper, I find myself completely sick and tired of the topic, or just feeling like I’ve chosen poorly. I have a paper due in two weeks on a certain early 20th century Chinese painter, and suddenly I find myself really eager to look into the 13th century Mongol invasions of Okinawa. When will I get to write that Mongols paper? I don’t know… Certainly not this coming year, when I must focus on my thesis…

    I look forward to your future posts in this vein. Cheers.

  2. Kathryn
    August 6, 2011

    People who espouse a feminist / egalitarian ideology in the classroom but then sexually harass colleagues or make disparaging comments about female academics.

    This is so true! I have met my share of this sort of person – and they’re not all male.

    Awhile ago, I tried to write out the advice I would give to someone who wanted to apply to grad school in a Japan-related field, and the last point I wanted to make was something along the lines of “be prepared to encounter assholes.” However, I was afraid to include what I really wanted to say, which was “if you are female, you will have to deal with sexual harassment.” It happens in class, it happens at academic conferences, and it happens at happy hour gatherings of grad students. Of course it’s not the sort of blatant “sleep with me if you want to pass this class” incident that many people imagine when they hear the phrase “sexual harassment,” but rather small yet hurtful acts of gender-related condescension and bullying that everyone else in the room will either ignore or encourage.

    When I think about it now, I’m not sure why I ended up not including this bit about sexual harassment in my advice to prospective grad students. I suppose it seemed small-minded and petty, as if I were some feminist crusader grasping at straws. But this is a big deal. With so many other pressures facing a grad student, perpetual gender-specific harassment takes a huge toll on morale. I admire you for having the courage to call this sort of nonsense out without apologizing or equivocating.

    That being said, there are female and male academics of all genders who really are serious and vocal about gender equality, and I get the feeling that academia is a much safer space than the corporate world in terms of how it treats people generally considered to be “minorities.” And yet, as you rightly point out, it’s not some sort of gender-free intellectual utopia.

    I don’t often comment on your blog, so I just wanted to say here that I really, really enjoy and appreciate this series of posts. Bravo!

  3. gradland
    August 7, 2011

    Toranosuke–I think the paper you’re not writing always seems more interesting than the paper you are writing. In my case, I often haven’t been satisfied with or proud of ANY of my papers until months after they were finished and I could look back with a reasonable amount of perspective. Nowadays I can essentially write whatever the hell I want, but when I was taking classes I often struggled to write something that interested me AND fit the course requirements. That said, having some rules can be a blessing–I find that just being able to write whatever I want is pretty overwhelming, and I wonder if I did better work when my choices were limited.

    Kathryn–I remember being horrified when I read “Getting What You Came For: The Smart Student’s Guide to Getting a Master’s or PhD” to discover that the advice on sexual harassment was not “stand up for yourself!” but “be very careful.” It still shocks me that so many universities are wont to sweep any harassment problems under the rug rather than address the issue openly and honestly. And you’re right that harassment is often sneaky–not so much the “sleep with me or else” variety, more like occasional comments that add up over time, calling female professors bitches and male professors assertive, or a kind of “aw, aren’t you a sweet little girl” attitude from certain superiors.

    Like I said, I’ve been lucky for the most part, but the stories I hear confirm my belief that harassment and sexism are still rampant. The blog “What is it like to be a woman in philosophy?” and an article from Inside Higher Ed calling for the “shunning” of professors who blatantly harass female colleagues make me wonder if it’s a flat-out miracle that I haven’t experienced more problems.

  4. Graduate Program
    August 17, 2011

    Often, students don’t know what to expect when it comes to graduate school. Attending a university with small professor to student ratio is a key to being successful.

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Anne McKnight

writing•translation•scholarship on Japan (and a few other things)

A Modern Girl / モダンガール

tales of travel, research, and life is the best place for your personal blog or business site.

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