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!