Adventures in (Post) Gradland

Thoughts on life after the PhD

Humanities Grad School: Expectations vs. Reality, Part 2

And now getting back to expectations vs. reality when it comes to humanities grad programs. Again, I’m just one gal, in one department, in one school, studying one thing, yadda yadda. But I’m guessing my experiences aren’t THAT atypical. And there’s a gap scale: a zero means that expectations matched reality perfectly, while a five means that expectations had NOTHING in common with reality.

1. Expectation #3: I will be surrounded by a group of devoted faculty who will guide me through each step of my graduate career, while at the same time allowing me the independence to choose my own path.

Expectation vs. reality gap: 3

This was definitely naivete on my part. You’ll get some guidance in grad school, but if you’re expecting the same kind of hand-holding that you might have received during your undergrad years, think again. When it comes to many of the major decisions you’ll make in grad school–and a lot of the minor ones, like where to file that form or who to email about lapses in insurance–you may find yourself alone.

It isn’t that the faculty don’t WANT to help you. I’ve received an enormous amount of helpful advice and guidance from my advisor and various other faculty members over the years, and they were happy to give it. But faculty members are often overworked and harried, and you’re not always going to be at the top of their priority list. Additionally, you have to be prepared to be VERY persistent in your pursuit of said advice. An email isn’t enough–you’ll need to email, email again, call, and wait outside a few office doors if you really want to get results.

You should also expect a certain amount of cheerful disorganization within your department–professors who forget to sign recommendation forms or turn in final grades, funding applications that never get sent, etc. I was lucky enough to have a very organized department, but I heard horror stories from other grad students of administrators who were incompetent at best, hostile and biased at worst. Some grad students also regularly deal with professors who are simply never around. I met one recent PhD a while ago who said she was fairly certain that her advisor had never actually read her dissertation.

There’s a plus side to all this, of course. Not being smothered by guidance means you can make a lot of your own choices with regard to research and career trajectory without constantly having someone looking over your shoulder. But initially, at least, so much freedom can be overwhelming.

Expectation #4: In the academic world, I will not have to deal with the sexism, racism, and homophobia that is so prevalent in much of the corporate world.

Expectation vs. reality gap: 3

I’ve been a grad student for seven years, and I can’t recall ever being sexually harassed. Apparently I’m in the minority, though, because almost every female grad student that I’ve talked to has at least one story. And the shocking thing is universities often seem to be WORSE about covering up or flat-out ignoring sexual harassment than many major corporations. Check out the blog What is it like to be a woman in philosophy? for some stories that will make you cringe.

Beyond blatant sexual harassment, plenty of universities can still feel like old boys’ clubs. For me, the most obvious examples of this were the times when female academics were referred to as “bitchy” or “arrogant” or “annoying” just for standing their ground.

Racism’s out there, too. One professor in my university has famously said numerous times that he doesn’t want T.A.’s with “funny-sounding” (that is, foreign) names. Another American professor who specialized in Chinese studies seemed to constantly make disparaging remarks about the Chinese. And then there was the other American China specialist who spent an entire class talking about which Chinese actresses were the hottest.

Having spent the last several months in the corporate world, I can say that there’s a lot of blatant racism, sexism, and homophobia that just gets ignored. People say things that would likely cause every head in a room full of academics to turn in horror. But the idea that academia is COMPLETELY free of racism, sexism, and homophobia–well, that’s a fantasy.

Expectation #5: Following my passion and spending my time reading, writing, and thinking about intellectually stimulating things will bring a sense of meaning and purpose to my life.

Expectation vs. reality gap: 4

This one probably has a lot more to do with my own personality than with grad school as a whole. I know plenty of grad students who get a ton of satisfaction and fulfillment out of their academic careers. But for me, from the very beginning, what I felt most often was anxiety, uncertainty, and the constant sense that I would never be on equal footing with my colleagues.

This happens to everyone in the beginning, I think. Most of my friends and colleagues–even the ones whose work I thought was brilliant beyond compare– said that they were constantly feeling that they weren’t good enough. We all talked about dropping out and getting “real” jobs at least two or three times a year. But for me, that anxiety never really went away. There was a lot of joy for me in grad school, and a real sense of accomplishment when I presented a paper and got good feedback or held my own in a challenging discussion. But the constant sense that I was treading water, that I was never going to feel fully at home in this field, was exhausting.

As I’ve written before, I think much of my problem stemmed from the open-ended nature of academic research. It took me a long time to discover that I wasn’t good at long-term projects with seemingly endless choices. Being given the freedom to read and write for (almost) as long as I wanted didn’t inspire or motivate me–it rooted me to the floor, paralyzed to the point where I couldn’t move forward or backward.

It took a long time for me to admit this, and I have a feeling I’m not alone. There’s a certain shame and disappointment in realizing you might not be  the next great thinker–that, given ample time and money, you may just flounder instead of producing brilliant work. But it doesn’t mean that you’re a failure or a sell-out. It just means you’re not especially suited to an academic environment.

So if you love academic life and can deal with occasional bouts of depression and anxiety, great. But if depression and anxiety start to become the norm, sit down and have a good think about whether academia is really for you. And if you realize that it isn’t, don’t beat yourself up.

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4 comments on “Humanities Grad School: Expectations vs. Reality, Part 2

  1. Travis
    August 26, 2011

    When it comes to advice and guidance, I really hate that anyone uses the term “hand-holding.” … I’m not sure I have anything more to say about it, only that it should be considered natural and normal for advisors to advise, and that it shouldn’t be considered “hand-holding,” as if anything and everything that they do for us (i.e. advice, guidance) is more than they should have had to do, that we should be more independent than that.

  2. gradland
    August 26, 2011

    Good point. I think I tend to fall back on the term to differentiate between the kind of guidance that students often get in high school (when all decisions are pretty much made for them) and frequently in college (when paper topics are still often chosen for them, there aren’t too many choices in the courses they have to take, etc.). Obviously everyone’s undergrad experiences vary, but in general I think that undergrads don’t get to make quite as many choices about the nature of their studies. In grad school, on the other hand, guidance is still very important (and grad students should demand more of it if they’re not getting enough), but it’s more of a hands-off, you’re-kind-of-on-your-own-now approach. Which, again, is not a bad thing–provided you can find a happy medium between no guidance at all and guidance that’s suffocating.

  3. shao
    August 27, 2011

    I have strong feelings too about “hand-holding” versus “sink-or-swim.” I think neither is what I *still* idealistically regard the relationship between advisers and their advisees. I was lucky enough to have the best graduate experience during my masters when my adviser neither told me what to do, or not tell me anything, but was simply genuinely interested in what I want to do. He taught me more than anyone has because he is those few people out there — and the reason why I went to phd in the first place — who is not lazy to think. But I found out that even the most intelligent person on paper is too lazy to think, engage, and let alone teach.

  4. gradland
    August 27, 2011

    Amen Shao–I think I’ve been pretty lucky too, but I hear far too many stories of grad students who basically got no guidance whatsoever. Nobody should have to choose between too much hand-holding and sink-or-swim as their only options.

    Boyfriend had an interesting suggestion for making sure that your advisors actually read your diss–just pop in the occaional paragraph or two of random dirty stuff, a la the M&M’s clause in a lot of rock band contract riders. If they never mention it, you can be pretty sure they never read it–or that they only skimmed.

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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

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